Time's Up | Feature | Chicago Reader

Time's Up 

Two entrepreneurs found the perfect location for their new business: a big empty building the city was willing to sell for a song. Then they ran into a little problem named Bishop Edgar Jackson, who'd occupied it for 30 years.

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On a cool, sunny day last July, Audrey Wright and Sharon White arrived in Englewood to tour the building that would house the business of their dreams. They envisioned a garment factory that would teach industrial trades and provide up to 100 jobs for residents of this high-unemployment neighborhood. They had government and civilian contracts. They had the support of 15th Ward alderman Theodore Thomas. They'd found a city-owned building that was perfect for their needs, and the city was eager to sell it to them at a good price. As they stood at the threshold of the building, accompanied by the alderman and two contractors, their vision seemed to be taking shape.

Then they ran into Bishop Edgar Jackson.

As the women tell the story, Jackson confronted them before they even set foot in the building. "The man came out and performed," says Wright. Alderman Thomas recalls that Jackson called him an Uncle Tom. Wright says he told her "something bad" would happen to her. She felt threatened, members of the group called 911, and eventually several police officers arrived to escort the group through the building. "We had to make sure that we weren't messed with as we looked," Thomas says.

For some 30 years, Jackson claims, the cavernous building at 6430 S. Ashland housed his Tim-Buk-Tu African Flea Market, which sold old furniture, paintings, vases, TVs. Jackson, 64, says he and Beth-El All Nations Church, at 6250 S. Justine, have owned the property since 1969. But the city has the papers to prove it bought the building and an adjacent lot in a public sale in 1984. City officials say that Jackson has been squatting there ever since, and they've been trying to evict him for months. Jackson calls their efforts a "massive land grab lie" and has promised to fight it. "We intend for it to go, if we have to, to the Supreme Court of the United States."

For as long she can remember, Audrey Wright has dressed to stand out from the crowd, sewing her own fashions and even cutting up her store-bought clothes to give them the flashy edge she believes reflects her personality. Strangers compliment her style, she says proudly. "People say, 'Where did you get that made?' 'Where did you buy that?'"

She has also made a point of using her talents to put people to work. In the mid-1990s, she employed three Earnfare participants in a small business that made garments like hospital scrubs and choir robes, housed in the beauty salon she owned and operated on West 95th Street.

Her sense of mission intensified late one night in April 1998, when a stray bullet fired in a drive-by shooting took the life of her son Gordie, 24. (Some may remember Gordie Wright from TV commercials he appeared in with newsman Walter Jacobson, actor Fred Savage, and Michael Jordan. He also had a bit part in The Marva Collins Story.) Gordie's death spurred Wright to start a company that would hire the disenfranchised and people who might otherwise hang out on the streets. "I want to stop some of this gangbanging that's been going on," she says passionately. "If I can save one somebody's child, just one, I'll think I did wonders."

She established the nonprofit entity Gordie's Foundation to teach trades like garment making and industrial upholstery. She also set out to open a factory in Cumberland, a struggling coal miners' town in Harlan County, Kentucky, her home state. She borrowed money from anyone who would lend it, delved into her husband's pension fund, and depleted her savings. She bought discounted equipment and supplies and secured a vacant building that she could use free for six months. In 2000, with the support of politicians and residents and a workforce of 35, Wright opened CH Millery (named for Cumberland and Harlan). She worked diligently trying to secure government grants and contracts and spent about 60 hours a week making multiple trips between Chicago and the factory. Five months later, she had not won a single grant or contract, and the factory closed. She lost $200,000, but not her hopes. She resolved to find a business partner and try it again.

Back in Chicago she approached Sharon White, who had sold her some sewing machines for the Kentucky venture. White, who grew up in public housing and became an electronic engineer, had left a corporate job to start On-Screen Graphics, a silk-screening business at 89th and Woodlawn that trained Cabrini-Green residents. In spring 2001, Wright rented out her salon and joined forces with White. They produced backpacks, seat belts, prison uniforms, church robes, and school band and sports uniforms. But the struggling venture lasted only a few months before a spike in rent at 89th and Woodlawn sent the women back to a space in Wright's old building. In spring 2002 they decided they needed to start looking for a larger facility. Alderman Thomas escorted the women around the neighborhood and introduced them to local business owners. He was enthusiastic about their plan. "[It] will have a tremendous impact on the 15th Ward," he says, "and I'm all for it." Among others, the women say, they had a cordial visit with Bishop Jackson at his shop. Jackson offered to help them move into the neighborhood, Wright recalls.

