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.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

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.

In September 2011, I learned of the 1970 killing of Joe Henson, a young black man shot to death by a group of white youths—right where Blackburn said the black guy was killed. Henson's daughter Jo Ann, who hadn't been born at the time of her father's death, had been hoping much of her life to find out more about why her father was killed—and why no one had gone to prison for it.

After speaking at length with Jo Ann Henson, I talked with Blackburn again.

click to enlarge Jo Ann Henson hadn't yet been born when her father Joe was shot to death on a south-side street. Her brother Mark was three. - MICHAEL BOYD
  • Jo Ann Henson hadn't yet been born when her father Joe was shot to death on a south-side street. Her brother Mark was three.
  • Michael Boyd

"We went over there to fight with some Blackstone Rangers," he began again. But then he added, "Supposedly they were Blackstone Rangers." He later allowed that the only reason he'd thought they were Rangers was that some of his friends said they were.

"We were walking down Justine south from 55th Street [Garfield Boulevard]," he told me, "and just before we get to the alley, somebody pulls out and shoots a couple rounds. They go over our heads. And one of the guys that was with us went up and shot one guy, and another guy was shooting at another guy, and we took off running." They ran across the boulevard to 54th Street, then west across Ashland back to Marshfield. This was the same route that two of the three teens who police charged with killing Henson—Schickel and Joseph Fehil, 19—told detectives they took when they fled.

"We waited until we heard cops, and we walked back up there to find out what was going on," Blackburn told me. That's when they learned that a young black man had been killed. "There wasn't supposed to be any guns—but they shot first," Blackburn recalled. He said a friend had asked him to dispose of a gun afterward, and he'd taken a car ride to 47th Street, and threw it off a bridge into the river. (Two guns were fired during the shooting. Schickel turned in a .22 from which the fatal bullet appeared to have been fired; the other gun was never recovered.)

"You go to these things because you want to keep the neighborhood safe," he said. "We just figured we were gonna go over there and fight and see how it goes. It didn't go the way you expected. There wasn't supposed to be any guns brought over to begin with, but you don't know who's carrying what. You figure out who you can trust and who you can't among your friends."

In February I talked with Blackburn about the shooting once more. Though one witness, an 18-year-old woman, had told police that the black guys shot first, no gun was found on Henson or Price, and the bulk of eyewitness accounts indicated that only the white youths had guns. That seemed to be what the detectives and assistant state's attorneys concluded when they charged the three white teenagers with murder.

Was it possible, I asked Blackburn, that no black guy shot at them? "That's a possibility," he said without hesitation. The bullet he felt whiz past his head "could have been a bullet from Schickel or Swanny." He said he didn't actually see a black guy shooting. "We just took off running after we heard the shots." He remembered a woman on the north side of Garfield Boulevard pushing a construction sawhorse out of their path and saying, "Go this way" to aid their escape.

Schickel, Fehil, and 14-year-old William "Swanny" Swanson were all members of the Burger King Boys, he said. Who asked him to lose the gun? Blackburn paused before replying: "I don't even know." He thought it was one of the Burger King Boys. Why'd he do it? "We were all friends at the time," he said. Then he sighed, and added, "It was stupid to do. I mean, you were actually part of it if you did it." At that age, he said, "you do stupid stuff."

He deeply regretted the role he played, he said, both in going to the scene with his buddies and hiding the gun afterward. He asked me how old Henson was. When I told him 21, he frowned and shook his head. "I do feel sorry about it. It's heartfelt. Someone that young, who has kids—it's very sad. There's nothing you can say except for you're sorry that something like this happened to their father."

Blackburn, 60, called me March 2, two days after part one of this story was published, to say he'd resigned his job at Holy Cross Hospital, where he'd been a supervisor of security for 15 years.

