Maywood Mourns First Black Mayor: ‘Because of Him We Thought More of Ourselves’

Mayor Joe Freelon Sr..pngSunday, November 26, 2016 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews

Hundreds of mourners gathered at Maywood’s Second Baptist Church, 436 S. 13th Ave., on Saturday to celebrate the life of Joe W. Freelon, Sr., Maywood’s first African American mayor. Freelon, who died on Nov. 18 of natural causes, was 87 years old.

Born on Sept. 15, 1929, in Grenada, Mississippi, Freelon was one of 13 children. He attended Grenada’s elementary and high schools before enlisting in the U.S. Army for three years and eventually enrolling at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama.

After graduating from Tuskegee’s R.O.T.C. program with a bachelor’s degree in 1956, Freelon re-entered the military as an officer stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas. Eventually, he would move to Chicago and become a schoolteacher.

In 1964, Freelon and Gladys, his wife of 61 years, moved to Maywood and joined Second Baptist, where Freelon would serve as chairman of the church’s deacon board for more than 40 years.

The church was a magnet for former southerners and educators like Louise Denton-Jones, who was also born and raised in Grenada before moving to Maywood and starting a decades-long teaching career.

“Joe was what you’d call my homeboy,” said Denton-Jones, who officiated Saturday’s service. “We’re from the same hometown and we both graduated from Grenada Public High School. We’ve come a long way. Joe was no ordinary man. He was a great man.”

Freelon was in his early 50s, and had distinguished himself as a social studies and math teacher in Chicago Public Schools, as well as a key community figure, by the time a group of residents tapped him to run for mayor in the early 1980s.

“Joe was first and foremost an educator,” wrote U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th), who sent a letter that was read by his former chief of staff and current Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st) during Saturday’s service.

“He taught for many years in the North Lawndale community [and] children in the community at large loved him,” Davis wrote. “Joe was the kind of person who would always come when called. When a group of his neighbors, friends, colleagues and fellow church members called, he answered and ran for mayor. For the rest of his life, he has been a leading force in the governance of Maywood.”

Freelon entered the race as one of eight candidates, including six African Americans. One of them, Bill Hampton — the brother of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton — recalled in an interview on Friday that the 1981 race may have featured the most black candidates of any race in the village’s history.

According to newspaper accounts, some residents feared that, with so many blacks in the running, they would split the African American vote in what would amount to a missed opportunity at a time when the village’s black residents, who had comprised Maywood’s majority, were hungry for representation in the mayor’s office.

But Freelon prevailed over newspaper publisher Ron Saunders by just 23 votes, a result that Saunders contested in the courts.

In May 1982, a Cook County Circuit Court judge ordered  Freelon to vacate his position as mayor due to “large-scale voting irregularities in the April 7, 1981 election that put him in office,” according to a May 28, 1982 Chicago Tribune article.

Among those irregularities, the judge noted, were failures by election judges to “initial ballots” and “check registration cards” — oversights the judge said were due largely to “lack of knowledge of the election laws and the rules of the election board.”

After he stepped down, the village board appointed Freelon acting mayor until a special election could be held on Nov. 3 1982. Freelon would go on to comfortably defeat Saunders by several thousand votes in a head-to-head matchup.

“It is abundantly clear tonight that the people are saying, ‘Take your programs and move forward,’” Freelon said when he was elected to an historic first term for the second time.

The Maywood mayor’s victory in 1981 predated a wave of major black mayoralties across the country. Two years after the village first elected Freelon, Chicago would elect Harold Washington, Philadelphia would elect Wilson Goode and New York City would elect David Dinkins.

Race played a critical role in urban politics in those years, with blacks jockeying for more local political power while whites fought to maintain their tremendous political advantages against a demographic surge that worked against them.

Months after his historic win, Mayor Washington attended a rally at the Maywood Community Center in order to galvanize support behind an all-black slate comprising four candidates for District 89 school board seats.

“Maywood is a focal point of a lot of attention,” said Washington, who was introduced by Freelon. “You know what you want. You don’t need me to tell you how to do it; but … I am bringing you this message from the good people of Chicago.”

The all-black slate, called the Citizens for Representative Education, claimed that the board’s white majority from Melrose Park “restricted public comment,” among other allegations of discriminatory practices.

Washington, the Tribune reported, called the majority white board of a majority black school district “a travesty on common sense.”

Donna Felton, a lawyer who was running on the CRE slate that year, spoke in religious terms when describing the movement to elect more black officials to the school board, among other local seats of power.

“What this says to the people is a crusade is still going on,” Felton said. “Many black people who never heretofore voted now realize the power of the collective vote and specifically the black vote. Harold epitomizes the movement. His presence here will have a tremendous impact on our race.”

Long before Barack Obama, Washington, and the other trailblazing black mayors like him, Freelon included, were models for young African American men, particularly in the South, who had never seen themselves in those positions of power.

David Core, Gladys’ nephew, was a young man in Alabama when his Uncle Joe was first elected mayor.

