He went from being a teenage gang member in the racially changing Englewood of the 1960s to a respected community activist, voice for peace and trusted friend and adviser to some of Chicago’s leading political figures.
Hal Baskin was found unresponsive by his wife Friday morning. He was 66.
Mr. Baskin left gang life at 19 and started an organization called P.E.A.C.E. — People Educated Against Crime in Englewood. It was his history as a former gang member that allowed him, through P.E.A.C.E., to foster negotiations for truce among gang leaders in the neighborhood.
Otis Monroe, CEO of the Monroe Foundation, which helped financially support the group, said Mr. Baskin’s crew of volunteers would monitor the streets of Englewood at night and “maintain the peace.”
He remembers when Mr. Baskin would come to his office with volunteers during a night of walking the Englewood streets and alleys in the 90’s. There, they would have pancakes and coffee at 3 a.m. and discuss strategies to prevent violence, such as enrolling youths into GED programs and helping them find jobs.
“Hal was the only one in the community that had credibility with the shot callers, gang leaders, gang chiefs,” Monroe said. “He was a child of Englewood, indigenous to Englewood. He knew what it was, what it can be, what it can become again. That’s his legacy.”
Eddie Johnson, another person mentored by Mr. Baskin, met him as a 7-year-old involved in P.E.A.C.E.; Johnson is the community liaison for Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, but was born and raised in Englewood and visited Mr. Baskin’s mother and other family at the home Friday morning.
“This is a hit for the community. We was just at the particular spot that we needed his leadership,” Johnson said.
Johnson remembers the history of Englewood he learned firsthand from Mr. Baskin — who, as a teenager putting down roots in civic engagement, met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when the civil rights leader visited Chicago. Mr. Baskin also was there on Aug. 5, 1966, when King led a historic march in Marquette Park to protest against housing discrimination.
He said Mr. Baskin would proudly share the times he was present at Christ United Methodist Church during visits from other influential leaders, including Fred Hampton and Malcolm X.
Recently, Mr. Baskin continued to advocate for the Englewood community, fighting against school closures and mentoring youth. But he was also focused on his family.
“He was the caregiver. Very instrumental in the family,” Johnson said. And, noting Mr. Baskin’s mother is 94, Johnson added: “The family leans on him.”
Mr. Baskin is survived by two sons, a daughter and grandchildren.
“He was a hero to the community,” said Darryl Smith, a spokesman for the Englewood Political Task Force, which Mr. Baskin co-founded. “There will be a huge void in Englewood and throughout Chicago.”
U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Illinois, was with Mr. Baskin’s family later Friday.
“He was a true friend, confidant and adviser,” the South Side congressman said. “Hal was a dedicated and passionate leader who kept me connected to all things Englewood. Words cannot express the amount of respect, love, and regard I have for Hal and his family. We worked so well together and had a strong kinship, and I am completely shocked and absolutely devastated by his untimely death. His passing will leave an enormous hole in Chicago, Englewood and the African-American community.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson tweeted: “Rest in heavenly peace #HalBaskin.”
Mr. Baskin’s mother came to Chicago from Mississippi with 14 children, he told the Chicago Sun-Times two years ago.
“She decided to lay down roots in the Englewood community at a time when the community was changing from white ethnic,” Mr. Baskin said.
“Going to school in the ’60s and ’70s, you had gang territory all over between the community and the schools. Some of the areas you grew up in, you had to be part of some group to get a pass to go from one segment of the community to another,” he said.
In 2016, 65th Street between Green and Racine was marked with honorary signs designating it as Hal Baskin Street — despite some controversy among City Council members due to Mr. Baskin’s checkered past.
“I’m most glad he had those dedicated while he was still here to see it,” Smith said.
Smith said Mr. Baskin had been a mentor to him since he was 13.
“It’s real hard for me right now,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of heartbroken people.”
Aysha Butler, who co-founded the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, worked with Mr. Baskin on community initiatives.
“He felt like a uncle to me and I admired his no-nonsense attitude especially as it relates to issues that impacted our community,” Butler said. “It’s a very sad day here in Englewood.”