February is Black History Month and few communities have a richer history than Forest Park. We have the good, bad and the ugly. Let’s start with the good.
Forest Park is the final resting place of Professor Joseph Corbin, a Black man who overcame intense prejudice to become Superintendent of Education in Arkansas. Corbin founded the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He was later forced out as superintendent and moved to the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. He died in 1911 and was buried in Forest Home Cemetery.
His biographer, Gladys Turner Finney, is a Black woman who graduated from the college Corbin founded. She learned the cemetery had no record of a headstone for Corbin’s grave. Gladys raised the money to purchase a headstone commemorating Corbin as the “Father for Higher Education in Arkansas.”
Just before the ceremony on Memorial Day 2013, I visited Corbin’s grave to make sure the headstone had arrived. I was floored to see there was already a large monument honoring Corbin. Gladys was also stunned but we held a ceremony attended by Congressman Danny Davis and other dignitaries.
Schanna Gayden is also buried in Forest Home Cemetery. She didn’t achieve the accomplishments of Professor Corbin, because she was struck by a stray bullet in a Chicago park on June 25, 2007. She died at the age of 13 and her mother, Rita, was too paralyzed with grief to make funeral arrangements.
Forest Home Cemetery donated the costs of Schanna’s burial and created a modest garden to honor her. They designed a granite bench, with figures of children in a circle of love. Inscribed on the bench are the words, “In memory of all the loved ones who have been lost to violence. Where there is faith, there is love. Where there is God, there is no need for violence.”
Not far from Schanna’s memorial is the grave of Lucy Parsons. She was a woman of mixed race, who had been married to Haymarket Martyr, Albert Parsons. After his execution, Lucy continued to march and speak for the poor. When she was banned from speaking on Illinois soil, she rented barges and gave speeches from the Chicago River to crowds on the bridges above.
Setting aside our cemeteries, Forest Park made history when we elected Rory Hoskins as commissioner. Hoskins is now our first Black mayor. Rory isn’t content just to make history. He also works to preserve it. The Galveston native was an early proponent of celebrating Juneteenth, the holiday that marks the end of slavery. Juneteenth is now celebrated in 46 states.
As for the ugly, I took part in making a documentary about one of the first Black families to purchase a home in Forest Park. It was January 1976 and they were subjected to bricks thrown through windows, arson, and shots fired. An Italian-American stranger named Mike Chiappetta came to the rescue of Ezra Buckner and his family. The film “Ezra & Mike” was screened at the Lake Theatre in 2017.
Forest Park’s fascinating history was once included in the middle-school curriculum. Students took walking field trips to Forest Home Cemetery to view monuments.
Soon we will have a new District 91 superintendent. Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez is a history-maker in her own right. I hope she will consider including Forest Park history in the middle-school curriculum. Our cemeteries can be used as outdoor classrooms.
Middle-school students have also been receptive to presentations about a statue called “The Death of Cleopatra” which was carved by a Black woman named Edmonia Lewis and sat in Forest Park for 70 years.
It is now in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.