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Black History Month

WGN celebrates Black History Month with stories of those making a difference.

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From Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender, to Aylwin Lewis, CEO of Potbelly`s, Chicago has a rich history of black business leaders.

But some say, African-Americans are still struggling to break barriers in the business world. WGN’s Gaynor Hall takes a look at the landscape.

“Chicago has always been a leader. When Harlem in the 1920`s was being touted as a cultural center of Negro or colored America, Chicago was being recognized as a business leader,” said Dr. Christopher Reed, Professor Emeritus of History at Roosevelt University.

As the city`s black population grew after the Great Migration, so did the number of black-owned businesses even as racism kept options limited.

“You had people who had the nerve to want to start banks. There were at least 3 insurance companies.”

Reed says even though things changed after the Great Depression, Chicago later became home to a number of prominent African-American business leaders, including John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing, Ed Gardner of Soft Sheen Products, and Oprah Winfrey of Harpo Studios.

In recent years though, the promise has faded due to economics, politics, and also progress.

“The 21st century has not been a century that`s been a good century for black businesses. In addition, many of the talented black men and women who would`ve started businesses have gravitated towards the larger corporate entities,” said Reed.

The doors in corporate America have opened slowly.

Paul Martin is Corporate Vice-President and Chief Information Officer for Deerfield-based healthcare company, Baxter International.

The C-suite is a long way from Lexington, Kentucky, where he was raised by a hard-working single mom. Over 30 years, he`s made stops at several top companies, but early in his career the promotions were slow to come.

“I do think I had to overcome the perception of why I was there,” said Martin. “I worked hard to prove that I belong.”

“Today, we still see there is unconscious bias. I don`t think people go out of their way to ensure that people of color are not moving forward. Rather, I think the unconscious bias indicates that there is sponsorship of those who are like the executives who are currently sitting in those roles,” said Gloria Castillo, President and CEO of Chicago United.

The organization rose from the ashes of the riots after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

“You had roughly 13 CEO’s in the city who looked at the west side burning and said we need to take personal responsibility for improving race relations in Chicago. The mission remains the same, to advance economic parity for people of color.”

In 2012, Chicago United`s survey of the top 50 companies in the area found only 10-percent of executive positions were held by minorities. Of that, 4 percent were African-Americans and nearly half of those companies had no racial diversity within their executive ranks.

“It surprises me because in fact, we have a great pool of talent,” said Castillo.

Connecting decision makers with diverse talent is Billy Dexter`s expertise.

“They need to make sure they`re tapping into diverse networks,” said Dexter, who is a partner at executive search firm, Heidrick and Struggles.

From his office in the Willis Tower, Billy remembers growing up in Detroit and dreaming of college. His career has taken him from university administration to corporate recruiting. His last job was chief diversity officer for  MTV Networks.

“There are very few of us at the executive level, and those that get there have to be qualified. They have to have a vision and they`ve got to set goals,” said Dexter. “But don`t think because another person of color has never been in that role that you can`t attain that.”

Billy Dexter and Paul Martin have both been honored as Business Leaders of Color. Every other year, Chicago United selects 45 people for the distinction, promoting their accomplishments and positioning them for seats on corporate boards of directors – another area where diversity is lacking.

“I think the pipeline of African American leaders is increasing. I see companies understanding that inclusion and diversity matters,” said Martin.

“There are people of color in Chicago that are doing some amazing things,” said Dexter. “Is there a long way to go? Absolutely. But I`m very optimistic that things will change.”

Being first in history is significant, but the further we go back in time, often the less certain we can be.  Especially when it comes to African-Americans playing baseball.

For example, who’s the first black major leaguer?
The story may not be as simple as you think.

Not to take anything away from Jackie Robinson, but there’s more to the story.

WGN’s Larry Potash has the story of Moses Fleetwood Walker.  It’s a story that takes us back before Robinson, and even before the Negro Leagues.  And it’s a story is about more than just baseball.

