There’s a long history of Blacks moving back and forth between Maywood and Oak Park — two suburbs with some of the richest Black communities in the state.
Sidney Hurst Jr., scion of the first Black family to settle in Maywood (on his father’s side) and one of the first Black families to settle in Oak Park (on his mother’s side), was the embodiment of both those rich communities and that cross-border movement.
Hurst. Jr. died Oct. 14 at 97, just short of his 98th birthday. Born Oct. 26, 1924 in Oak Park, he died in one of the oldest houses in Maywood, the village his grandparents, Iva and Amanda Hurst, called home in the late 19th century. His funeral services were held last week.
If you aspired to own land in Maywood in the late 1800s, you may have gone to Fourth of July picnics in hopes that one of the rockets shot in the air had your number on it. If it did, you obtained the privilege to buy land. If not, you may have done what Iva did.
“My grandfather didn’t get one of those numbers, but he bought two lots [anyway],” said Sidney Hurst Jr. in 2013.
In 1887, the Hursts moved into a home at 417 S. 13th Avenue, making them, by many accounts, the first Black family to live in the village. But the Hursts were destined to be more than isolated pioneers.
More Blacks would follow their lead, building homes and lives in and around the Hursts’ two virgin lots and eventually developing what, over the years, would turn into one of the most vibrant Black communities in the west suburbs.
Some years before Hurst Jr. was born, his parents, Sidney Hurst Sr. and Ethel Hurst, were living in the Belleforte Avenue homestead that Ethel’s parents, John William Shannon and Louise Shannon, built in Oak Park, according to a 1922 city directory.
A 2009 book, “Suburban Promised Land: The Emerging Black Community in Oak Park, Illinois, 1880 – 1980,” fleshes out the connection between Oak Park’s and Maywood’s Black communities.
The authors — Stan West, Peggy Tuck Sink, Frank Lipo and Yves Hughes Jr. — call the Shannons and the Hursts “noteworthy” families who lived at the Shannon/Hurst homestead at 838 Belleforte, “said to have been built in the late 1800s by Fleming Stewart, a black stonemason from Virginia.”
Stewart’s granddaughter said he was “part Choctaw Indian and very proud of his Native American heritage. Fleming Stewart’s daughter, Louise, married John W. (J.W.) Shannon, who was the son of slaves. His father, William Shannon, lived and worked on an estate in Franklin County, Kentucky.”
William Shannon gained his freedom in 1864 and served in the 119th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, the authors note. His son, John, was “widely known by both Blacks and whites in Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park, and Chicago as a blues guitar and banjo player from the 1890s to 1940s.
“Relatives remember the talented J.W. as a 20th century representative of the Senegambia or western African musical tradition,” they added, before pointing out that he was known as “Smokey.”
John Shannon played “up and down Forest Park in all the taverns,” as well as in Addison, Elgin and Bloomingdale’s, his granddaughter recalled for the authors. He was also an active Mason who belonged to the Jeptha Lodge A.F. & A.M. in Maywood.
Sidney Jr. told the authors that he recognized his mother, Ethel, and his aunt, Grace, in a Philander Barclay photo of parishioners standing in front of the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, which was built in 1905 by Oak Park’s Black religious community.
He added that his uncle, Ralph Shannon, worked at local factories and other jobs.
“Uncle Ralph was a jack-of-all-trades,” Sidney Jr. said. “He worked at the Buick plant in Melrose Park and he worked various other laborer jobs like many of his friends.”
Local historian Doug Deuchler wrote in a 2005 Wednesday Journal article that Mt. Carmel “was clearly in the path of economic development” and after “several mysterious fires, the church was sold and razed.”
Many of the church’s members moved over to Maywood and some settled in the city.
The late Niece Hillary White told the authors of “Suburban Promised Land” that her brothers, Garfield and Arthur Hillary, were the first Black boys in the Oak Park-River Forest Boys Choir and that, as a child, she was the only Black to attend the Oak Park-River Forest Day Nursery on Harlem and Randolph in Oak Park.
Hillary White also recalled childhood visits to Mt. Carmel, where her father was a deacon and where her brothers were baptized.
“She recalled childhood visits to the church, where she marveled at the spirit and dignity of those who worshiped there,” the authors wrote. “Like so many others, members of her family transferred to the Second Baptist Church in Maywood when Mt. Carmel Baptist Church closed during the Depression.”
“During 1930 the area where Mt. Carmel stood was developed as an “Old English” shopping district (Westgate),” he said. “There is no trace of the early African-American community that stood there first.”
In his 2004 “Images of America” book on Maywood, Deuchler wrote that Iva Hurst was a cook at the Palmer House in Chicago’s Loop in the 1880s, “when he saw a real estate handbill advertising a land sale in Maywood.”
Sidney Hurst Sr., the youngest in the family, can be seen in an old photograph of four Hurst children included in Deuchler’s book. A 1905 photograph of all six Hurst children and Amanda Hurst is also included in the book.
Jeri Stenson, the longtime curator of the West Town Museum of Cultural History in Maywood who died earlier this year, told the authors that her Uncle Adolphus Heady was born at 838 Belleforte in 1904.
Stenson said his daughter, Muriel Henderson, is related by marriage to the famous sculptor Geraldine McCullough, herself a Maywood resident who eventually moved to Oak Park. McCullough’s well known Pathfinder sculpture graces the front of Oak Park’s village hall.
The Hurst family’s story, as well as that of other prominent Maywood residents like Percy Julian, the famous chemist and inventor, can be found at the West Town museum.
Many of the museum’s organizers, such as Stenson and its founder, Northica Stone, as well as its subjects, such as the Hurst family, are gone.
The stories, however, remain, as Stone said during her remarks at the 2013 event where Hurst Jr. spoke about his family’s Maywood origins.
“If we didn’t tell our stories,” Stone said, “they wouldn’t be told.”