The color of his skin | Feature | Chicago Reader

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The color of his skin

A missing gun, a wavering prosecution, and decades of regret.
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When I extend his sympathies to Jo Ann Henson, she's appreciative of them. Likewise, she's heartened by the regret Jeff Blackburn expressed to me about the supporting role he played in the shooting. "He could have simply said, 'I don't feel anything because I didn't do it—I knew the guys, but it wasn't me,'" Jo Ann says. "Just him acknowledging that he played a role, and understanding that a man was taken from his family—that means something."

I made many attempts to talk with Schickel, including sending messages to his Facebook account, but he didn't respond. I had a phone number for a William Swanson in a Chicago suburb with the same date of birth as the Swanson in the Henson case, but the man who answered maintained he wasn't the Swanson I was looking for.

"I would hope now that they're remorseful," Leotha Price says of his brother-in-law's killers. "Do I hate them? No. I don't hate anybody. It's a very strong word. You damage yourself spiritually if you hate someone. In that era, and with all the racism, was there really someone to blame?"

Jo Ann Henson's older brother, Mark Henson, also says that the crime did not instill in him a resentment of whites. "My father was killed by white boys, but I had a cousin and a whole lot of friends killed by blacks. So how can you say, 'I hate whites'? You can say it for an individual, but to say you hate them in general is crazy."

He thinks his father's killers might simply be afraid to own up to it. "I wouldn't want nobody to know that I did that," he says. "I mean, some people never forget. They'll have vengeance in their heart until they get you. But revenge ain't gonna do nothing but put you somewhere. It's just gonna be a circle. Somebody has got to say, 'Forget it.'

"It's probably something they want to put behind them," he continues. "If they still feel that way about blacks, then there's nothing nobody can do about it. If they don't still feel that way, they probably regret it, but they can't take it back."

He says it doesn't bother him that neither of the adults who were charged went to prison. "They probably did their time in their head," he says. "God could have punished them in their mind. Let God take care of it—that's how I look at it. I don't go to church, but I know there's a consequence for everything."

Though Jo Ann is much less forgiving of her father's killers than her brother, she acknowledges some mixed feelings. "The 14-year-old [Swanson] could have been a decent boy and got caught up with the wrong crowd, and just went along with it," she says. "You see it happen with black kids all the time."

About Schickel, she says: "He was 17, so he was really a kid. If at 17 all this hate is in you, that was something you learned. Yeah, you're responsible in a sense—but I blame all the grown-ups that was around you at that point. You didn't start out knowing how to hate; they gave you the tools. And he could have went through his whole life feeling bad about it. That's probably why he won't talk about it—it'd be too painful."

But she wishes he would discuss it, difficult or not. "When it all come down to it, he took a life," she says. "And it was my father's life. I would like to hear him say he was young, he wasn't thinking, he made a mistake, and if he could do it over, that he would do it different. Maybe he wouldn't have got a gun—maybe it would have been a fistfight or an argument. Maybe even nothing should have been said—just let everybody live their life. I would like to hear him say, 'Sorry for the pain I caused your family.'"

Jena Cutie helped research this story.

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