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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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.'"

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