A moment in Black History — African-Americans head all 5 Chicago sister agencies

Avis LaVelle is new president of the Chicago Park District board of commissioners; Frank Clark is president of the Chicago Board of Education; John Hooker is chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority;
Terry Peterson is chairman of the Chicago Transit Authority; and Walter Massey is chairman of the Board of City Colleges of Chicago. | Photos provided

History was quietly made Wednesday when the Chicago Park District board of commissioners approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointment of board member Avis LaVelle as new president of the board.

The history wasn’t LaVelle’s appointment itself. It was that her appointment meant for the first time in the city’s 182-year history, all five of City Hall’s sister agencies are headed by African-Americans.

Besides LaVelle, there’s:

Against the backdrop of Black History Month, it’s a significant moment, even as Chicago prepares for the election of a new mayor and the potential of change in leadership.

“It’s an exciting moment, and certainly an exciting opportunity for all of us,” said LaVelle, former vice president of corporate affairs for Northstar Lottery Group, upon learning of the history her advancement made.

“I think it means that we have the opportunity to do all that we can to ensure that young people who look like us, as well as those who don’t, have equal and open access to the city’s resources and opportunities, and everything that each of these systems offer,” said LaVelle, CEO of A. LaVelle Consulting Services, who has served on the board five years.

A former journalist, LaVelle entered politics as press secretary to Mayor Richard M. Daley, later serving on the Clinton/Gore presidential campaign and then with the Clinton administration. She is also a former senior executive with Waste Management, Inc., and University of Chicago Hospitals.

Over at the Board of Education, Clark has served as president since 2015, after retiring as chairman and chief executive officer of ComEd in 2012. Clark, co-founder of the Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy on the West Side, sits on the boards of DePaul University, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Big Shoulders Fund. He is president of the Business leadership Council, an African-American business group.

Hooker too has served as president of his board since 2015, and like Clark, also spent his career at ComEd, retiring as executive vice president of legislative and external affairs. The housing executive serves on the boards of the Chicago State University Foundation, Peoples Consumer Cooperative, Junior Achievement and the African-American Legacy Initiative.

Peterson is the longest-serving, appointed transit chairman by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2009 and retained by Emanuel. He formerly served as CEO of the housing authority, from 2000-2006; and before that, was alderman of the 17th Ward from 1996-2000.

“I’m honored to be among this distinguished group of leaders, and further honored to say that three of the four have been mentors of mine for almost 30 years. Frank, John and Avis I’ve known for my entire career,” said Peterson, who sits on the boards of Urban Partnership Bank, Roosevelt University, Local Initiatives Support Corp. and Navy Pier.

“As Chicago was established in 1837, I’m a little bit surprised that this is the first time African-Americans have filled all of these leadership positions. And I would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the fact that this happened under Mayor Emanuel’s watch,” said Peterson.

Peterson called Massey, who was formerly president of Morehouse College, “a legend, and trailblazer. You might as well say the rest of us in this group are standing on his shoulders.”

Massey, a physicist who has been chair at City Colleges for a year, attended Morehouse, one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), returning in 1995 to helm the school for over a decade. He is former chancellor and president emeritus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“It’s very interesting,” Massey, who also previously served as director of Argonne National Laboratory and director of the National Science Foundation under President George H. W. Bush, said of the history made Wednesday.

“I think it’s a significant event. It makes me feel very pleased and very proud of Chicago. But on the other hand, I guess I’m not so surprised, given the number — and I don’t mean to include myself — of accomplished African-Americans in this city, especially younger generations coming behind us.”

 

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