“I used to drop his name a lot,” Core, who eulogized Freelon on Saturday, said of his uncle. “It made me feel like I was a little more than what I was, because I had an uncle who was a mayor. In Alabama at that time we didn’t have black mayors. So I’d drop his name around. That made me feel a little bigger on the totem pole. He was an encouragement to us young, black men looking for an example. Because of him, we thought more of ourselves.”

Freelon’s election was also a boon to local religious leaders, some of whom found a sympathetic ear in the longtime deacon.

One pastor, who spoke briefly on Saturday, said the mayor helped alleviate a conflict related to Sunday parking near the pastor’s Maywood church.

“In 1993, God began to bless the church in such a way that we were taking up all the parking on 14th Avenue; so much so that we got tickets,” said the pastor. “It’s good to have saved people in political arenas. He cleaned up all my tickets and fixed it so we would have one-way parking on 14th Ave. on Sunday. We just need those kind of people in office today. He set a precedent and a legacy and I encourage all of us to pick up the cross.”

The village’s first black mayor, said another pastor during brief comments on Saturday, was a church leader before he was a politician.

“I met Deacon Freelon 27 years ago,” the pastor said. “Every time that I came here or met him in public, he was Deacon Freelon. I happened to call him a couple of times when he was in office and he would say, ‘Son, I’ll take care of it.’ I’d just like to encourage the church and the community to follow the footsteps and pattern of Deacon Joe Freelon. Serve with dignity, with excellency and with commitment.”

Freelon would need to tap into reserves of that commitment during the long, drawn-out battle for greater representation that local black leaders were fighting throughout his first term.

In addition to the prolonged legal battles he endured after his 1981 election, the mayor also had to confront a lull in that electoral crusade Felton referenced.

The four-member slate that the first black mayors of Chicago and Maywood supported with such vigor lost the campaign to unseat the predominantly white District 89 school board. According to a Nov. 9, 1983 Tribune article, Washington’s visit to the suburbs may have created a “backlash in the white community.”

“Tell Harold Washington to stay home,” then-Melrose Park Mayor C. August Taddeo told Tribune reporters. “Tell him to stay on that side of Austin Boulevard. I think he’s a great man. He’s got his own problems. He should solve them.”

The Tribune reported that the “slate of white candidates was winning 80-to-1 margins in some Melrose Park precincts that reported early results.”

The CRE slate of four blacks, Freelon told reporters, wasn’t generating anywhere near as much support, a disappointing reality that was compounded by low voter turnout.

In majority black precincts in Maywood, voters “were giving the black slate margins of only 5 of 10 votes,” and “only 25 percent of the voters in Maywood came to the polls, about half the turnout that the black slate estimated it needed,” the Tribune reported.

All wasn’t lost, however. Some black political leaders, like CRE candidate William Frayser, considered the losing effort just a start in a larger war for greater political representation.

“It was lost, technically, but I see this as a victory,” Frayser said. “It is long past time that this [victory] should come to us as a racial group. We have here the foundation of an organization.”

By 1984, Freelon was looking beyond Maywood and even Chicago for a glimpse of the future of black political representation. In those days, much of that future hinged on Jesse Jackson.

In April of that year, while attending the National Conference of Black Mayors in Missouri, Freelon told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that, even if the civil rights leader and presidential candidate “did nothing more than get people registered and out to vote who have never voted before, the impact will be great.”

Many blacks “who thought of running for higher office before but didn’t are going to run for office now,” Freelon predicted. “And I think you’re going to see black candidates seriously running for president from now on.”

Familiar crises 

Maywood municipal workers picket village hall.png

Mayor Freelon’s election came in the wake of drastic racial change in Maywood. In 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maywood’s black residents comprised roughly 41 percent of its total population. By 1980, blacks were 75 percent of a village that had lost more than 2,000 residents — from around 30,000 in 1970 to around 28,000 a decade later — and thousands of jobs.

In 1975, the 18-acre American Can Co. plant, once the largest employer in town, closed its doors. Around the same time, a Canada Dry bottling plant also closed. Those two companies, according to estimated accounts published by the Tribune, employed around 8,000 people.

When those major local employers closed, smaller businesses that depended on the incomes gained from them closed, too.

The loss of stable jobs, small businesses and homeowners in the village, the cumulative impact of which residents are still living with now, precipitated a loss of tax revenue and all of the complications that come with that loss.

A 1976 work stoppage among Maywood police officers was followed by another one in 1983, while Freelon was two years into his first term.

That year, Maywood patrolmen were demanding a 7 percent salary increase and permanent shifts. The village, the mayor said at the time, simply didn’t have enough money to fund that large of a pay raise. A full-blown police strike was averted after the village offered a graduated salary increase.

There would be more work stoppages and strikes to come, including a massive strike by village employees in September 1986 that nearly “shut down village hall and the police station but had little immediate effect on city services,” the Tribune reported.

