Gerald Clay

‘Oak Park is not what it purports to be.” These were words spoken by Dr. Gerald L. Clay at one of the gatherings aimed at addressing diversity issues some 17 years ago.   Gerald Clay passed away on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, from a debilitating illness. He leaves his wife, Evelyn, and his children, Tracy and Lamont, to grieve and celebrate his life and accomplishments.

The historical traces and footprints left in the wake of his passing prompts me, and hopefully inspires others, to learn more about him, to engage his unfinished work of making plain, still-needed efforts to ensure equity, diversity and fairness for all who struggle to create and maintain shared visions of our beloved community of Oak Park.

From my perspective, Dr. Clay was most notably associated with three critically important civic engagements in the village of Oak Park. The projects in which he was involved have undoubtedly helped to enhance quality of life in the Oak Park community.

In 1988, an inspired group of Black Longfellow Elementary School parents, too numerous to name here, joined with Clay to establish African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education (APPLE). The organization sought to address District 97 and District 200 education issues — most prominently, the metastasizing effects of the African American achievement gap.

Clay also participated in and provided leadership to create a ceremony called Rites of Passage to celebrate Black male youth passage into manhood. Whenever I meet men who participated, and are husbands and fathers now, they speak of it as a major turning point in their lives.

Clay, and Lenny Lutz also established and hosted Black/White Dialogue. This forum afforded citizens and community activists a space to gather and discuss racial issues.

In recent years, the Clay family established the Gerald L. Clay Scholarship, a merit/needs-based fund to assist students in pursuing their academic goals. Wayiaki Abdallah, the 2019 recipient of the scholarship said, “The award set me on an academic path I could have never realized.”                                                                                                                         

I wholeheartedly endorsed the vision and the clear-eyed practicality that brought these organizations into being. Although Clay’s involvements were situated within these organizations, his influence and participation extended far beyond them. The influence of his reach extended into complex social dynamics, crisscrossing the deep structural, socio-cultural issues that continually afflict real lives of those residing at the margins of our nation and our community. The people who resided in the spaces he influenced are the people Clay endeavored to teach how they might help themselves.

Since first hearing his declaration about Oak Park, after struggling to reconcile what meaning, efficacy and force the sentence carried within my own experience of living Black as an Oak Park resident, I have come to understand Dr. Clay’s claim as a gift, a compass to interrogate reigning and entrenched orthodoxies.

 In lieu of flowers, please contribute to the Dr. Gerald L. Clay Scholarship, OPRF Scholarship Foundation.

George Bailey is a longtime Oak Park resident and a retired Columbia College professor.

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