Austin celebrates one-year anniversary of Mandela Road designation

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The community came out Saturday to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the renaming of Cicero Avenue in honor of the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.

The corner of Cicero and Chicago avenues, also the site of Westside Health Authority’s community center, hosted the celebration.

WHA hosted the official renaming ceremony a year ago. Elected officials, including state Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago), who sponsored the renaming in the Illinois General Assembly, attended Saturday morning’s celebration.

Westside Health Authority founder Jackie Reed compared Mandela’s vision for a free South Africa with those wanting better conditions for residents of the West Side.

“We got violence, we got poverty, but we ain’t gonna worry about what we don’t have. We will use what we do have to build our community. We will use our faith, because we are people of faith. We’re going to build each other up because that’s what Nelson Mandela was all about,” Reed said, also recalling the effort it took to build WHA’s multi-million dollar Chicago Avenue center.

“This had been a Burger King. Burger King had torn the building down. They had dog fighting out here. A fence was around, and they had young guys out here training dogs how to fight. So, how are we gonna get this building? We didn’t have any money,” Reed said, adding that she and other supporters secured funding from various foundations.

About $2 million in commitments was promised, plus another $2 million came from the state legislature, but Reed said that wouldn’t have happened if the community had not come together first.

“The owners of this lot wanted a million dollars. We didn’t have any money, but we got favors. The people in the community started raising money,” Reed said. “The men in the neighborhood would take catfish dinners all the way downtown, take them on their job, and we raised $60,000. I didn’t believe we were going to be able to do it, but I began to believe. I needed that encouragement.”

Saturday’s event included the unveiling of the “Chieftain” Martin Luther King Jr. statue. Constructed in 1970s, the bronze statue of King depicted as an African warrior chief stood outside an apartment complex in East Garfield Park for more than 30 years before being boxed up and put in storage in 2011.

It was rescued by community activist Rickie Brown, who heads the Westside Historical Society. The statue will remain outside the WHA’s building at 4814 W. Chicago Ave. until a West Side historical museum is built, Brown said.

“The reason we brought this statue here is because we need to bring peace back to the West Side of Chicago. It sat for so many years that it began to deteriorate at the base of the statue. It was placed in storage, and some people wanted to burn it up, melt it down and get rid of it. For three years, I fought to bring this statue back to the community,” Brown said.

The effort to rename Cicero in honor of Mandela took off shortly after the African leader’s death in December 2013. Ford said.

Cicero was chosen because it runs throughout the entire city. The General Assembly approved the honorary change in May 2014.

Saturday’s celebration included youth performances from the Exodus Drum and Bugle Corp., and dancing by the AfriCaribbean Connection youth dancers. Food and drinks were provided by the William Banks Grande Lodge of the international Free Masons, which is based in Austin.

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