Many of the problems that Freelon confronted are eerily similar to those pestering village officials now.

In February 1983, the mayor and his colleagues confronted around $750,000 worth of overdue water bills and up to $1 million worth of overdue parking tickets by implementing shutoffs for delinquent customers and attaching boots to the cars of people with the most outstanding parking fines.

Within less than five months of implementing the shutoffs, the Tribune reported at the time, village officials had collected $322,000. That figure is similar to the estimated $333,000 that the village collected within several days after sending shutoff notices to residents more than 60 days behind on their water payments last June.

That more recent collection attempt was to address what current Maywood Village Manager Willie Norfleet called “the extreme delinquency” of unpaid water bills that amounted to more than $1 million.

And just as current residents often complain of the village’s crime rate now, the issue was no less pressing more than two decades ago — dominating, and perhaps ultimately upsetting, Freelon’s bid for a third-term in 1989, which he lost to State Farm insurance agent Don Williams.

Williams and Solomon Smith, the third candidate in that race (who was a retired Maywood police chief under Freelon’s predecessor), hammered the sitting mayor on the village’s increasing crime rate.

But Freelon’s four terms in office (after losing in 1989, he would later win his seat back in 1993 and serve for eight more years) may be characterized as much by the precedents the former mayor established as by the problems that dogged the village back then and that persist today.

Freelon presided over the construction of the police station at 125 S. 5th Ave., where the current mayor’s office and village council chambers are also housed. In addition, numerous committees and commissions, such as a beautification committee and a Water Service Commission, were created during his tenure.

“There’s been a change in attitude in recent years,” Mayor Freelon told the Tribune in 1997, when the village bought and demolished the decaying American Can site on St. Charles Road.

“In the past, we were trying to reconstruct the American Can Co., and that wasn’t going to happen,” he said, expressing the sense of optimism and resilience amid relative decline that would also be the late mayor’s legacy. “Now, we’re looking at other options and we’re positive about those.”

Articulating an approach to economic development that would be followed by mayors and elected officials who would come after him, Freelon told the Tribune that the village would focus on attracting a diverse array of businesses from smaller industries.

The razing of the old American Can plant — long a symbol of a bygone economic reality — would make way for Aetna Plywood, a wood and laminate products distributor, and Cintas Corp., a laundry and distribution center along St. Charles Road.

Although they did not begin to replace the amount of employment that American Can and Canada Dry provided, the two facilities would generate close to 200 jobs, according to one estimate published by the Tribune.

More, perhaps, than most places, current and former residents of Maywood have an unyielding faith in the town’s people — a belief that Freelon often touted.

“Maywood is a community where most people not only know each other but take care of each other,” the mayor told the Tribune. “People may think of us as a blue-collar place, but that makes us a very rich place indeed.

“If I had to pinpoint it, I guess I’d say our families are what have held the community together, despite what some people say was a bad economic picture in the past.”

An even greater service

Long after he retired from public service, Freelon could often be found in the basement of his church, teaching Bible study.

“He was one of the best teachers we had,” said Evangelist Frances Harris, a longtime minister at Second Baptist, during Freelon’s funeral on Saturday.

The former mayor, who served as chairman of the church’s deacon board for more than 40 years, was also a longtime board member for the church’s Maple Tree Child Care Center.

He also served in various civic capacities until his death. In 2014, he was appointed to the fire and police pension board by sitting Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins. In October, the police department honored Freelon for “initiating a turnaround” for the village.

Freelon’s post-retirement accolades would also include, perhaps most prominently, a bust of his likeness that was installed in the entrance to Maywood’s administrative building at 40 Madison St.

But although he received lots of public praise, loved ones said Saturday, the late mayor really lived to serve his wife; his two children, Joe Jr. and Gawana; his five grandchildren, including Dannie, Joe III and Alice, and his five great-grandchildren.

“Many times you wouldn’t have to tell him that you had a need because if he knew it, he would just step up and take care of it,” said Freelon’s goddaughter, Benita Thomas Leon.

“Through the years, I saw him serve without complaining, doing everyday things such as going to the grocery store for the family [and] during the times he chauffeured my godmother and me to the shopping centers, knowing he’d probably be there all day and half the night,” she said.

It’s a legacy of quiet greatness that his relatives will always be striving to live up to, said Freelon’s grandsons Joey III and Dannie, the latter of whom read a poem often cited by members of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, of which the late mayor was a member.

“The test of man is the fight that he makes / The grit that he daily shows,” his grandson said. “The way that he stands upon his feet.  / And takes life’s numerous bumps and blows.”

Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin recalled Maywood’s motto, ‘The village of eternal light,’ when describing the late mayor.

“He was like the light of the world,” Boykin said. “He was like that city set upon a hill whose light could not be hidden.” VFP

Maywood’s first black mayoralty in newspaper clippings

April 1981

May 1982

February 1983

June 1983

August 1983

November 1983

December 1984

September 1986

March 1988 

March 1989 

June 2000 

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