It’s roughly 600 miles from the eastern edge of Missouri to the border where Canada meets the United States.That was the task ahead of thousands of enslaved people seeking freedom.

Crossing Illinois was the first step.

WGN’s Courtney Hall retraces that historic journey and visits markers and learns about the legends along the way.

Civil rights activist Rosa Parks is taking her place among American historical figures in Washington.


Rosa Parks statue unveiled at the Capitol

A bronze statue of Parks was unveiled in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall Wednesday.

She is the first African-American woman added to the marbled hall.

President Barack Obama and top leaders in Congress helped dedicate the 9-foot statue during a ceremony.

It was commissioned by Congress in 2005, on the 50th anniversary of when Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama.

Moving mountains is what Pastor Charles Jenkins is all about.

When he’s not in the pulpit, he’s figuring out ways to create opportunities to get people engaged and involved.

“A typical day is crazy. Everyday is crazy. I wake up out of my sleep working. It’s you know some time of reflection, prayer and immediately, it’s emails, text messages, phone calls,” Jenkins said.

The pastor of the legendary Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side is doing God’s work.

“I like to say he brings hope to the hood,” said Jenkins’s wife Tara. “I’ve seen him meet with rival gang leaders, I’ve seen him baptize gang leaders. I’ve seen him stop on the side of the road and talk with some young man.”

When Jenkins took over this church in 2000, he had huge shoes to fill. Fellowship’s legendary former pastor, Reverend Clay Evans, once played host to Dr. Martin Luther king Jr.

After decades  in the pulpit, Evans passed the torch to Jenkins, then a 24-year-old neophyte.

“And to change that from a generation a legacy and put a new face on it, it’s difficult everybody’s not happy to see a lot of people don’t like change,” said church member Melody Spann Cooper.

But change ended up being a good thing for this church. Under Jenkins,  membership has gone from 2,000 to 10,000. His  non-traditional style of running things appealed to a more diverse crowd.

“There might be some different dynamics in the new millennium and in a different generation, but I think I am continuing a legacy that was brought on by our forefathers,” Jenkins said.

“Many pastors would have come here and just been happy existing as a continuation of that legacy. But he took the opportunity to grow that beyond anyone’s belief as to what could happen,” said church member and City Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr.

Jenkins brought the church into the new millennium. He became a Grammy award-winning songwriter and recording artist.

He developed a record label and put the church on the company’s first album.

The album ended up winning 5 Stellar Awards — or, gospel music’s Grammy Awards.

“So I created this company called Inspired People with the whole commitment to inspiring people and out of that, one of the first bands was Fellowship Chicago,” Jenkins said. “It was No. 1 the billboard for 20 weeks, the album debuted the No. 1 christian album in America!”

Tara, Jenkins’s wife of 15 years, says her husband has amazing energy and drive against all odds.

“A lot of times the way I describe him is boxless, raceless and limitless, so who knows what the future holds,” she said.

Jenkins is looking at this as the church and the community’s future. He calls it the Legacy Project — 14 ½ acres, 230,000 square-feet of prime real estate on 87th and Lafayette.

“We got it with no debt, no mortgage as a charitable donation and if this can happen, how much more can happen?” he said.

It was property that was sent from heaven — donated by National Arts and Crafts chain, Hobby Lobby.

“They give away a portion of their profits to faith-based non-profits. We shared our vision, went through some serious due diligence and lots of paperwork and they donated the site to us as a charitable donation free and clear,” Jenkins said.

“Other people are talking about when the economy comes back. He’s actually put together a plan to help the economy come back in what he’s developed for 87th street,” Rogers said.

“And so the goal is to make sure that we are bringing in entities programs and partners that will serve the community in a way that will be profitable for the community at large that’s the goal,” Jenkins said.

“It will cause a commerce to come in, you’ll see restaurants because he is there, you’ll see small business people grow and be able to expand because he is there. When you put these kind of institution what you’re doing is you’re buidlgin community,” Spann said.

