In the Chicago and Laramie neighborhood, Shirley Howard’s been one of the mothers of her block for 31 years.She first settled on the South Side in 1971 from Belzoni, Miss. Jobs managing lunchrooms at UIC and several CPS schools brought Shirley to the West Side with her husband Fuzell Blake, a 24-year Army vet who died in 2006. After raising eight children, Shirley paid her house off and retired from CPS in 2013. She now visits homemaking clients. She has three grandsons. She talked about her start in activism.


The neighborhood had a lot of gangbangers. We made it better. Our block clubs allied with 37th Ward Ald. Percy Giles and later Ald. Emma Mitts. Commander Green (15th District) did nothing, so I went to Mayor Daley. Former Police Supt. Jody Weis was doing a good job.  Police raided one house on the block that was bad for drugs, prostitutes. Gangbangers went to jail and businesses started moving in. I keep in touch with the young guys now and they let me know what’s going on.

The LIHEAP utility program was my baby.  Lillian Drummond and other Austin people lobbied for it in Springfield, but also I was the lead plaintiff in state court in 1988. People’s Gas and ComEd had refused me for gas and lights because previous tenants had hooked that up illegally — not my fault. Other people, too poor to pay bills were getting cut off. 

We met Thursday nights around my dining room table to plan a class action suit. The judge, Anne Burke, ruled in our favor. We won $18,000 and signed it over to the Northwestern University Mandel Legal Clinic. 

I’ve been involved in politics ever since. Our Peacemakers Coalition works for safety and improvements with Aldermen Taliaferro, Ervin and others. We need the same services as the North Side. We can’t depend on downtown; so we keep talking to public officials ’til we get what we need.

 Bonni McKeown   

"Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown, the author of "West Side Blues Blog," has played piano and written about blues music for over 15 years.  She has led classes for young and old on...