Austin area resident and community activist George Manning is personable, philosophical, assured and will without hesitation acknowledge that February is his favorite month.
Manning, director of Research Surveillance at UIC, probably appreciates the month of February as much as anyone short of Valentine the Saint. It doesn’t only represent the month of his birth – Feb. 25, but also his opportunity to pay homage to his eventful life, one that has touched on many levels of the African-American experience.
Today, George Manning’s life reads like a ‘who, where and how’ of Black History, each phase of his development serving as a branch on the cultural tree.
Manning has been a fixture in Austin for more than 30 years. He has worked with churches, community groups and especially youth. And he has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Throughout most of his adult life, Manning has purchased one book on Black History for every day of the month of February. His library is currently more than 9,000.
“One of the great things about looking for culturally relevant literature today is that I can now find books dealing with African-Americans in ballet, art and music,” he said. “This wasn’t the case when I was growing up.”
His mother was born in Dixon, Ill. She grew up with a then-grade school age future politician named Ronald Reagan.
“Mom was quite surprised when he became an actor,” said Manning. “Although, his becoming a politician was less surprising mainly because he was very poor in Dixon. He certainly could relate to the common man.”
Manning’s mother got involved in the Freedom of Residence Initiative, which called for perspective home owners to be allowed to purchase homes based on ability, not color.
“My parents were a huge influence on me and my move toward activism,” Manning said. “Mom was involved in several initiatives, and my dad was a player in the Negro Leagues. He was a good friend of Satchel Paige.”
Manning was exposed to civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Jesse Jackson, who visited the Manning residence when his family lived on Ashland and Roosevelt across from First Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 1124 S. Ashland, where they would speak.
Manning is still a part of the church today, hosting many of his projects there, such as his Cotillion for youth.
“Activism does not always have to take the form of picketing,” said Manning, who beams when speaking of this cotillion, which he has arranged every five years for the past twenty years.
The most recent of these formal balls took place last July at the banquet hall of the Hyatt hotel in the Loop.
“Essentially, we identify a number of boys and girls, usually high school students discovered through the church, that are interested in taking part in the project and they prepare for one year to attend the cotillion. They learn to dance the Waltz, Samba and the Mirage and they practice etiquette in a formal setting.
“We treat everyone the same, even those who question whether he or she fits the debutante or escort standard,” he added. “It really prepares them for the college experience by raising their confidence and making them feel a part of a group who cares about them.”
Manning is currently working on several projects that could have a significant impact on both the nature of studies in Black health care, and international relations.
He is working Godfred and Joyce Ofori, a South African family in Ghana, whose daughter Agnes is seeking treatment in the United States for a hearing impairment.
“This project is dear to me because the Ofori’s are such good people,” said Manning. “I’m hoping we can get their daughter moved to the U.S. to have her treated here.”
Another involves his research into the cause and treatment of sickle cell anemia and HIV in the African-American community.
“African-Americans need to be aware that it is vital; that they get involved with research involving treatment for illnesses that impacts them significantly,” said Manning. “A lot of times when treatments are presented they are not geared toward African-Americans, specifically because they represent a very small percentage of test subjects. What medication impacts one group may not work the same way as another.”
Manning has been associated with the First Lutheran Church for more than 50 years, and is the church’s main organist. He was trained in classical violin and piano at age 16. He later joined the Peace Corps to teach art and music in Venezuela.
“I’ve always been inspired to experience as many people and places as I possibly could,” said Manning, who also owns property in Switzerland and was encouraged by a college professor to study Russian, making him a worldly figure in his own right.
“I feel all African-Americans would be greatly impacted by learning as much as they can about their own culture and other cultures throughout the world.”