“My whole commitment is to imipact and inspire. That’s my whole thrust. And that might come through music, that migh come through ministry. That might come through economic development. I don’t know what’s next. I do know we’re going to gt this legacy project done,” Jenkins said.

From your mouth pastor, to God’s ears — Pastor Charles Jenkins. He’s one of Chicago’s Very Own.

To complete the legacy project, Jenkins says they’ll need to raise $26 million.

If you’d like to learn more about the project, Jenkins and fellowship, go to

And  Jenkins and St. Sabina’s Fr. Michael Pfleger,  will be featured on Saturday’s “People to People” on WGN. Tune in to WGN Saturday  at 5:30 a.m.

For Brian Duncan, tasting a new wine is like a 5-year-old getting his first sugar rush.

“That thing that made you sort of hyperventilate over the first time you saw cotton candy and you said, OMG, my head is gonna explode!” he said.

The Morgan Park native, finds himself in a very small pool of African American owners in the food and wine industry.

So, for some, it’s a little surprising to learn he’s the co-founder, co-owner and wine director of Chicago Bin 36.

“Yea, I’m surprised that they’re surprised, but that’s their problem not mine,” Duncan said.

Duncan’s colorful character and sartorial style is his signature. And he has a profound and extensive knowledge of wine.

I’ve been able to educate people sometimes without them even knowing it,” he said.

Duncan says his joie de vivre comes from mom and dad.Chicago’s Very Own: Brian Duncan

“I was raised in a family that you could do or be anything that you wanted. I never had a life that felt like I had restriction on me,” Duncan said.

And, it was also mom and dad who taught him to appreciate the finer things in life.
“He was the first foodie. It was just the way that he’d shop for our weekly groceries, he would very carefully select everything that really stuck in my mind,” Duncan said.

“They would have sweet rolls they would warm the sweet rolls and put butter on em, we would just eat the sweet rolls,” said his friend George Boles Jr.

Brian lost his mom to breast cancer almost 30 years ago. He found a wine in the Napa Valley that he thought would be a perfect honor to her. It was also a way to give back.

Last year he initiated, Real Men Drink Pink in Chicago.

A campaign that helps fund a national organization for the early detection and prevention of breast and ovarian cancers.

“He’s definitely a person who gives back, his parents were the same way, when you talk about a village raising a child that was our block,” Boles said

Duncan runs a tight ship at Bin 36.

“You have to do that and you can tell when you’re in restaurants that don’t,” he said.

“He demands everything. He demands your full attention he demands that you educate yourself,” said Elizabeth Bolger. “He demands that you investigate other ways that things can be done. He just doesn’t settle.”

Bolger’s admiration for Duncan goes beyond that of a colleague. He’s became a mentor to her daughter, Olivia, who was about to go down the wrong path.

“He kind of a gave me a little push and helped me finish school,” Olivia said.

Now an employee at bin 36, Olivia says Duncan inspired her to believe in herself and realize she too can have success.

“If there’s something that you love an you wanna do, you can do it, you just have to set your mind to it,” Olivia said.

“There’s a lot going on in the world that we don’t need to enumerate on, being civil to one another is one of the most important things that we can do,” Duncan said.

Brian Duncan: He’s one of Chicago’s very own

Growing up on the streets of Chicago, surrounded by gangs and drugs with little, to no, parental guidance would doom just about anyone to a bleak future.

But it doesn’t have to.

Tonya Francisco introduces us to Jemal Gibson, who flipped the script by becoming a corporate executive who sells legal drugs.

Dean’s List

Berry Gordy: Living Legend

The Berry Gordy we know is a living legend.

A pioneer in music and business, he mastered popular brand building in a way that crossed musical, political and racial boundaries.

But if you rewind his story to beginning, you`ll find all of this almost didn’t happen.

WGN’s Dean Richards has his story.