Before this visit, the women had consulted city records for available properties and learned that Jackson's shop was part of a city-owned parcel. When they met him they assumed he had a lease, but later they checked with the city and found out he didn't. They liked the building--it's large and close to public transportation--so they approached the city and agreed to purchase it for its appraised value of $57,000. The city was pleased. "The point is to put this property to its most productive use," says Joseph Spillane, assistant corporation counsel for the city, "and we're confident the way to do that is to get a female minority-owned enterprise up and running in this underutilized property. It helps plant a seed in a community that needs government [assistance] and deserves the city of Chicago's help."

The women were ready to go. They had recently learned they would receive a United States Army contract they had bid on--for about 150,000 pairs of shoulder patches--and the much larger Ashland building would make filling the order easier. Then they had the run-in with Jackson, and the future began to look very uncertain. Alderman Thomas says he had intended to work with the Department of Planning and Development to assist Jackson in relocating his shop, but canned the idea after his encounter with the bishop.

"He upset me so bad I said forget it," Thomas says.

In September, the city and an attorney for Jackson made a legal agreement stipulating Jackson would leave the Ashland building in October. But Jackson didn't leave. On October 17, he filed a motion to vacate the September agreement, which was denied. Five days later he filed a federal civil rights suit, claiming the city went "against my rights as a bishop, a pastor and my human rights as a black man." (That suit was dismissed.)

In November, Jackson filed a suit in Cook County Circuit Court against the city and Alderman Thomas to stop eviction proceedings. In that suit, Jackson maintained that his church, Beth-El All Nations, has occupied and kept up the Ashland property since 1969, using it "to store inventory, equipment, furniture, appliances and electronics."

In 1978 or 1979, says Jackson, a portion of the Ashland property exploded or caved in. Though the cause of the damage is apparently unknown, "we do know that a church nearby had been bombed about four weeks before," Jackson said in an interview this winter. In 1979, says assistant corporation counsel Spillane, the city sued the owners of record for 6430-6440 S. Ashland, a couple named John and Grace Finlay, to demolish the damaged structure at 6440 S. Ashland and clean up the debris. Records show the city also sued eight other individuals or entities over the demolition; Jackson was not listed as one of them. The defendants in the case failed to appear or respond to the suit, and in 1980, Spillane says, the city paid $3,500 to do the demolition and clean up the lot. In 1984, the city acquired the property in a public sale for the value of the demolition lien and its resulting interest--about $4,900. Spillane says city officials had assumed the property was vacant; they didn't realize there was still a building there, much less that Jackson was running a resale shop in it, until White and Wright approached the city about buying it.

Jackson says the city never told him about the demolition lien, which he learned about only last year. "You can see right there that this is a hoax on our church and our community," he says. The city says Jackson was not told about the lien because according to city records he had no connection to the property.

As part of the legal proceedings in the suit he filed in November, Jackson presented the court with a lease option agreement for deed showing he allegedly bought the property from John and Grace Finlay in 1969. The city argued that this document "is, on its face, a fraud and forgery." Jennifer Hoyle, spokesperson for the city's law department, says the contract seems to have been produced by computer "with a word-processing program like Microsoft Word or Word Perfect, something that didn't exist then." Jackson also presented a quitclaim deed showing that the couple sold their interest in the property to him in 1994. "The interesting thing about that deed," Hoyle says, "was that it was not recorded until September 20, 2002, the day after the agreed order [for the city's possession of the property] was signed."

If some branches of city government were unaware of Jackson's presence on the contested property, others were well aware of it. As far back as 1990, the city charged him with failing to display a secondhand dealer license and with inadequate price marking. Recently, attorney William R. Jackson, who is not related to the bishop, represented him on charges of violating cease-and-desist orders issued for doing business without licenses. Says the attorney, "His argument is that he's not a business. He's a nonprofit organization that contributes to the community." He says Jackson donates shop goods and proceeds to the public and provides jobs for people in the area. "Many, many young men have come through that facility over the last 25 years. For many it was the only job they could get, especially if they were ex-offenders." Lewis Jackson, the bishop's brother and a deacon at Beth-El All Nations, says shop proceeds have also paid for renovations at the church.

And there's more: William R. Jackson says the shop is a piece of civil rights history and should be preserved. Decades ago, he says, the bishop used the property to park buses that ferried civil rights activists. "Most of the movement in Chicago rode on his buses," he says. "Everyone in that movement knew Edgar Jackson."

Some of Jackson's supporters recall that he spoke publicly against the old Daley administration and that as a result police officers intimidated and harassed him at the resale shop. Today, some of them believe, the city is making good on a decades-old grudge.

In addition to the suit he filed last November, Jackson has filed several bankruptcies. Furthermore, he blames Alderman Thomas for arrests he suffered last November because he continued to sell items from the property. Says Thomas, "I haven't had him arrested. He had himself arrested. He has a cease-and-desist order from the city of Chicago to stop selling stuff from that location, and he has been continuing to do it." Counters Jackson, "It's a setup. They would not go to any Caucasian or white-led institution and arrest their bishop and lead him out and put him in jail."