According to a statement from the hospital: "On February 29, 2012, as a result of Mr. Jeff Blackburn's alleged revelation to a Chicago Reader reporter that, as a young man, he deliberately disposed of a weapon used in a racially-motivated homicide, Holy Cross Hospital suspended Mr. Blackburn from his job as supervisor of security, pending a full investigation of the facts. On March 2, 2012, Mr. Blackburn notified Holy Cross Hospital of his intention to resign."

"There were two young prosecutors, as I remember, and they thought they had a pretty solid case," Leotha Price was telling me. Price, who's married to Joe Henson's sister, was with Henson when someone in the crowd of white youths fired the fatal shot. "But my father-in-law [Joe Henson's father, Allen] said, 'Leotha, nothing's gonna happen to these kids.' He says, 'We're black, and they're white.' And I says, 'No, Allen. I have faith that somebody is going to jail for killing Ski [Joe Henson].'

"He says, 'You don't understand. We're black. We have no rights. They're white. They're gonna stick together.'"

Cynicism about criminal justice was entrenched among African-Americans in Chicago in 1970, and it wasn't paranoia. Glaring inequities dated at least to 1919, the year of Chicago's biggest race riot. The riot started with the drowning of a black youth in Lake Michigan—he was stoned by whites after he floated into waters the whites felt were theirs—and the refusal of police to arrest the offenders. A commission that investigated the subsequent violence determined that whites were responsible for the vast majority of it—but most of those jailed and prosecuted were blacks.

For decades after that, blacks in Chicago who tried moving into white neighborhoods were beaten and stoned, and their homes were bombed or set on fire. Police rarely found the culprits, and prosecutors often deemed the evidence insufficient when they did.

There seemed to be an unwritten code of injustice regarding interracial violence—a code acknowledged by criminal court judges interviewed by the 1919 riot commission, though they blamed the disparity on juries. "A white person on trial is less liable to conviction if the prosecuting witnesses are all colored," Judge George Kersten said. Judge Hugo Pam added: "In the more serious crimes, where a hold-up is committed or guns are used, I think there is great prejudice. Where a white man will be found guilty of manslaughter, a colored man will be found guilty of murder."

Consider what happened in 1968 less than a mile and a half from where Joe Henson was slain: On an October evening that year, a tavern at 65th and Ashland was robbed of $250 by two armed black men. Off-duty police officer Louis Pote, who was white, learned of the robbery, and picked up five black males off a street corner. He drove them to the tavern and asked the bartender which of the five were the robbers. None of them, the bartender said. Pote took his suspects outside, and, one-by-one, ordered them to run. He fired a warning shot as each ran. The last to run was 15-year-old Harold Davis. Pote shot him in the back, killing him.

Pote told investigating officers that Davis was one of the robbers and he'd shot him fleeing the robbery. When other witnesses—including police officers—contradicted Pote's account, he was charged with murder. The case was still pending when Henson was killed, but in December 1972 a jury convicted Pote—not of murder, but of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to two to six years.

In December 1969, just six months before Henson was killed, police officers assigned to the state's attorney's office raided a west-side apartment and shot to death Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. The state's attorney's office charged the seven occupants of the apartment who survived the raid, including four who were wounded, with attempted murder. State's attorney Edward Hanrahan told reporters that his officers had come under a Panther barrage and had shown "considerable restraint" in their response. A federal grand jury determined that the Panthers had fired one shot, and police had fired 82 to 99 shots, half of them from a submachine gun. Prosecutors reluctantly dropped the charges against the survivors. In 1971, Hanrahan was charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice for misconduct related to the raid, but he ultimately was acquitted.

"What were you going to do?" the juror asked.
"We were going to look for them."
"To do what?"
"To get it over with."

Like Joe Henson, Fred Hampton was 21 when he was slain. And, like Henson, Hampton had a child on the way. Fred Hampton Jr. was born three weeks after his father was killed. He grew up a few blocks west of Jo Ann Henson. Partly because of their similar histories, they became friends; both felt aggrieved by the response of the legal system to their fathers' slayings.

