For two hours almost every day, Jonathan Dudley traveled from his home in southeast Ford Heights to the West Side of Chicago, where he worshipped at Family Altar Baptist Church in the Austin neighborhood.
The long commute stopped when Dudley turned 11.
His mother Yulanda made the decision to move their family to Forest Park, where her son attended Field-Stevenson Elementary School and Forest Park Middle School. Dudley later attended Proviso East High School where he said he graduated at the top 10 percent of his class. Now, the recipient of a prestigious local scholarship and rising junior at Beloit College, Dudley finds inspiration from his formative years in Forest Park, and dreams of teaching African-American history to young men like himself.
“I don’t want to know the history of why my life doesn’t matter,” he said, adding that he hopes to empower young black men and women through his work. “I want my students to realize that some of the most productive conversations come out of people being uncomfortable.”
When Dudley moved to Forest Park, he finally had more time to center his life on his schoolwork and spirituality.
Religion has been a constant in Dudley’s life, something that his whole family has inspired him to practice. His mother became a minister at 13 years old. She was mentored by Dudley’s godmother, Jennie L. Petties, who is also the founding and current pastor of Family Altar Baptist Church.
Dudley’s father, who died in 2017, was a drummer, singer and choir director. He taught Dudley to play the drums when he was two years old. Dudley picked up singing three years later. The two would practice church music together and, by age 10, Dudley was directing choirs. He eventually cofounded a youth choir.
But there was trouble in his family home. His parents divorced when he was in elementary school, leaving a profound impact on the young man.
“I felt like my happy home was kind of disrupted,” Dudley said, adding: “I still would be confused as to why am I going to his house and then I have to come back to my house.”
The move to Forest Park allowed Dudley a fresh start.
“Moving to Forest Park gave him the ability to soar in a different way because he wasn’t surrounded by everybody who knew his situation so he was able to create who he was,” said Dudley’s mother.
But only a few weeks after arriving into town, Dudley was stopped by a police officer on his bike, which had been given to him recently by a friend. The police officer asked Dudley a series of questions and then revealed the reason they had stopped him.
A bike had been stolen and the police had received information that a man with a hoodie was riding a bike nearby.
“I’m 11 at the time. I haven’t hit my growth spurt yet…I was about 5 feet at the time and my voice, you were talking to a child, my voice was not as deep at the time,” Dudley said.
The police let him go but the experience shocked Dudley to his core.
After the incident, Dudley crawled into his bed and “I kind of just let out this scream, like I can’t believe this happened. I was traumatized,” he said.
His mother knew she would eventually need to talk with him about how to conduct himself around police but she never thought an incident like this would happen so early.
“I thought maybe I would have the talk by the time he was maybe in eighth grade,” she said.
Still, Dudley moved on with life, focusing on school, church and trying to stay out of trouble, without the full-time support of his father.
When Dudley was applying for colleges he looked into available scholarships, and his counselor told him about the Ruth C. Shoenbeck Memorial Scholarship. Shoenbeck graduated from Proviso East in 1959 and passed away in 2010. A scholarship was set up in her name one year later. He decided to apply for the Schoenbeck award, writing about his parent’s separation. The essay was a hit, and Dudley received the $10,000 prize.
Originally, Dudley was set on attending Concordia University Chicago but one visit to Beloit College in Wisconsin changed his decision. There, Dudley met Dr. Beatrice McKenzie. He shadowed one of her classes while he was visiting, which he said helped tip him toward attending the university.
Dudley later became a student of McKenzie’s and was a teacher’s assistant for one of her classes. He has spent the summer completing a research project as part of his work as a McNair Scholar, under the mentorship of McKenzie. About six students are chosen each year to participate in the prestigious program.
When he started research for McNair, Dudley was originally drawn to exploring black power. But he said a spate of hate crimes that targeted African-American, Jewish and Muslim students at Beloit, along with his own experiences in Forest Park, further focused his research.
“He’s someone who holds things in,” McKenzie said. “But he has indicted that those events and his activism on campus ground his scholarship.”
Out of these incidents, Dudley decided to explore the evolution of black power from activist Marcus Garvey to today’s Black Lives Matter Movement. He presented his research last week.
“Thoughtful, excellent writer…kind, a great leader. I think he’s just a careful scholar, he’s someone that wants to make sure he’s done his work before he speaks about something and I really admire that,” McKenzie said.