Forgotten Chicago’s bus tour commemorates Obama’s early life

The young Obama has this utopian vision,” Reverend Joel Washington proclaimed to the crowd gathered at Roseland’s Reformation Evangelical Lutheran Church on Sunday, November 8. “We want to keep that utopian vision that hasn’t been dampened down by reality politics.” In addition to the Sunday regulars, the church was filled with fifty-two history buffs, Chicago natives, and Obama enthusiasts who sat in on the service before heading down to the church’s basement, a site of Obama’s early work as a community organizer.

The church was only the second stop on Forgotten Chicago’s Rise of Barack Obama bus tour, scheduled precisely one year from next Election Day and the end of the president’s political career. Other locations included Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project at the city’s southernmost edge, Michelle Obama’s childhood home in South Shore, potential presidential library sites, and the president’s favorite Hyde Park barbershop and restaurant.

Forgotten Chicago aims to showcase little-known areas of the city through their tours and website. Two years ago, on the fifth anniversary of the 2008 election, Forgotten Chicago led a tour that explored the less famous sites of the president’s Chicago life.

“I’d never heard of any organization doing this before, so we said, ‘heck, we’re doing this,’ ” recalled Patrick Steffes, an independent historical researcher and Forgotten Chicago guide.

“People in Chicago talk about World’s Fairs, while we have a sitting president and all the places he lived and worked right here,” added Jacob Kaplan, tour guide and Executive Director of the Cook County Democratic Party.

This year the tour was offered for the second time and sold out several weeks in advance. Many stages of Obama’s Chicago life were represented in the mix of the tour’s participants: one of his students at the UofC Law School, a Rosemoor neighborhood community group, and life-long Chicagoans who watched him deliver his historic 2008 acceptance speech in Grant Park.

Jamie Franklin was a student of Obama’s in 1995 and attended the tour in hopes of learning how Obama’s work outside Hyde Park shaped his path to the presidency. “I’m interested in the early career of a man who might be remembered as a great president and hero,” she explained. “It’s a true American success story.”

Laura Kozak also hoped to see, in her words, “Obama’s old stomping grounds”. As a college student in Chicago in 2008, Kozak attended both Obama’s election party and his first inauguration. She takes particular interest in Michelle Obama’s role in his life: “I’m gonna keep asking ‘was Michelle here?’ ” she joked before the tour. “Because…she’s an incredibly important part of it too.”

The group included fourteen members of the Rosemoor neighborhood community organization, which meets weekly to discuss neighborhood issues ranging from crime to education. “We do the same thing [Obama] did,” member Janet Poole said of the group. Poole was familiar with much of Obama’s work on South Side before she went on the tour but was nonetheless glad to take part in an Obama-related event. “I’m African-American and he’s African-American and we’re just real proud of him,” she said. “And he should be proud of me.” Poole’s fellow community group member, Ruthie Marshall, agrees: “He’s a grassroots organizer and has always been about justice,” she said, “and that’s what so many others have forgotten.”

As the tour bus made its way back to the Loop, passing Grant Park and the street corner where Barack and Michelle first met, the group reminisced about the 2008 election night. “It didn’t really hit me until I saw a vendor selling a T-shirt that said ‘Commander in Chief’. I still get emotional thinking about it today,” recounted Steffes.

“I experienced this with my sons and my grandchildren,” Marshall said of Obama’s election. “I didn’t think it was possible and I’m wondering how long we have to wait again.”

Tom Shepherd, head tour guide, South Side native, and self-described “old political hack,” had declared before the tour that “people are going to tell their grandkids about this day.” As the tour came to a close, Marshall vowed to do just that. “If this tour is offered again I’m gonna tell all my relatives to come,” she said. “I’m gonna go home and get on the telephone.”

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