As part of Chicago Fire’s Black History Month programming, the Front Office welcomed local historian, TikTok sensation, and ComEd engineer Shermann “Dilla” Thomas to speak. He regaled us with local history ranging from the importance of DuSable being the first non-Indigenous settler of what would later become Chicago, to the City’s prominence of being a cultural melting pot that linked east and west. Between stories, Dilla spoke about the impact of intercultural friendships he formed during his life. He noted that - despite segregation - Chicago has had a long history of Black and white men and women interacting socially, whether it be sharing the L-train, meals, or fraternizing at Heavy Weight Champion Jack Johnson’s interracial night club, Café de Champion, in 1912. While not an egalitarian utopia, Chicago to a greater degree than most parts of the U.S., has allowed for residents to learn about and respect each other’s differences. Dilla astutely noted that most Americans lack the experience of interacting with people different than themselves, which, in part, results in a lack of perspective and an inability to recognize that despite our differences in gender, education, class, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, we are all just human beings craving connection and hoping for equal opportunities to thrive as our true selves.
As I was contemplating the best way to reintroduce myself to you, the Fire faithful, and explain my new role and goals, Dilla’s words inspired me to be frank with you and explain how my family history and personal experiences have engendered a broad perspective that, in part, drives me to assist Chicago Fire Football Club to be an inclusive community. And by inclusive community, I mean one that reflects Chicago’s diversity and, most importantly, provides access to opportunities for all our community members: players, spectators, employees, and neighbors. My personal experience can be most succinctly described as, borrowing from the great W.E.B. DuBois, an exercise of double – even triple – consciousness.
Allow me to explain: My grandfather, Otto Whitfield, was born in 1904, the son of an enslaved man, Frank Whitfield. The Whitfield name comes from a plantation in Arkansas. Grandpa Otto had a 4th grade education, expressed the darkest shades of melanin, and built his life in what is now Tolleson, Arizona – an area nearly devoid of Black residents in a segregated state that has the dubious distinction of hosting the westernmost Civil War battle, which was won by the Confederacy. Despite existing in hostile territory, Grandpa Whitfield excelled as a dairyman. Relying on his personality, penchant for hard work, integrationist beliefs, and the “chance that favors the prepared mind” he was gifted (or earned depending on your level of cynicism) 20 acres of land and 10 cattle around 1943 from his white employer. This personal act of “charity” reminiscent of Union General Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 afforded my grandparents and their 12 living children the opportunity, and more importantly the means, to grow their little farm to 80 acres and approximately 185 head of cattle.
Grandpa’s spouse, Thelma Williams, was the daughter of a Black woman and a white Welsh railroad foreman. Grandma was light skinned with green eyes. Her fairer complexion did not stop her from embracing her “Blackness” to such a degree that she actively denied her British heritage. She held this conviction so resolutely that it unfortunately prevented her from fully embracing my blonde-haired, green-eyed mother, Mary Jo, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin or seeing her biracial grandson play a single minute of football. It was from this foundation of segregation, wealth, familial continuity, and intra-familial love and prejudice that my father, Burke, grew up and navigated the cultural straitjacket that was 1950s America.
My dad was one of two Black children in his primary school classes growing up: the other being his twin sister, my Aunt Beverly. Burke and Beverly represented a microcosm of the variability within groups of similar people and the effect their personal characteristics and surroundings have on their opportunities and successes. Fraternal twins, sharing the same prenatal care, womb, and genetic material – 6’3” Burke being born a man, although Black, was afforded more opportunity in 1950s Arizona than Aunt Bev. Beverly, a Black woman standing barely five feet tall, endured the intersectionality of gender and race that sees Black women continue to be the most marginalized individuals in any field. While not dispositive to their disparate paths, the random expression of their genomes, including height, weight, sex, personality, and predispositions, certainly explain, in part, how my dad endured and operated within his community, classmates, and the preconceived limitations engrained into him from his mostly white surroundings. Concurrently, as a 6’3” 215 lb. varsity center linebacker, his talent on the field was exploited by coaches, and it opened doors that otherwise would have been closed to him. While still limited by others’ perceptions of what he could achieve, Burke served in the Navy during Vietnam, graduated college, earned two master’s degrees, ran a methadone clinic, owned an automotive garage, was a Phoenix Police Officer, and retired as a community college professor and Vice Principal of a Phoenix Union Elementary School District junior high. Meanwhile, Aunt Bev, as a Black woman, was not encouraged or afforded the same opportunities to dream big in her youth, play sports, or imagine much beyond what was expected of a Black farmer’s daughter.
