The color of his skin | Feature | Chicago Reader

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The color of his skin

Joe Henson was killed because he was black. Forty years later, the daughter he never met is still searching for clues about his death. Part 1 of 2.


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Editor's note: Read Part 2 of this story, which describes A missing gun, a wavering prosecution, and decades of regret.

Jo Ann Henson has always wanted to know more about how and why her father was killed. She knows some of the particulars. At 9:10 on a June evening in 1970, Joe Henson was shot once in the chest on the 5500 block of South Justine. He was pronounced dead on arrival 20 minutes later at Central Community Hospital. He was 21.

Jo Ann hadn't even been born when her father was slain; her mother was three months pregnant with her. She was born a day after Christmas that year.

She knows the broad motive for his slaying. "Racial fight," the police reports say. Her father was black, his assailants—perhaps 20 or more of them—white. She's always believed her father's killers got away with murder, and that they were able to do so because of the color of their skin, and his. The neighborhood where they lived, an enclave in West Englewood, was changing from white to black, and many of the white residents were unhappy about that. "Those white gang members went on to live their lives as if nothing happened, like my father's life was worthless," she says. "I blame them, but I also blame the system that upheld this criminal behavior.

"Hate took away the chance of me ever knowing my father."

Jo Ann is 41 now, and has four grown children and three grandchildren. She's heavyset, with a round face and high cheekbones. A touch of gray is setting in. Her manner is genial—she laughs easily and often. She wasn't adventurous at all growing up; she rarely traveled and was afraid of flying. Then two years ago she flew to Senegal to marry a man she'd met online. ("My cousins said, 'Your first time out of the neighborhood and you went to Africa?'") She met her fiance in person at 5 in the morning in Senegal's capital, Dakar, and they were married at 3 in the afternoon.

Jo Ann and her husband live in an apartment on Sheridan Road in Rogers Park. She worked in a mail room the last six years but lost that position recently, so she's been job hunting. She spends a lot of time at the computer on the small desk in her living room, working on papers for the psychology classes she's taking at Roosevelt University. She'd like to counsel teens eventually.

Jo Ann has a brother, Mark, who was three when their father died. Now 44, he's a self-employed car mechanic. He's a muscular six-foot-five and has a booming voice but a calm air. He lives alone in the frame house at 56th and Justine that their grandparents bought in 1970, when they first moved into the neighborhood. He has no memory of Joe Henson. After a recent family get-together, he was driving Jo Ann home when she asked him if he missed their father. "How can I miss him?" Mark asked. "I can't even remember him."

"Well, I miss him," Jo Ann said.

"You can't miss what you never had," Mark responded.

Jo Ann feels like she's been trying much of her life to fill a hole left by her father's death. "I know my mother and I love her, but I came from a father, too," she says. "I miss being able to see him and touch him and be around him."

When she's asked family members what her father was like, the image they've painted is fuzzy and seems sentimental. "All they say is he was a good guy. He didn't have any enemies, people were just drawn to him. My auntie said he teased a lot and liked to play jokes on people. They said when he was younger, 12 or 13, he was kinda a fat boy, he couldn't fight. They say it seemed like overnight he just shot up. Other than that, it was just that they loved him. Sometimes I be wanting to know, 'Who did he make mad?' You know, something."

Mark says it seems clear that their father grew up in a hurry. He quit high school after two years, began working, and became a father at 17, when Mark's and Jo Ann's older brother Jeff was born. By the time Joe Henson was killed, he had two sons and a daughter on the way. He was helping support his sons financially, but he and the mother of his children, Jeanette Davis, had split up. He'd begun staying with another woman on the south side. Jeff, Mark, and their mother were living in a housing project on the west side.

After Joe Henson died, Davis was drinking and had trouble coping with his death. So she gave Joe's parents custody of the boys, and handed over Jo Ann six months after she was born. "I thought it would be best for them," she says. Thus, Joe Henson's kids grew up down the block from where he'd been killed.

But how exactly was he slain?

As Henson's children were growing up, they didn't hear much about their father's death. "Them white kids killed him," an aunt or uncle sometimes would say, without elaborating. Their uncle, Leotha Price, who was with their father when he died, never talked about it.

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