Veatrice Watson used to joke that if the board of education kept up its snail's pace she might not live to see it build a new Simeon high school. Sadly, she was right. On January 6, the south-side activist, a key member of the West Chatham Improvement Association, died following a brain hemorrhage. She was 44 years old.
Watson was born in Chicago, one of six children. Her family moved from Hyde Park to Chatham when she was four. She graduated from Calumet High School and later worked for Illinois Bell and Provident Hospital.
But it was as a community activist that she made her mark, and for the past few years her primary cause was Simeon Career Academy. The story of the effort to see the decrepit facility replaced by a new one was reported in these pages last November 2. "I didn't go there and I have no children there," she said in an interview last year. "But it's not far from my house, and it's such an obvious injustice--so I had to get involved."
Watson remembered when the board created Simeon out of a drafty old warehouse at 82nd and Vincennes in 1964. "The board said it was only going to be a temporary facility and that they would build a new high school--state-of-the-art and all that--real soon," Watson said. "I grew up in the area. I remember thinking I might be able to go there."
But 37 years later the board still hadn't made good on its promise, though it had built other new high schools all over the city. By last fall Simeon was in horrible condition, with a leaky roof, peeling paint, crumbling walls, and lots of mildew, asbestos, and dust. "It's too late for me to go there," said Watson. "But I'm hoping they'll build one in time for my son. He's only 13."
Thanks to pressure from Watson and other local activists, school-board president Michael Scott came to the school in October and promised to begin construction on a new building in December. But December came and went, and construction still hadn't started. Watson never got to see even the beginnings of the new school.
Watson's fiance, Ernest Hemphill, recalls that on Friday afternoon, January 4, Watson lay down complaining of a headache. Then she started breathing heavily, so Hemphill had her son, Jerome, dial 911. "Jerome was very calm," says Hemphill. "I would not have been able to find the phone if he hadn't been there."
An ambulance rushed Watson to Saint Bernard Hospital. Eventually she was transferred to Cook County Hospital, where she was placed on a respirator. She was pronounced dead on Sunday morning, January 6.
More than 200 people crammed into the pews of the Progressive Baptist Church, at 3658 S. Wentworth, for her funeral, where Jerome read a tribute. "I can't help but feel there couldn't be another as wonderful as you are," he said. "I'm so proud that you are and will always be my loving mother."
Coincidentally, on January 7 the board finally got around to starting construction on the new Simeon. If all goes well, the board says, the school will be completed next year.
A few months before she died Watson said, "One of the keys to organizing is that you have to be patient. You have to be willing to go in for a long fight."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.