Useni Eugene Perkins, a social worker and author who uplifted the Black community in word and deed, dead at 90

Useni Eugene Perkins is best known for his poem ‘Hey Black Child,’ but Mr. Perkins was a prolific author whose works ranged from children’s plays and poems to tomes documenting life on Chicago’s streets.

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Useni Eugene Perkins is executive director of the Better Boys Foundation, a family center for education, social development and cultural arts.

Useni Eugene Perkins was a social worker, author and poet. His best-known work “Hey Black Child” is recited in classrooms across the nation.

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South Side poet, activist, playwright and author Useni Eugene Perkins, who made it his life’s mission to uplift Black people, was awash in the arts from a young age.

As a kid, Mr. Perkins rode around Bronzeville on the handlebars of his father’s bike. His father, Marion Perkins, was a sculptor who created art at one of the nation’s oldest African American arts centers — the South Side Community Art Center. It was about three blocks from their home at the Ida B. Wells housing project.

His father was friends with Chicago poet and activist Margaret Burroughs, as well as literary greats like Richard Wright and Paul Robeson.

As a young adult, Mr. Perkins was a social worker. He was program director for the Henry Horner Chicago Boys Club and later worked at the Better Boys Foundation. He took the reins at the Lawndale nonprofit when Warner Saunders left as executive director to focus on his television news career.

Mr. Perkins’ books include “Home Is A Dirty Street: The Social Oppression of Black Children” and “Harvesting New Generations: The Positive Development of Black Youth.”

“He was a man of serious conscience who was really about the freedom and liberation of his people,” said Haki Madhubuti, a friend and founder of Third World Press.

Mr. Perkins served as social director of the Chicago Urban League and interim president of the DuSable Museum of African American History.

He published “Rise of the Phoenix: Voices from Chicago’s Black Struggle 1960-1975” in 2017 at age 85.

Mr. Perkins, whose works, letters and manuscripts are housed at the Chicago Public Library, died May 7 from heart failure. He was 90.

Mr. Perkins in the 1960s was a leader in the Black Catalyst Movement, dedicated to advancing the rights of Black people.

“We were social workers, artists and teachers,” said Carol Adams, a friend who took part in the movement. “We were a collective of thinkers and doers who shared the same sense of purpose, and we’d get together and go out in the community and work.”

Mr. Perkins once harnessed the power of the group to focus on visiting young people in detention centers and prisons, something he did for decades.

His best-known work, “Hey Black Child,” is recited in classrooms across the country and reads, in part: “Hey black child, do you know who you are? Who you really are? Do you know you can be what you want to be? If you try to be what you want to be.”

The lines came to him in 1974 under duress the night before a play he’d written — “The Black Fairy” — was to be performed as a musical at a theater at the Better Boys Foundation on the West Side where Mr. Perkins worked.

“I didn’t like the ending of the show and went to Useni and said, ‘We don’t have a close, it’s missing,’” recalled filmmaker Pemon Rami, a colleague at the time who directed the play. “And he wrote it overnight and brought it back and that became the ending of the show and his most prolific and well-known piece of writing.”

The play is about a Black fairy who lacks pride and goes on a journey to discover her roots. It was a theme Mr. Perkins touched on throughout his life: understanding where you came from to help guide where you’re going. He wrote the play after his daughter, Julia, who was 8 at the time, asked why there were no Black people in children’s plays after the two attended a show at the Goodman Theatre.

Rami and Mr. Perkins went door-to-door in the community to recruit kids and parents to participate in the theater.

“As gang-ridden as Lawndale was at the time, we had no issues at the theater,” Rami said. “They respected those productions, and some of that was because they had people in their own neighborhood they could see on stage, and it offered them a high-quality experience.”

He attended Wendell Phillips High School before joining the Air Force. While stationed in Texas, he enjoyed crossing the border into Mexico on Sundays to attend bullfights and briefly considered becoming a matador. He opted instead for a degree and attended George Williams College.

Mr. Perkins enjoyed running and ran in numerous 5K races and at least one Chicago marathon. He also loved playing tennis at Jackson Park and getting together with a group of friends dubbed “the breakfast club” in recent years at the Daley Restaurant near 63rd and Cottage Grove.

“Chicago lost a renaissance man,” said his daughter, Julia, a nonprofit consultant. “Someone who had a meaningful purpose in life to uplift the lives of African Americans, especially the Black youth, but Chicago gained the richness and beauty of the writings he left that will span generations.”

His career got a late jolt when video of a 3-year-old Chicago girl reciting “Hey Black Child” went viral, which led her to appearances on “Windy City Live” and Steve Harvey’s “Little Big Shots.”

Somewhere along the line, the poem was attributed to Maya Angelou — an error that Mr. Perkins had encountered before.

No matter, a publishing company tracked him down and asked if it could turn the poem into a children’s book, which became Mr. Perkins’ most financially successful work.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Perkins is survived by his wife, Sharon Perkins, and son, Russell Perkins, as well as his niece, Marian Perkins, nephew, L’Overture Perkins, and sister-in-law Thelma Perkins.

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