By: Mike Bleeg
In June 1968 I came to the University of Chicago to get my MBA. For many reasons, this was a terrible period in the United States.
In April, the Rev. Dr. King was assassinated and riots had occurred in Chicago and multiple other places.
Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in early June.
The Democratic National Convention occurred in late August with significant uproar between the police and protestors.
These events coexisted in the midst of all the racial disparity and oppression that existed, especially on Chicago’s Southside. Multiple youth gangs were not too far from Hyde Park. I had never lived or visited an area with predominantly African-American and low-income residents. I was raised by upper-class Caucasian parents who were racist in their attitude toward African-Americans, Native Americans, etc.
On an August Saturday evening, I was driving back to the U. of C. for a party with a woman I met for the first time. A mutual friend had connected us. We stopped at a traffic light and when the light turned green, I started to cross the street. Another driver could not stop at the red light and hit the back passenger side of the car. My date cursed loudly.
I pulled over to the side of the road and the driver, Jerome, came over to talk with me. He was a 20ish African-American fellow. He said that he worked in a car repair shop and could get my car fixed quickly. He gave me a telephone number and asked me to contact him the next day. I also wrote down his license plate number.
When I got in the car my date apologized and we headed off to the party. We had a relatively quiet time that evening and for whatever reason, we did not date again!
The next day, I called the telephone number, but there was no answer and no recording device. I then went to the police office in Hyde Park to find the name associated with the license plate. I spoke with an officer and he was very cynical about my ability to contact the person and to have him repair the car. Using the license plate number, he did find the person’s name and address. He lived near one of the terrible projects around 32nd St. and the Southside.
I drove to the address and knocked on the door. His mother answered the door and I told her why I was there. She stated that her son had told her about the accident. The phone number was their neighbor’s number. They didn’t have a phone!
I stayed at the home until Jerome arrived. He had talked with the owner of the car repair shop and the owner stated that they would repair the car. We agreed on a day and time for me to pick him up at his home and go together to the car repair shop. As I thought about this over the next day or two, I thought maybe I was crazy to drive the car with an African-American I did not know. “What ifs” continuously went through my mind. A brother-in-law had recently told me the story of the death of an African-American in a police car. And, I decided to trust and go ahead with getting the car repaired. I picked up Jerome. We went to the shop and dropped off the car. Another person drove me to a place I lived. A day or so later, Jerome picked me up and drove me to the shop. The car was fixed! I thanked Jerome and drove off.
I never met Jerome again. This event has impacted my life for over 50+ years. It opened my life to African-Americans, Latinx, LBGTQ, people re-entering society after being incarcerated, poor people, etc. Two examples:
I decided to work for Xerox because of Joe Wilson, the CEO. In 1964, he connected with African-American Ministers after the uprising and later his funding helped sustain PBS.
In the mid-1970s, I joined Immaculate Conception Church whose mission was to enhance the Black Christian Experience,
It impacted how I raised my children in terms of their cultural experiences.