Austin resident Georgia Clayton loved many things. Helping Austin residents as a longtime community activist was among her loves. But, according to her family, she had other joys, one of them shoes. She had more than 300 pairs, necessary perhaps for the long road she walked in championing causes for the Austin community.
On June 21, Clayton came to the end of that road. She died in her Austin home at the age of 74 following a bout with a rare skin condition called scleredema. She died from complications of the condition that causes the skin to harden, particularly in areas of the neck, shoulders, face and lower back.
The disease is often not fatal, but can be if it spreads to the internal organs, which was the case with Clayton.
“She had been battling the disease for a number of years and was hoping to eventually overcome it, however, once it spread to her kidneys, it proved impossible to recover from,” said her daughter, Bonnie Evans.
Clayton leaves behind a shining legacy of community outreach in Austin and the West Side. Clayton founded the United Westside Black Contractors in 1995, a nonprofit that helped pressure companies in hiring black employees to work on construction sites.
“The one word that comes to mind when I think of Georgia is ‘fierce,'” said Bob Vondrasek, director of South Austin Coalition Community Council, one of numerous groups she was affiliated with.
“She was very active in the community in terms of fighting for jobs for black contractors,” he added. “I remember one time we were picketing a site that had not hired any contractors from the community and she was out there, wearing a white hard hat and carrying a picket sign.
“Suddenly, into her bullhorn she yelled ‘Rape!’ and everyone started staring to see what was happening,” Vondrasek recalled. “Then she followed up with, ‘That’s what they are doing to our community. They are raping it.’ It was so funny, but true to how passionate she fought for jobs for people in the community.”
Clayton was born in Fairfax, Ala. She moved with her parents, John Henry James and Angie Sue James, to Chicago when she was 7 years old.
She worked in several capacities throughout her life, including as a Cook County Hospital dietitian and meter maid, before spending 30 years as a Cook County sheriff’s deputy. According to her daughter, working in law enforcement allowed Clayton to thoroughly analyzing the justice system and look for ways to prevent recidivism.
“She was very passionate about dealing with the issue of prisoner reentry and working toward initiatives that would help them work toward job training in construction for ex-offenders following incarceration,” Evans said.
Prior to her retirement in 1995 and afterward, Clayton remained active on the boards of several West Side organizations, including the Westside NAACP, the city’s departments of education and aging. She started the Westside Black Contractors following her retirement. The nonprofits other goal was for ex-offenders to have access to job training programs in construction. Clayton’s other daughter, Deborah Karapetian, will succeed her as CEO of the Black Contractors.
Clayton was married to George Clayton for 33 years and she had two daughters. As for her mom’s love of shoes, Evans recalled her mother’s many trips to the mall to buy them.
“She had easily 300 pairs-all styles. It was like her relaxation activity.”