State's attorney Hanrahan was condemned by black leaders after the raid. In May 1970, the state's black legislators demanded he quit. "Justice cannot be obtained while he is in office," their statement said. In March 1972, the Chicago chapter of the NAACP blasted Hanrahan's "failure to convict criminals who prey in the black community." And in November 1972 he was voted out of office, thanks largely to the city's black wards, which voted overwhelmingly for Republican Bernard Carey.

Did the bad blood between Hanrahan and black leaders affect his office's prosecution of white-on-black crimes? Gino DiVito, an assistant state's attorney then, insists it didn't. "I never felt any racial prejudice in the office," says DiVito, who was a prosecutor from 1963 through 1977, then became a highly regarded judge at the trial and appellate levels for 20 years. Hanrahan, DiVito says, "never had any racial motivations."

The case against the three defendants charged with killing Henson had its first hearing on August 14, 1970—an inquest at the coroner's office. A jury of six convened to determine the cause and manner of Henson's death.

Cook County no longer has such inquests—they were done away with in 1976, when the county switched from an elected coroner to an appointed forensic pathologist. The inquest system had been widely criticized before the change. Dr. Victor Levine, a Chicago pathologist who once worked for the coroner's office, told the Tribune in 1970 that inquests were conducted by "a rutabaga-head deputy coroner" with "six cabbage-heads for jurors." The jurors were mostly elderly men and women "who sit on the juries year after year because they are friends of the coroner or someone in county government," the Tribune article said.

In response to my Freedom of Information Act request, the Cook County Medical Examiner's office located the records of the Henson inquest, including a transcript of the hearing, and made them available to me last week. The first witness at the hearing, detective Paul Parizanski, summarized for the jurors the evidence against the defendants, including Swanson's admission that he'd brought guns to the scene and Schickel's admission that he'd fired the .22 in the direction of Henson and Price when they emerged from the alley. The pellet recovered from Henson's body had a "six right twist," Parizanski said—grooves corresponding with the gun Schickel turned in. A pathologist had determined that the bullet passed through Henson's heart and lung.

Leotha Price also testified. He told the jurors about an earlier fight he'd had with Fehil at 56th and Justine. When Fehil's friends joined in, one of them hitting Price with a bat, Price's seven-year-old daughter, who saw this happen from across the street, "told my brother-in-law, Joe Henson, they were all jumping on me, and he came up and they all ran," Price said. Henson wanted to chase them, but Price told him not to.

Soon after, a window in Price's apartment was broken, Price said. He didn't see who broke it, but that was when he grabbed a small pipe and Henson a stick and they headed down the alley.

A juror asked him why he brought the pipe with him. "To protect myself," Price said.

"What were you going to do?" the juror asked.

"We were going to look for them."

"To do what?"

"To get it over with," Price said. "To see if they were going to keep harassing us in that neighborhood, breaking our windows and me not being able to go to the store, back and forth, or shop."

"To have a conversation with them?" the juror asked.

"Yes, to get it settled," Price said.

As they came out of the alley, he saw a group of 20 to 30 boys, he said. He heard a gunshot, though at the time he didn't know that's what it was, he told the jury. He didn't see who fired it. "Joe jumped behind a car. I jumped back into the alley behind a garage. When I jumped back out, I threw my pipe." Then he either heard Joe holler or saw him fall in the street, and he ran to him. He said he saw Schickel with a gun: "Schickel and Fehil were still there and I heard Fehil ask Schickel, 'Give me the gun, give me the gun.' The exact words," he said.

After he reached Henson in the street, "I had him in my arms. Joe was laying and his eyes dilated, his mouth open, gasping, and I was doing everything to help him after they had all turned and ran."

Schickel's lawyer, Albert Armonda, then questioned Price. He focused on the fact that Price hadn't called police after the fight at 56th and Justine, or after the window was broken.

"You took the law in your own hands, armed with sticks to go after 20 to 30 men?" Armonda asked.

"We took sticks and went to look for them," Price said.

"What were you going to say?"

"To ask why they break the window and why jump on me," Price said.

