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Ed Gardner continues to push for black construction jobs

The second day protest led by Ed Gardner over lack African American hiring constructisite 92nd   Western. Tuesday September

The second day of a protest led by Ed Gardner over the lack of African American hiring at the construction site at 92nd & Western. Tuesday, September 25, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:43AM

You know things are messed up when old warhorses have to lead a movement.

For instance, on the South Side, 87-year-old Ed Gardner is confronting a problem that’s been bugging black people forever: the paltry number of blacks working on construction sites.

Gardner, the founder of the iconic Soft Sheen Hair Products, Inc. and the Black-on-Black Love Campaign is a lifelong South Sider.

Last week, he was driving west of Halsted on 95th Street and noticed that the streets were being torn up.

“Not one black employee is working,” he told me in a frantic phone call. “Latinos and whites are working but not blacks. This is disgraceful and the mayor and aldermen are sitting back doing nothing.”

Unfortunately, this has long been the case.

You can drive all over the city and collar suburbs, and count on one hand the number of blacks working on construction sites.

Gardner told me he was prepared to stand on the street and protest by himself if he had to.

But unbeknownst to Gardner, Bob Israel of “Save the Community Coalition,” had the same complaint about work being done at a construction project at 92nd and Western.

Israel said he has been unable to meet with the developers and contractors on that project despite bringing men to the site prepared to work.

“I’ve been on this since May. I walked right around the corner and brought Mr. Gardner over here to see this,” Israel said Wednesday as a crowd of protesters stood across the street from the construction site under the watchful eye of several Chicago police officers.

Two dozen black men wearing construction vests and hard hats took part in the protest.

“I am right here on the site talking to you when I could be working,” noted Darryl Banister, a 40-year-old unemployed card-carrying union laborer.

“I have been consistent in coming up here to inquire about work. Look over there. There’s a ton of work I could be doing. The thing that is not good is that out of 20 of us out here, you can’t hire one. Not even one,” he said.

Gardner is the founder of Soft Sheen Hair Products, Inc., and Black-on-Black Love — both iconic institutions in the black community.

As dysfunctional as the black community can be when it comes to organizing, in this instance longtime activists are putting aside their differences to support Gardner.

“I really want to be a soldier for Mr. Gardner,” said Eddie Read, who is head of Chicago Black United Communities and has a long history fighting for equality in the construction industry.

“Mr. Gardner is something that we have been longing for. We are humbled by what he is doing and we are going to the wall for him.”

On Wednesday, Read joined Gardner and his son, Guy Gardner, when he met with representatives of Meijer, one of the structures under construction on the site.

Other activists included Omar Shariff, African American Contractors Association; Bishop Tavis Grant of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition; and Vince Gilbert, chairman of the Illinois Grassroots Coalition.

“They [Mejier] are going to put together a proposal and submit some of the things to bring more African Americans to the site,” said Francis Wright, executive director of Black-on-Black Love.

“They promised to get us that information on Friday before noon.”

I was unable to reach a spokesman for Mejier for comment on this agreement.

In the past, when black people rose up over this issue, contractors would sprinkle a few black men on the site and everyone settled down.

So it’s not surprising that after two days of protests about four blacks were hard at work on the site.

But Wright said Gardner is not backing down. He is still calling for 10,000 people to join his one-man protest on Sunday.

Josephine Wade, the owner of Captain Hard Time Restaurant, who has marched alongside some of the city’s most famous civil rights leaders, said African Americans ought to be offended by their exclusion.

“We can’t say we helped build 79th or 87th or 95th. We can’t say we poured the concrete or raked it or was even a flagger,” she said.

“I have so much respect for what Mr. Gardner is doing, I cried.”

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