The color of his skin | Feature | Chicago Reader

The color of his skin 

A missing gun, a wavering prosecution, and decades of regret.
Part 2 of 2.

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Jo Ann Henson holds one of the few existing photos of her father, who was killed 41 years ago during an altercation with a group of white teenagers.

Jo Ann Henson holds one of the few existing photos of her father, who was killed 41 years ago during an altercation with a group of white teenagers.

Michael Boyd

Editor's note: Read Part 1 of this story, which describes the 1970 slaying of Joe Henson, the fight that preceded it, and the police investigation.

Jeff Blackburn is a balding, blue-eyed, fair-skinned giant, 6-foot-4 and 250, with a crushing handshake. A subtle West Virginian twang lingers beneath his southwest side disses and dats. He spent his early childhood in Helen, West Virginia, a small mining town.

The Blackburn family—there were nine children—moved to Chicago in 1960, when Jeff was eight. They settled in Gage Park on the southwest side, and his father found work as a factory security guard. In 1968, when Blackburn was 16, the family moved a mile east, to an apartment at 5419 S. Marshfield in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. This was just north of Garfield Boulevard and just west of Ashland.

The neighborhood was starting to experience the kind of racial tension Blackburn hadn't felt in his early childhood: Back in Helen, blacks lived just outside of town and worked with Blackburn's father in the mine. "They lived down in the holler," Blackburn says, "but they would come up and go to my uncle's store and buy their groceries, and nobody bothered nobody."

In Back of the Yards, Blackburn's block was still all-white, but blacks had begun renting and buying south of Garfield and east of Ashland. Unlike most white families, the Blackburns hadn't fled the storm of racial change but moved into its teeth. "I guess the rent was cheap," he says.

In the late 1960s, Blackburn attended Gage Park high school, then one of the city's hot spots for racial clashes. Blacks weren't moving into the neighborhood of the school, at 56th and Rockwell, but a change of boundaries had brought some black students to the school, and racial fights were common. "Back then, everything was about race," Blackburn says. "Every time you walked out of school you'd see something going on. Walking to school on the boulevard, you'd get names called out at you, you'd call names back." He says he kept busy playing sports, which helped him sidestep most fights, and he dropped out of school before his senior year and went to work.

What motivated the animosity toward blacks in that era? "I don't know if it was just the color of their skin or—it was just something that people did from the 1900s and going up from there."

Throughout Blackburn's neighborhood, small gangs sprouted like dandelions. Blackburn and his friends on 54th and Marshfield—"about 15 of us, maybe"—started calling themselves the Satan's Hearts. They spray painted Satan's Hearts and their own names on a big concrete block on Garfield Boulevard at Marshfield. "We were teenagers, that's what we did," he says. He recalls turf conflicts with other neighborhood gangs. "We felt like, nobody's gonna come over here and mess with us," he says.

Not all members of white gangs hated blacks, Blackburn says; he doesn't think he himself was prejudiced. "It all depended on the guy. There was some that was pretty prejudiced, and they'd fight 'em as soon as look at 'em."

The Satan's Hearts sometimes allied with the Burger King Boys, who hung out near a Burger King on Garfield at Justine, where the neighborhood was changing more rapidly from white to black. On a June evening in 1970, some members of the Burger King Boys hustled across Ashland and Garfield and alerted the Satan's Hearts that their help was desired on Justine. Blackburn and his buddies headed over.

The first time Blackburn told me about this, in 2008, he said that he and his friends were going to fight some Blackstone Rangers. When they reached Justine, he claimed, "a black guy popped out of the alley and fired three rounds." He felt a bullet whiz past his head, and he took off running. Later, he heard that one of his cohorts—17-year-old Tom Schickel or another guy he called "Swanny"—had shot back, killing one of the blacks. He'd told me that although he didn't participate directly in the shooting, he'd gotten rid of the gun, throwing it into the Des Plaines River at 47th Street, just west of Harlem Avenue—this was in a forest preserve in the suburb of Lyons.

I'd doubted that the guys Blackburn and his friends had gone to fight were Blackstone Rangers. The Rangers had hung in Woodlawn back then, and I'd never heard of them venturing anywhere near Ashland. But I hadn't pressed Blackburn about that.

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