"Did you need sticks to ask a question?"

"Did they need to jump on me with bats?"

Allen Henson also testified briefly. He said his family had moved into the neighborhood the preceding February, and had had seven windows broken so far. "Every time we call the police they tell us, 'OK, we will send a squad out there,'" he said.

When his testimony was finished, he added an unsolicited comment: "One man pulled the trigger, but all of them is guilty."

Schickel, Fehil, and Swanson were present at the inquest, and all declined to testify. The six jurors retired to another room to deliberate, and soon returned with their verdict: Henson was the victim not of murder but of involuntary manslaughter.

Under Illinois law, a person commits murder if he acted with intent, or with the knowledge that his act created a strong probability of death. Involuntary manslaughter entails reckless actions instead of intended ones. The sentencing range for murder at the time was 14 years to life; for involuntary manslaughter, one year to ten.

The verdict of a coroner's jury wasn't binding on the state's attorney or the grand jury. "It didn't restrict our ability to charge an offense, or some other offense, or nothing at all," DiVito says.

Two weeks after the inquest, a state's attorney brought the Henson case to the grand jury.

Grand jurors, perplexed by the system they're called to serve for a month, almost always follow the lead of the prosecutor who presents the case. If the prosecutor wants an indictment on the pending charge, he or she will get the indictment—a good prosecutor, as the saying goes, can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.

If a mob of 20 black youths, some armed with guns, had an altercation with two young white men, a reduction from murder to manslaughter perhaps would have interested the city's newspapers.

In the grand jury room in the criminal courthouse at 26th and California, a police officer usually summarizes, in five minutes or less, the evidence supporting the charges against the accused. Then the police officer, the prosecutor who questioned him, and the court reporter leave the room; the 16 jurors vote; and the jury foreperson calls the prosecutor and court reporter back in the room and announces another "true bill" of indictment.

A prosecutor had Price testify before the grand jury, along with another witness to the shooting, an 18-year-old woman. Grand jury proceedings are secret. I was unable to get a transcript of the hearing, and I couldn't track down the woman. However, she'd told detectives after Henson was shot that she'd seen one of the two black men—Henson, she thought—shoot at the white boys. This was at odds with the physical evidence known to police (no gun found on Henson or Price), as well as the accounts offered by other witnesses, including Schickel and Fehil themselves, not to mention the conclusions of the detectives and the assistant state's attorneys who took the statements.

The grand jury indicted the three defendants for involuntary manslaughter.

I asked Daniel Coyne, a veteran criminal defense lawyer and a clinical law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, to read the police reports and the statements given by Schickel and Swanson. Coyne, who's specialized in murder cases during his 27-year career, was puzzled by the reduction to manslaughter. "The reports indicate that Schickel and Swanson gave statements that this was an intentional act," he said. "Schickel directed Swanson to retrieve the guns, Swanson returned with them, Schickel said he fired when they came out of the alley."

If a mob of 20 or 25 black youths, some armed with guns, had an altercation with two young white men, armed with a stick and a pipe—and one of the white men was slain—a reduction of charge from murder to manslaughter perhaps would have interested the city's newspapers. The reduction of the charge in Henson's case was ignored.

A family court judge ruled that William Swanson, though a juvenile, could be tried as an adult for the Henson slaying. On February 17, 1971, Swanson plead guilty in adult court to involuntary manslaughter.

Assistant state's attorney Sheldon Sorosky summed up the evidence against Swanson for Judge Louis Giliberto, including Swanson's admission that, on Schickel's direction, he'd picked up two guns and brought them to Justine. Sorosky said Swanson had acknowledged giving the guns to "various people," one of them Schickel.

Sorosky told the judge that at about 9:10 PM, Henson and Price, who were by themselves, encountered a group "of a much greater number" on Justine Street, and "there was a confrontation between the two groups." Swanson "was at the side of Mr. Schickel," Sorosky said. "The evidence would also reflect that neither Joseph Henson nor Leotha Price had any weapons or guns upon their person nor did they brandish any at that time. And that Mr. Schickel fired his gun, killing Joseph Henson."

