The day Efrem Hill turned 2, the country turned to mourning.
On April 4, 1968, as Hill celebrated his birthday with his mother and siblings at their home in Memphis, not far away, at the Lorraine Motel, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
Hill was barely a toddler then-far too young to understand the shadow that had been cast over his special day. But year after year, as Hill encountered the prejudice King fought so steadfastly, the message of the man who lost his life on the same day Hill celebrates his began to hit him more deeper.
“As a black man, you know, I still get harassed by the police. There’s still a lot of prejudice out there, and I’m still learning how to deal with that,” Hill said.
Today, Efrem Hill, 39, is a leader, a motivator, an attentive father to his 13-year-old son, and- “I’m a taxpayer,” he said with a chuckle.
As a crew leader with the Chicago Christian Industrial League’s landscaping program, he has a team of five men looking to him for professional guidance and, often, personal inspiration.
That wasn’t always the case.
Hill moved to Chicago from Memphis with his mother and four siblings when he was 12. He and his family, along with his aunts and their children, lived together in a two-bedroom apartment in the Chicago Housing Authority’s ABLA Homes.
At one point, he said, 18 family members lived together in that one apartment.
His mother met his stepfather and their family grew. And with each new child, Hill said he felt more like the family “black sheep.” After each pregnancy, Hill said, his mother would promise to stop having children. But more siblings still came.
Soon he was no longer the third of five but the third of 10, and the only one to not share a father with another sibling.
“My mom is a strong role model,” he said.
But throughout his childhood, Hill said he felt more love from his aunts, uncles and extended family than he did from his immediate family. Tired of his siblings’ taunts and his mother’s empty promises, Hill left the family home at age 14 to jump between the homes of local aunts, uncles and cousins.
Over time, it became second nature to him to jump between houses in search of a home.
“I guess I just wanted a father in my life at the time,” he said.
Although he fled the family home from time to time, he didn’t abandon his education, completing grammar school and technical school.
Hill now hopes to find the time and money to go back to school. But when he was younger, he said he didn’t think he was college material.
He started attending school at Joliet Junior College in Romeoville but left after a year. Still searching for the support he didn’t feel at home, he jumped around for a few months until he decided to go to school to train to be a security agent.
It was the prejudice he encountered after graduating that led him to a decade of drug use and dealing, Hill confessed.
“I ran across a lot of prejudice trying to get a security job back then. Companies were saying they weren’t hiring but they [were],” he recalled. “I had just graduated. I was certified to carry a firearm. I didn’t have a [criminal] background. So why didn’t these people hire me?”
During his 20s and early 30s, Hill held down a few jobs -he worked at a warehouse and a fast food restaurant-but they mostly helped fund a drug habit that was dulling a growing pain.
When the paychecks stopped, he paid for drugs in other ways.
“I got so bad that I was stealing from my own-I stole my baby’s clothes,” Hill admitted.
Soon he found himself within the walls of the Cook County Jail doing time for dealing drugs and not paying child support.
Between the ages of 28 and 34, Hill had been jailed 13 times. And, each time, he thought to himself: “I shouldn’t be here.”
Judges would order him to appear in court with past-due child support payments. When he knew he didn’t have the money, he wouldn’t appear.
“I wasn’t a bad person. I made a mistake,” he said.
But one Sunday morning in the summer of 2003, he started walking and didn’t stop until he reached the Haymarket Center, a non-profit alcohol and drug treatment program.
“I just got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I just told them that I can’t go back out there-I can’t go back out there on the streets,” Hill said.
Counselors at the Haymarket Center referred Hill to the Chicago Christian Industrial League, a Near-West Side non-profit that provides the city’s homeless and others living on the margins of society with temporary housing, counseling services and job training.
The league’s headquarters are currently in North Lawndale.
He stayed at the league’s former facilities for 18 months and, when he completed the program, the league hired him to be the organization’s grounds keeper.
His strong work ethic resulted in a quick promotion to the organization’s landscape services program, which places participants in a paid work environment where they receive landscaping and grounds-maintenance training.
In the three years since he started working with the program, he has been given more responsibility and now leads one of the crews paid by the city to landscape Chicago’s sidewalks and parks.
“He’s one of the few guys if I give something to; he’ll get it done,” said Matt Selley, the project manager at the league who oversees Hill.
Hill now has his own home-a studio in the South Loop-and he has stability. The lessons of King, though, still resonate with Hill, he said. Given the prejudice he’s experienced in his own life, he admits that he worries for his son.
“I try to be there for him as much as I can,” he said. “because I think every young man needs his father in his life.”