In 1969, two years after the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision that overturned U.S.’ anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriage, my parents met at Arizona State University. My mother, Mary Jo, who moved from Milwaukee to Phoenix in 1958 recalls seeing a Black person for the first time. She was walking in a park in Milwaukee when she was around 5 years old with her family. She noticed a man, who was Black, and as inquisitive children often ask, “Why is that man Black?” Her father, Evan Barraclough, a first-generation Welsh immigrant provided a straightforward answer that led MJ to become open enough to befriend and eventually fall in love with a Black man. My Taid (grandfather in Welsh), a World War II veteran and my Grandma met at Beloit College around 1946. Mary Jo, at 19, was a freshman at ASU and already married to her high school sweetheart when she met my father, who was a Phoenix motorcycle cop during the evenings and attended classes during the day. After their respective divorces, their friendship turned into more. One day, Burke stopped by to see MJ at her parents’ house. When MJ’s youngest sister, my aunt, who was just starting what would turn out to be a long and abusive relationship with heroin, saw the parked police motorcycle and the leather clad cop coming toward the door, she refused to answer and quickly exited through the back and hid out for several days. It was from this transplanted midwestern household that my mom received a master’s degree in Social Work, worked as a social worker on the Navajo reservation, and was elevated to Chief Clinical Officer for Jewish Family Services – running statewide mental health programs for Maricopa County.
It is from these very different two people that my sister and I were raised. This complex and contrasting family is the foundation from which I launched my journey.
Born in Los Angeles, raised in Phoenix, educated on the east coast and now in the City of Broad Shoulders for the last 20 years, I attended one of the oldest and lowest performing high schools prior to transferring to a highly regarded private Jesuit boys’ academy. I received an athletic scholarship to Duke University and earned a master’s degree from the University of Phoenix via online correspondence while playing for the Fire and representing the United States at the Olympics. I entered DePaul University College of Law as a 28-year-old retired athlete and embarked on a 14-year tenure at a nationally recognized divorce litigation firm, Schiller DuCanto & Fleck LLP. Relying on my background, education, and the lessons embedded into my character through sport, I went from law clerk to Partner in eight years. One of only two Black lawyers hired in the firm’s 40-year history – for that extended time, I relied on my privilege, education, and sports mentality along with an unhealthy willingness to allow others to interpret my racial ambiguity in ways most comfortable to them, to get ahead in career and life.
In June 2020, I penned an op-ed in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, questioning my selective embrace of Blackness, and me and my white colleagues’ silence and tacit acceptance of white supremacy and unequal treatment of the global majority in the legal system. Publicly embracing my Blackness, along with the support of my family and the excellent community of Black athlete activists in Major League Soccer (both active and retired players) I was able to embrace my identity and join in our collective demand for the increased representation of Black and brown women and men in MLS’ front offices and technical positions. This community effort led to the hiring of MLS’ first Black executive and the enhancement of the league’s diversity hiring initiative. Combining my past labor organizing experience as a founding member of the MLSPA, with my legal advocacy skills, and personal mission to create a more inclusive and equitable North American soccer environment, I dutifully challenged the supremist perspectives that many current decision makers in sport harbor (either subconsciously, implicitly, or explicitly) toward Black and brown men and women. It is this mindset, in my humble opinion, that is the main barrier of entry for those of us in the global majority that do not fit the white cisgender male stereotype that many decision makers believe are the sole characteristics that imbue a person with leadership ability.
Since returning to the Fire, I’ve mulled over the ways to introduce myself as the Club’s first Vice President of Equity, Alumni Relations, and Engagement. It was Dilla’s entertaining and educational presentation acknowledging Chicago’s checkered past regarding race relations while also celebrating Chicago’s history of facilitating cultural exchange, that crystallized my thoughts on why I rejoined this great Club and what I hope to contribute in my new role. As VP of Equity, Alumni Relations, and Engagement, I’d like to merge a utopian desire with a pragmatic approach to make the Fire’s protocols, processes, and culture to be even more welcoming, accepting, and inclusive; and to provide greater opportunities to all of us who interact with the Club, including those seeking employment, currently employed in the business or sporting operations, playing for one of our youth affiliates, MLS Next, or lining up next to Chinonso Offor on March 5 at Soldier Field. Equally, I want our new and old supporters and casual spectators to embrace us as a great community neighbor and an organization with people who reflect the amazing diversity in our city. I promise to give my best every day, akin to how I played for this team wearing the No. 3 shirt.
I look forward to meeting, listening, learning, and contributing to what must be a collective effort to make our Club and our city a better place for us all.
Very truly yours,