Sorosky's assertion that Henson and Price were unarmed didn't square with what prosecutors knew about the stick and the pipe. What's even odder about the plea deal is that Sorosky's synopsis suggested an intentional act by Swanson and Schickel, not a reckless one.

But a plea deal with Swanson had been struck, and the lawyers and judge seemed unconcerned with the details. Swanson's lawyer, Irwin Frazin, stipulated to Sorosky's account, and Judge Giliberto accepted Swanson's plea.

Sorosky said Swanson had no prior convictions, and recommended a sentence of two to five years. Frazin said Swanson was attending school, and working, and was "a different type of boy than he was at the time that this happened. I think that Mr. Swanson has learned a lesson, a very valuable lesson. I think he realizes that he will continue to pay for this not just during the term of whatever your honor sentences him to, but probably for the rest of his life." He asked the judge for the minimum sentence.

The other prosecutor, Laurence Bolon, introduced Henson's mother and Leotha Price to Judge Giliberto. The judge asked Ethel Henson if she wished to say anything.

"He won't get no more than two to five years?" she asked.

Giliberto told her that was correct.

"What about the other two boys?"

Giliberto explained that they'd be prosecuted at a later date. He then sentenced Swanson to two to five years in the juvenile division of the Department of Corrections. (Corrections officials were unable to ascertain how much time he actually served, but under Illinois sentencing law at the time, he'd have been eligible for parole after a year.)

When I show the transcript of Swanson's plea deal to Jo Ann Henson, she's especially struck by her grandmother's question to the judge—"He won't get no more than two to five years?" The plea deal "had to be a slap in the face for her," Jo Ann tells me. "She's saying, 'Is that all the time he's getting?'"

In May 1971, the state's theory of what Schickel was guilty of seems to have changed again. The state dropped the involuntary manslaughter charge against him and reindicted him for voluntary manslaughter. A person commits voluntary manslaughter when he believes he's acting in self-defense, but his belief is unreasonable. The sentencing range for voluntary manslaughter was one to 20 years.

Schickel and Fehil were tried in March 1972 in the courtroom of Judge Kenneth Wendt. Drawing Wendt was a break for Schickel and Fehil, because Wendt was a judge who zealously guarded the rights of defendants. One of the trial prosecutors was Anthony Onesto, who has long since been in private practice. Onesto says he doesn't recall the trial, but he does recall that Wendt "didn't find too many people guilty." The year Schickel and Fehil were tried, the Tribune blasted Wendt's acquittal of two patronage workers a Tribune task force had caught fixing driver's tests. "Justice is blind," the paper said. "So, apparently, is Judge Kenneth Wendt of Criminal Court. Seldom have we seen evidence so blithely overlooked."

"Do I hate them? No. You damage yourself spiritually if you hate someone. In that era, and with all the racism, was there really someone to blame?" —Leotha Price, who was with Joe Henson when he was slain

There was also no love lost between Wendt and state's attorney Hanrahan, both now dead. Hanrahan complained, repeatedly and publicly, about the judge's decisions, calling Wendt "the worst judge on the bench" and "unfit to serve as a judge."

Schickel and Fehil waived their right to a jury, placing their fates in Wendt's hands. After hearing testimony from police officers and several of the eyewitnesses over two days, Wendt acquitted both defendants. The Tribune—the only newspaper to cover the trial—observed in its four-paragraph story that Henson had been shot "during a quarrel between 20 white youths and two black youths." Judge Wendt said he acquitted the defendants because of "the most conflicting testimony I've ever heard."

No transcript of the trial exists. When a defendant is convicted and appeals, transcripts are typed up from the court reporter's notes—but after an acquittal, transcripts are usually typed up only if someone chooses to order and pay for one. According to a supervisor in the court reporter's office, the notes of the trial's two court reporters, one of whom is dead and the other senile, couldn't be located.

