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Izola White, a cultural icon, teaches painful lesson

Izola White in the kitchen at Izola's Restaurant. | Sun-Times archive

The final years of Izola White highlight the toll dementia is taking on the African-American community.

White, 96, died on Tuesday.

Her namesake soul food restaurant was an institution on the South Side before it was forced to close in 2010.

“Izola’s Restaurant” opened in the ’50s in Chatham, where African-Americans were building a stronghold for the black middle class.

Things fell apart when White was diagnosed with dementia and was no longer able to run the business.


In 2012, DeWayne Mason, then a Chicago police officer, tried to raise money to keep White from losing her home and moving to a nursing home, DNAinfo reported.

But too few people stepped up to donate the sums needed to rescue White, and the public guardian had to step in.

It was heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, what happened to White is becoming more commonplace since we are living longer.

Recent studies show that African-Americans are twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia than whites, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Another study presented at the association’s conference in London found “harsh life experiences” appear to leave African-Americans vulnerable to dementia.

But the loved ones of a person showing signs of dementia wait too long to try to put together a plan of action for dealing with the disease.

My 90-year-old mother was diagnosed with dementia 10 years ago.

But by the time we realized she had a serious problem and sought out medical treatment, my mother was convinced we were trying to take control of her life.

It took several years and a bad fall for her to agree to move in with my sister.

RELATED: Izola White, who ran landmark South Side soul food restaurant, dead at 96

Early signs of Alzheimer’s include memory lapses, confusion or disorientation, challenges with word formation when speaking and writing, and changes in personality and behavior,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

One day my mother broke down and cried because she couldn’t remember my twin sister’s name.

“That’s OK. I remember you,” Marie told her.

Although a legend, White was forgotten by the thousands of patrons who came through her doors.

Most of us didn’t even think about it. We just passed by the boarded-up restaurant and found somewhere else to eat.

But think about all the black business owners who have disappeared from 79th Street, 87th Street, and 71st Street.

Where did they go?

And there are still only a few black-owned eat-in restaurants on the South and West Sides.

Years ago, I used to go to “Gladys” just about every Sunday after church.

That historic restaurant opened in the 1940s on State Street and later moved to 45th and Indiana, where it was the favorite spot for visiting VIPs. Gladys Holcomb, the original owner, died in 2003. She had given up ownership in 1997 because of failing health.

Similar to what happened with Izola’s Restaurant, Gladys never regained its popularity under new owners, and the building was torn down in 2012.

“Army & Lou’s” is another popular restaurant that couldn’t survive. And “Soul Queen,” on Stony Island was where three of my brothers found their first jobs. It’s now a day care center.

These business owners were pioneers, and they provided a vital service at a time when black consumers were not welcomed in downtown stores and restaurants.

Quiet as kept, judging by my recent emails, we still aren’t welcomed in those establishments.

It is true that black patronage helped Izola’s Restaurant stay in business for more than 50 years.

It is also true that this entrepreneur provided a place where black people could socialize around a home-cooked meal in their neighborhood.

But as the times changed, so did our commitment to support black businesses.

Mason shouldn’t have had to beg for help to make White’s last years her best years.

But without a plan of action, this scenario is likely to play out over and over again.

Mary Mitchell and educator Leslie Baldacci are co-hosts of a popular new podcast called “Zebra Sisters” — a refreshing look at race relations from the viewpoints of two women — one black and one white. Mary and Leslie unwind awkward subjects and discuss current events with candor and humor. Subscribe (for free) on iTunes and Google Play Music — or listen to individual episodes on the Sun-Times’ website. Email Mary and Leslie at zebrasisters@suntimes.com or give them a shoutout on the Zebra Hotline (312) 321-3000, ext. ZBRA (9272).