One afternoon in July 2017, Hecky Powell and I met in his office behind Hecky's Barbecue, where the Forrest E. Powell Foundation and his organization, the Evanston We Program, are headquartered. I was working with Tim Rhoze of Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre and Leslie Brown of Piven Theatre Workshop on a play about how Evanston’s fifth ward, the historic center of Black Evanston, had come to be.
Hecky and I ended up having a wide-ranging conversation about his ancestry, his strong views about the best ways to help people help themselves, and why he left social service to pay attention to his business full-time.
He was so generous with his time, so forthright, kind, honest, authentic, and fun. I haven't always agreed with Hecky, but I have always respected him.
I loved talking to him.
That day, he sent me home with six huge scrap books of newspaper clippings that reflected his busy, committed, engaged, and energetic life.
We had planned to follow up on our conversation, but time passed, life happened, and we never did. To this day, three years later, I still have a repeating calendar entry that pops up every day: "Call Hecky."
I wish I had.
Yesterday, I finally spent the day editing the audio from our conversation and transcribing it.
I hope you enjoy it.
We started our conversation talking about why Hecky felt Evanston had become “too liberal,” something he told me at a City Council meeting when Evanston was debating raising the minimum wage to $15.
"My belief is people need to earn what they get. This community does not allow people to earn what they get. They give it to them. In Evanston, they give it to them. They make things too easy to get. For me, it’s like a form of slavery, but instead of being in shackles you shackle here (points to his head). Because all you’re thinking about is how to manipulate the system.
This is one reason I got out of social service. Because one day, this young lady came in that I knew that’s very sharp, very sharp. I said ‘Look, I have this position open. It’s an administrative position. This is what you’re going to make, which was a decent salary. You get healthcare for you and your children. Also we’ll send you to school. You know you can go to school--we pay for that.’ And she looked at me and she said, 'Hecky let me think about that.' So I looked at her and said, 'What the hell you got to think about?' She said, 'I just got to think about it.'
So I thought she played this game cause she might want a little bit more money. She came back the next day, came in my office, she says, 'I’m not taking the position.' I said, 'What the hell you mean ‘not taking the position?’ She says, 'I can’t because I’ll lose part of my WIC program. I will lose part of my Section 8.' She said, 'I make more money staying at home.'
And my wife would tell you. I came home that day cause I was getting kind of tired. I was there long enough to see parents that used that program, then I’m starting to see their kids coming in there just manipulating the system. And I knew they were manipulating the system.
I told my wife I said, 'You know, I am an enabler and I’m part of the problem. I can’t deal with that crap.' She said, 'Why don’t you resign?' I said, 'Because we need the money.' We had just got married. She said, 'We don’t have any children. So what do you really like doing?'
I said I really liked going into the restaurant every evening--because my mother was working in here at the time--and working with the kids over here because I’m teaching them something. They’re learning, and they’re workers. So she said, 'Well why don’t you just do that.'
So we sat down and we wrote a letter of resignation, and I been here ever since. I’ve been on this corner 33 years going on 34. And I’ve had a lot of kids come through here. I got kids who are--one is an airline pilot, I have nurses that come through here. And these kids have come back here, they pushed to get the street named after me. My reward has come from those kids. That’s where my reward comes from and that’s why I’m happy.
My great grandfather was born into slavery. And he had two other siblings--they were born into slavery in New Madrid, Missouri. And I went down there, and I went to the cotton field where they picked cotton.
My great-great grandmother escaped [with her children] from there, underground, to Muscatine, Iowa, which was a free state. I did my research on it. I went through Ancestry.com. And I’m just giving you the top of it, you know.
So they went to Muscatine and my great grandfather met my great grandmother there and they got married. And then they had my grandmother. My grandmother had my dad and two other siblings. They moved to Evanston. They came to Evanston in 1904.
And then [my grandfather] became a barber in downtown Evanston. He, and I guess a couple other guys, had a barber shop. Back then you cut white peoples’ hair. That was a servant kind of deal. This man saved his money, worked his butt off, and then bought a house. Not bought a house--but had a house built--on Church Street, that is still standing, 1812 Church. And he put a one-man barber chair in there, and he cut hair from there.
My father had nine kids. He scrubbed floors on the North Shore. He bought a house on contract. My mother’s still living in that house on Lake Street, 1000 Lake.
He scrubbed floors in Winnetka, Wilmette, and he used to walk to work because he didn’t have a car. And we never had ‘hand-me-outs’ as my dad would call it, and he taught us never to take hand-me-outs or anything of it.
All to say to you is this: if they could do all that back then, and all these opportunities Black people have in this community, and they don’t really take advantage of everything they have.
I think a lot of it has to do with the war on poverty. Because you had a lot of people like, you feel guilty and you just start giving.
See, two things should be free in this country. It’s real simple: education and healthcare. And this is what I’m talking about. In Evanston, even when I was coming along, you had programs, but you learned the work ethic. And you worked for what you got. And you know, when you work for what you get, you feel better about it, instead of somebody just handing it to you.
I believe people need help, but it’s not that you stay on it the rest of your life.
So anyway, that’s the background and that’s my belief. And I think in this city, you know, it’s just too much."
I’d heard from Hecky’s friends and family members that Hecky had had a rocky youth. I asked him how he went from a “trouble-maker” to a life of success, philanthropy, and leadership.
"Not to blame anybody else, but I got with the wrong people. And it was probably rebellion, you know. [I changed] because I decided I wanted to.
That decision happened when I was in New Orleans.