Of the acquittals, Jo Ann Henson says, "Now I understand why my grandmother would go off and cry. She was probably feeling like, 'They killed my son, and nobody paid for it.'"

Joe Fehil died last year, at age 59. His oldest brother, Jim Fehil, says that after the acquittals, family members avoided the subject of the shooting. He says Joe worked in a railroad yard and as a high school security guard. He was hefty and "a rough and tough guy—tough enough to take care of himself," his older brother says. He had "a heart of gold," but "people took advantage of him." Jim Fehil adds that he didn't like some of the kids Joe hung out with—especially Schickel, who Jim considered a "moron."

I tell him about Jo Ann Henson, who's still trying to make sense of what happened to her father. "Tell her I'm very sorry," Jim Fehil says. "My heart goes out to her—it's a shame what happened."

When I extend his sympathies to Jo Ann Henson, she's appreciative of them. Likewise, she's heartened by the regret Jeff Blackburn expressed to me about the supporting role he played in the shooting. "He could have simply said, 'I don't feel anything because I didn't do it—I knew the guys, but it wasn't me,'" Jo Ann says. "Just him acknowledging that he played a role, and understanding that a man was taken from his family—that means something."

I made many attempts to talk with Schickel, including sending messages to his Facebook account, but he didn't respond. I had a phone number for a William Swanson in a Chicago suburb with the same date of birth as the Swanson in the Henson case, but the man who answered maintained he wasn't the Swanson I was looking for.

"I would hope now that they're remorseful," Leotha Price says of his brother-in-law's killers. "Do I hate them? No. I don't hate anybody. It's a very strong word. You damage yourself spiritually if you hate someone. In that era, and with all the racism, was there really someone to blame?"

Jo Ann Henson's older brother, Mark Henson, also says that the crime did not instill in him a resentment of whites. "My father was killed by white boys, but I had a cousin and a whole lot of friends killed by blacks. So how can you say, 'I hate whites'? You can say it for an individual, but to say you hate them in general is crazy."

He thinks his father's killers might simply be afraid to own up to it. "I wouldn't want nobody to know that I did that," he says. "I mean, some people never forget. They'll have vengeance in their heart until they get you. But revenge ain't gonna do nothing but put you somewhere. It's just gonna be a circle. Somebody has got to say, 'Forget it.'

"It's probably something they want to put behind them," he continues. "If they still feel that way about blacks, then there's nothing nobody can do about it. If they don't still feel that way, they probably regret it, but they can't take it back."

He says it doesn't bother him that neither of the adults who were charged went to prison. "They probably did their time in their head," he says. "God could have punished them in their mind. Let God take care of it—that's how I look at it. I don't go to church, but I know there's a consequence for everything."

Though Jo Ann is much less forgiving of her father's killers than her brother, she acknowledges some mixed feelings. "The 14-year-old [Swanson] could have been a decent boy and got caught up with the wrong crowd, and just went along with it," she says. "You see it happen with black kids all the time."

About Schickel, she says: "He was 17, so he was really a kid. If at 17 all this hate is in you, that was something you learned. Yeah, you're responsible in a sense—but I blame all the grown-ups that was around you at that point. You didn't start out knowing how to hate; they gave you the tools. And he could have went through his whole life feeling bad about it. That's probably why he won't talk about it—it'd be too painful."

But she wishes he would discuss it, difficult or not. "When it all come down to it, he took a life," she says. "And it was my father's life. I would like to hear him say he was young, he wasn't thinking, he made a mistake, and if he could do it over, that he would do it different. Maybe he wouldn't have got a gun—maybe it would have been a fistfight or an argument. Maybe even nothing should have been said—just let everybody live their life. I would like to hear him say, 'Sorry for the pain I caused your family.'"

Jena Cutie helped research this story.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Comments (67)

Showing 1-25 of 67

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-25 of 67

Add a comment

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
April 30
Performing Arts
June 26

Popular Stories