We the Mayor: Edwenna Perkins Sworn Into History

Mayor Perkins (middle) getting sworn-in by Judge Shevil Hall (right); Mrs. McNelty (left) and Mr. Perkins (background)
Mayor Perkins (middle) getting sworn-in by Judge Shevil Hall (right); Mrs. McNelty (left) and Mr. Perkins (background)

By Michael Romain

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Maywood – After the tribute to Robert Larson and a town’s collective sigh of relief; after public comments of congratulations and hoped-for reconciliation; after one man’s cathartic reflections on 19-year-old DaShamone McCarty and a desperate plea (“I trusted [McCarty] to take my daughter to prom last year….I guess I’m going to talk to you now Chief [Curry]. I believe he was a really nice kid….Chief Curry I would like to know that you and your team are going to do everything possible to bring to justice those people that did that to that young man…my daughter knew his plight and his living conditions…he was a three sport athlete [but] he wasn’t a star. One thing really stood out to me, though. When [The Proviso East basketball team] went downstate and finished second to Simeon and the players were getting their awards…Spuddy [McCarty’s nickname] got more applause than any of them other guys and he wasn’t even a star…Please bring Spuddy justice”); after the mundane, but vital business of budget and bill approvals and ordinance-talk — outgoing Mayor Henderson Yarbrough, Sr., stood up.

“I want to thank the citizens of Maywood for giving me the opportunity to serve…I appreciate [it],” he said. The room stood up with him and greeted his statement with wild applause. At approximately 7:58 pm, the Honorable Judge Cheryl D. Ingram, presiding judge of the Fourth Municipal District, the first African-American female to serve in that position, was called forth. Yarbrough informed the audience that Ingram is also the new owner of the Corner Cafe in Broadview.

Viola Mims, the new Village clerk, was the first official to take the oath. After Mims was sworn-in, former acting Clerk Gary Woll placed on her neck a kente-pattered scarf with the title, “Clerk,” stitched into the cloth. Woll said he was given the scarf four years ago and was now bequeathing it to Mims. Michael Rogers then walked forward to take the oath as trustee. He was followed by Trustee Toni Dorris, who took the oath on a relative’s Bible.

After Dorris was sworn-in, outgoing Trustee Gil Guzman voluntarily got up from his seat on the Board’s elevated perch and graciously offered it to his successor. Before taking his oath, Trustee Melvin Lightford motioned to his wife, who was sitting a few feet away. “You’ve stood by me for too long,” he said, before she walked to his side.

Mayor Yarbrough, former trustee and clerk Gary Woll and Trustee Gil Guzman were all honored for their public service. The Mayor was presented with a commemorative gavel. “Don’t try hammering nails with that,” someone said. After he accepted his token of appreciation, Woll thanked his wife in her absence and ensured the audience that, after over forty years of living in the Village of Maywood, he was here to stay. Woll’s thirty years on the Board makes him the longest-serving trustee in the Village’s history.

Before Edwenna Perkins stood up to replace outgoing Mayor Yarbrough, the room hiccuped with historic anticipation, a brief, suspenseful pause settling over the crowd. Perkins was about to become Maywood’s first African-American female mayor.

In the days preceding this moment, there was chatter about what a Perkins mayoralty would mean for the Village’s future. Some residents worried that the two separate parties planned after the swearing-in formalities — one for the new mayor at the 200 Building, the other for the three victorious Maywood United trustees at the banquet hall less than a block away — were a foreboding of the divisiveness to come.

Mayor Perkins and the Board
Mayor Perkins and the new Board, (from left to right): Trustee Ron Rivers, Trustee Audrey Jaycox, Trustee Michael Rogers, Trustee Toni Dorris, Trustee Melvin Lightford and Clerk Viola Mims

Even in the immediate wake of Perkins’s oath-taking, there were spaces in the chamber room that felt more belligerent than ebullient, with the smiles of some masking minds ready for battle. By the time the two camps’ festivities let out, it was nigh midnight. Fifth Avenue was empty and dark. The foreboding had spilled from the buildings’ insides and out into the damp street, transforming a silent commercial arterial into what felt like the set of an urban spaghetti western — the scene of a dual.

But between approximately 8:15 and 8:30 pm, the conflict-fraught past and future were overwhelmed by that most revered and hallowed spectacle — the democratic transition.

Mayor-elect Perkins called forth Judge Shelvin Hall, appellate judge of the first district, sixth division, to administer her oath. “First I would like to say thank you, God bless you. I’m standing on shoulders, so I brought the shoulders with me. This is not a production. This is a thank you,” Perkins said.

The wife of Perkins’s late pastor, the Rev. Harry McNelty of First Baptist Church, held the Bible on which the new Mayor took the oath. The Mayor-elect’s husband, Lester Perkins, along with other relatives, held up pictures of family members who couldn’t be present. And then, something highly unusual and uncanny happened. Perkins insisted everyone in the room take the oath with her.

The affect, on this observer, was similar to walking through a wax museum. It filled me with both dread and awe. Dread that Perkins may have been taking her self-identification with the people, her ‘people’ fascination, if you will, a bit too far. Is her love of ‘the people’, I wondered quietly, a romance with an abstraction? Local and national histories are crowded with leaders who loved ‘the people’ more than they cared for actual, individual human lives.

Of course, it’s likely that Perkins simply extended the gesture as a point of emphasis, the exclamation to a statement (sorely needed in our current anti-government culture) that she’s been making for decades — the government and the people it serves are one and the same.

But, regardless, it was an astonishingly creative and moving act of political symbolism. Whether it represented genuine humility or troubling ambition, only time will tell. What the new Mayor made a bit more certain, however, is that we’re all mayors now. VFP

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