Jackson asserts that Alderman Thomas intends to become CEO of CH Millery, the name Audrey Wright continues to use. "These two women running around won't own nothing when it's over," he says. "They're fronting for some Caucasians who will own the property."

Thomas laughs at Jackson's claim. "No, no, no," he says. "I don't know where that comes from." Says Wright, "Paperwork and public knowledge will tell you who owns the company. And if you want to see my identification, that's not a problem."

Meanwhile, records show that the city also owns 6250 S. Justine, the property where Jackson's church is located. It was purchased in a tax-deed scavenger sale in 1998. A city source says the property was only partially tax-exempt because it also housed a retail operation. Because Jackson did not pay taxes on that operation, the source says, it went up for sale.

On a Sunday in February, about 30 parishioners, young and old, worshiped at Beth-El and celebrated the birthday of a church member. Dining chairs served as pews and a picture of a black Jesus hung prominently on a wall.

That same month the court gave the city the green light to evict Jackson. On the first day of the eviction, carried out in early March, sheriff's office work crews put around 90 percent of the shop's items in the adjacent vacant lot.

Around 9 AM on the second day, a few old TV sets, chairs, and overturned tables littered the snow-covered lot while a few city employees and a handful of Englewood residents camped in their cars. Former Beth-El parishioner Debra Henderson expressed sadness for Jackson. "I feel that he is a real good man and this shouldn't be happening to him," she said. Johnnie Dave, a former customer, came to pick up free goods but left when he learned there was nothing for the taking. A resident who preferred not to be named, who also had stopped to pick up some free stuff, said she hadn't known about the proposed garment factory, but after learning about it she was not convinced Jackson should be evicted. "He helped everybody," she said. "He gave food to the hungry. This really is not one of the places they should take."

Jackson stood stoically by the shop. I tried to ask him about the last couple of days in his life and the closing of his shop, but he had long ago tired of my questions and expressed wariness about the tenor of my article. He said I didn't have the right story because I was just asking too many questions. The real story, he said angrily, is about "the Nazi movement in America."

The sheriff's office never showed up that second day; Jackson had filed for bankruptcy and then alerted authorities to that fact, say city officials, hoping to stop eviction proceedings. But the bankruptcy could not prevent the eviction, and sheriff's office work crews were out the next day.

On March 17, Jackson's attorney in the eviction matter withdrew from the case, but Jackson has not given up the fight. He has obtained new representation, and a new court date has been set for June 24. In another courtroom on May 1, a jury was to try him on nine counts of violating cease-and-desist orders issued for conducting business without various licenses. Jackson waived his right to a trial and agreed not to operate a business in the Ashland building for 18 months. When associate judge Mark J. Ballard asked Jackson for his plea, Jackson said he would plead guilty to help along the process. That answer was not acceptable. Again, Ballard asked for his plea. "I plead guilty, sir," Jackson said. The judge told him that he has the right to plead not guilty, and asked if he was pleading guilty voluntarily. Jackson said he was. Ballard also asked Jackson if he was pleading guilty because he is in fact guilty. A long pause followed. Then Jackson, with great effort, said, "Yes, sir."

Wright and White are in the last stages of closing on the building. Last year the Mayor's Office of Workforce Development awarded Gordie's Foundation a $25,000 grant to teach industrial trades to neighborhood residents. The future factory has also received a large Empowerment Zone grant, has been named a preferred vendor for the Board of Education, and recently won a Cook County Jail contract for about 120,000 articles of clothing. White, Wright, and eight employees recently completed and shipped out 18,000 pairs of military uniform patches--the first installment of that contract for the army.

Today the women have keys to the Ashland building, and just a few weeks ago they began moving in sewing machines, boxes of thread, cutting tables, and office furniture. They say they haven't heard from Jackson, and they certainly haven't tried to contact him. Says Wright, "If he is a Christian, and he wants to help to bring up and make it better in the community for young people, then he would join forces to help us. If you are truly about what you say you are about, then what you want to do is help. Any time he wants to walk through that door, it's open. I have nothing against him."

Meanwhile, they are still working out of their shop on 95th Street. On a recent visit, Wright sewed bright orange and gold cartoon stick figures on a jean jacket while she spoke about her eagerness to get the factory open. "I'm looking at the point that I'm giving up a lot of things that I should be doing as a 60-year-old person," she said. "I should be retired, traveling. Our life span is very short. I'm 60. How many more years do I have to live in this world, on average?"

"Forty," called out White, who is 40, with a laugh from behind her computer. "She's going to live forever, for real."

Wright went on as if she didn't hear. "So I'm looking at the point that I need to get this did, and I need to get it did in a hurry."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.

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