I left here one night, we were at this nightclub. I was about 21, 22. Plus I was a teenage parent too. I understand all that kind of stuff too. Anyway, I was at this nightclub down the street--and have you ever heard the song ‘Super Fly?’ Okay so the guys was standing up there you know, mink coats and the whole bit, just rocking up against the wall. And I’m sitting there, couple girls around me and so forth, and I looked at ‘em I said, 'You know this is stupid. What’s going on?'
So I now made a decision. I got in my car because it was just, I mean, it was just problems around here, and I needed to get away. So I got in my car and I drove to New Orleans, me and a friend. And I stayed there for a couple years. And what was so good about that, that was the best thing that ever happened to me because I had a chance to understand, see what real racism was all about.
My grandmother, by the way and my uncle, they lived in New Orleans because that’s where my mother’s from. We used to always go visit them.
So anyway in New Orleans everything goes. I mean, you could have beer in a car and it’s okay. And I was a single man, had my own apartment cause I got a job down there and all that. And one morning I got up and looked at myself in the mirror and I said, 'I got to get the hell outta here. I’m killing myself.' So I came back to Evanston and that’s when I finished high school and that’s when I finished –
I walked across the stage, and I did that for my mother.
[In New Orleans] I had a chance to see a lot that they didn’t have but we had. You know, I thought every place was like Evanston.
I talked to the Superintendent and asked him I said, 'Look, I need to finish my high school diploma. If I get into Oakton, would those credit hours count for my high school diploma?' And he told me this. He said, 'Hecky, if you do that, no problem.'
So I went to Oakton, and I cut the deal with them, and I was the first person to ever do that. And I got my credit from there, and they gave me my high school diploma, and I got to walk across the stage."
I asked Hecky about his siblings.
"I was the black sheep. But I’m the only one that finished college. They all good kids. They got jobs, because college wasn’t talked a lot about in our family. They’re not on welfare, none of that kind of stuff. No, you better not get on welfare in our family. You better not get any government handout in our family. Coming from my dad and coming from my great grandfather: you better not.
I asked Hecky where he went to school. He told me that even though his family lived in the area that fed into Foster School, he went to Dewey.
"It’s real interesting because my parents wanted us to have a good education. And they felt you couldn’t get a good one at Foster even though we lived in the Foster School area. They used another address to get us over to Dewey School."
I asked him whether his friends were mostly Black or white.
"Well, we had a combination, that’s the deal. Especially with Dewey School. We had a guy named Andy, I stay in touch with him today. He used to play bongos all the time. He loved the African movies and all that kind of stuff. He married a Black woman. White guy married a Black woman. And then we had a guy named Michael Meyers who lived there, white guy. So it was a good combination.
You know it’s interesting, we'd go to their houses but they couldn’t come to our houses. And it’s just like when I was at [Dewey], I went to visit a friend. I thought, you supposed to go to the front door. I didn’t realize at the time--we have to go to the back door.
And one of my sisters, one of her friends came in the restaurant, it might have been about 10 years ago, white girl. She came in. She said, ‘Where’s your sister living at?’ I said, ‘Well, she’s out in Naperville.’ She said, ‘I need her phone number.’ She said, ‘I really want to apologize to her because my mother used to make her come to the back door and that still bothers me. Because my mother told me she didn’t want any n--s coming to her front door.’
And that stayed on that girl’s head all those years."
We talked about Hecky’s ancestry, which he researched while recovering from a liver transplant. He had been researching his dad’s side of the family and was planning to start on his mother’s side.
"My great-great grandfather was born into slavery. And his father was the master. He was white. He was the plantation owner. And guess what, he was a minister. I researched. And see the thing about it that’s interesting, those older people? They never talk.
And I’ll never forget, there was one night I researched my great-great grandmother. Well, she was on a census. And it said that she could not read or write. And I just started crying, because it was like, you know, just think about that, and all she had been through. I’ll never forget it because, you know, you read about other people, but this is me."
Hecky showed me his DNA report. His great-great grandmother was from Nigeria. He is 68 percent African, 20 percent European, 10 percent Great Britain. Some Native American.
"I don’t know if you remember the story: I’m sitting on the school board and they were going through this thing. Really pissed me off actually. They were really going through this deal of race. And then they came to the one that was ‘bi-racial.’ And my question was, ‘what is bi-racial?’ They said, ‘Well that’s if somebody Black is married to someone white.’ I said, ‘Whoa wait a minute. What if it’s somebody Mexican married to somebody Black. That’s bi-racial isn’t it? What if there’s a Japanese married to somebody white, isn’t that bi-racial?’ They said, ‘No, no, it has to be Black and white.’ I said, ‘That’s bullshit. In fact we need to get rid of all this stuff because in America we’re all mutts.’
I asked Hecky how he feels when he stirs up controversy or goes against the grain.
I love it. Especially if I know I’m right. I don’t care, because I feel that I’m right, and if you can prove that I’m wrong--then prove it. Then it really stopped because guess what? Obama said -- they asked him what kind of dog he’s going to get -- and he said ‘I’m going to get a mutt just like me.’ He said that on national TV. Then I wrote in and I said, why don’t y’all go attack Obama? I mean this is what it is."
After this controversy, Hecky added a combo dish to his menu and called it The Mutt.
"I still have that. That’s my number one seller. So they brought me a lot of business. I don’t know if you remember when I thanked the community and the people that were against me. I thanked them for being that way because they brought me a lot of money."
We talked about diversity and integration in Evanston.
"It’s not perfect now, but it’s better. The west side [of Evanston] was just totally Black and middle-class, hardworking Black people. Now it’s really mixed. It’s changed. But I’m pretty sure you’ve been to cocktails parties and different parties on the north end of Evanston and how many Blacks do you see there?
But everybody loves to talk about diversity."