Thursday, February 2, 2017

Black History Month: John DePriest

     Given that our new president is virtually blind to the reality of black life right now in America—lumping it all together in one undifferentiated urban hell--it should not be surprising that his grasp on black history is nearly nonexistent.  
     "Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who's done an amazing job that is being recognized more and more," he said at a commemorative breakfast Wednesday.
     Well, maybe a little surprising, in that he seemed to think Douglass, the most famous African-American in the 19th century, was either still alive, or obscure enough that his fame is still just getting out there, thanks to a boost from The Donald.
    This isn't to blame Trump too much. He name-checked the handful of historical figures--Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks--who get the same dutiful nod every Black History Month. 
    Which is why I alway try to broaden the scope to include people who are important but utterly forgotten. This is a column I wrote almost 15 years ago, after John DePriest's daughter asked if I could pull the newspaper's clip file on her father. I did, and wrote about the injustices he faced, the kind of injustice African-Americans faced routinely then and now.
     It was a hot, humid night, the last day in July, shortly before 9 p.m. John DePriest Jr., a CTA bus driver, was finishing his shift on the Windsor line.
John DePriest Jr. 
   DePriest had been a bus driver for about two years. A graduate of West Virginia State, he had a teaching position lined up and was driving a bus to earn money until then.
     He never made it.
     DePriest pulled his bus into a weedy lot at 79th and Coles. There were 11 white teenagers waiting for him. One had a gun.
     The year was 1959.
     DePriest had met two of the teenagers earlier that day. William Weber Jr. and Jerry Leenheer had been waiting for a bus with a couple of girls after swimming at Rainbow Beach.
     The bus stopped, but not right where they were standing. Words were exchanged. Weber, according to later testimony, shouted, "Stop, you black thing."
     DePriest, a decorated Marine vet who had been wounded at Saipan, fighting with the all-black 52nd Marines, did not take the slur calmly. He cussed out Weber, telling him to come back after he finished his shift and they would "settle" the matter.
     Weber went home, ate a slice of cake, drank a glass of milk, took a single-shot derringer he owned and went to meet DePriest.
     On the way, he enlisted the help of 10 other boys, ages 16 to 19. Some were friends, others just street toughs caught up in the promise of a rumble.
     The teens went up to another driver and, using a racial slur to refer to DePriest, asked when DePriest would get there.
     DePriest's wife, Dannette, was on the bus. He had told her of the trouble, earlier in the day, and she was riding along with him. She saw her husband confront the boys. She saw him turn, and begin to walk away. She saw Weber pull the gun.
     "John, look out!" she cried.
     DePriest turned, and as he did, Weber fired. The bullet pierced his heart. Weber, a student at Mount Carmel High School, fled.
     Later, Weber would say: "The gun just went off."
     One hundred CTA bus drivers formed an honor guard at DePriest's funeral.
     Weber was charged with murder. Leenheer and nine others were charged as accessories.
     From the start, the emotionally charged case was followed closely by many Chicagoans as emblematic of the city's persistent racial strife. The driver's father, John DePriest Sr., and the defendant's father, William Weber Sr., nearly came to blows in a hall at the city morgue during the coroner's inquest.
     "My son has never been in trouble before," Weber was telling reporters in the hallway. "He's clean of mind and body." At that point DePriest, overhearing Weber, shouted, "Dirty filthy scum!" and lunged at him, only to be restrained by relatives.
     All the boys refused to testify at the inquest.
     That November, at Weber's trial, the defense argued that DePriest had antagonized Weber by not stopping his bus promptly.
     "What is more provoking than to stand on a corner and have a bus pass you by?" asked defense lawyer John Coghlan Sr., who claimed that the prosecution was currying favor with "racial groups" and that the boy had fired by accident after DePriest menaced him. "Is the idea of defending yourself against their aggression prejudice?"
     As Coghlan was summing up, pleading with the jurors to return Weber "to his fine father and mother," Dannette DePriest screamed out, "What about my fine husband?"
     Assistant State's Attorney Lawrence Genesen said, "When teenaged wolf packs go out and hunt people because of racial prejudice, it is time we teach them they are responsible for their acts. We are asking that you sentence this defendant to the penitentiary for life."
     The first trial -- in November 1959 -- ended in a hung jury. Judge Daniel Covelli proclaimed a mistrial after just five hours of deliberation, causing First Assistant State's Attorney Frank Ferlic to publicly blast the judge.
     "The judge certainly didn't give the jury enough time," he said. "The jurors stood 8 to 3 for conviction. That wasn't close enough to call a mistrial."
     Covelli called Ferlic "a frustrated old lady" and offered to resign from the bench if his ruling was found flawed.
     A second trial was held the next month. This jury had no problem reaching a guilty verdict, and Weber was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He was led away from the courtroom in handcuffs, sobbing.
     Leenheer and another teen, who claimed that they had run when Weber pulled the pistol, were cleared by a jury in May 1960. And a few weeks later, the eight other accused teens were set free.
     DePriest left behind an 8-year-old daughter, Jolyn, who is now 50. She has strong memories of her father.
     "He was a very handsome man, a very determined man," said the woman, who recently wrote the Sun-Times a letter asking for any information about the murder. "He had a lot of pride. He wasn't one to be pushed around. He was a strong family man."
     The murder left "a void in her life," she said, not only for her, but for her son.
     "It's important for African-American males to have strong role models in life," she said. "My son was deprived of that. He never had a chance to interact (with his grandfather). All he knows is what he's read."
                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 29, 2001


  1. Thank you for this enlightening account, sad as it may be.

  2. I feel I should say something about this in that I was living at 78th & Coles in 1959, but I had my own troubles that year culminating in my quitting high school (yes, Mt. Carmel) and joining the Navy late in the year. I have no memories of the event and only heard of it later. Sad to say, most of what I heard was how difficult it was for the kids, not how tragic was the death of a young father, a wounded veteran of the War, with a bright future before him.


  3. Thank you for honoring my father's memory. Everytime I hear or read of the hate filled killing of black and brown men and women my heart aches. While the victims change the defensive rhetoric of the hate filled perpetrator has remained the same.


  4. This was absolutely heart-breaking to read. Thank you for continuing to shine a light in the dark corners of our nation's history.

  5. A great column Neil, what a tragic tale. Its reminds me of reading the Outsiders in jr high. In writing it did you ever have any update on Weber, Judge Covelli or Frank Ferlic? I could only find one Tribune story of 11/13/59, very dramatic about the aftermath of the mistrial.

  6. Once in a while we have done some good deeds.

  7. Weber's actions are evil, and although there is a racial component to the story, on some level the headline in 1959 is the same as many today, and in the same neighborhood no less: "A Debilitatingly ignorant teenage gang-banger killed someone today!" The defense lawyer referred to Weber's parents as "fine", but the truth is William Weber Sr. (an old, racist teamster) beat the empathy out of his wife, 2 of his 3 daughters and youngest son, William Jr.; and taught him to hate. This doesn't excuse Jr's actions, but they really should consider the parents of child-murderers culpable to some extent because it is very rare that their actions are not part of story.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.