Jessie “Ma” Houston Park Advisory Council forms; Daughter details mother’s activism and prison ministry

Members of the new Jessie “Ma” Houston Park Advisory Council flank its namesake’s daughter, the Rev. Helen Sinclair, at its inaugural May 5 meeting. – Aaron Gettinger

Staff Writer

A Park Advisory Council has formed at the Jessie “Ma” Houston Playground Park in Kenwood, 5001 S. Cottage Grove Ave.

“Public space is important, and we need a nice park that reflects the interest of the community members,” said PAC President Alex Breland, who added that the Council is happy to have a chance to effect change locally.

The four-acre park, open since 1965 on land conveyed by the Chicago Housing Authority, contains a titular playground that was renovated in 2015, basketball courts and a mural of its namesake, the Rev. Houston, for whom the park was named in 1991.

Breland said the PAC membership is currently small but that they have a number of events planned, including volunteer activities on It’s Your Park Day (June 16), a Double Dutch jump roping exhibition by Black Girls Jump, which Breland called an important black cultural practice, and a July celebration of Houston’s birthday.

As the PAC began to form, Breland said he contacted Operation PUSH, which in turn strongly urged him to reach out to Houston’s daughter, the Rev. Helen Sinclair.

The two women have led fantastically interesting, impactful lives.

In an interview with the Herald, Sinclair said her mother was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1899 and moved to Bronzeville in the 1920s. “It was good for me,” said Sinclair, who said they lived behind a barbershop.

Houston’s husband died when Sinclair was 8, and Sinclair said her mother soon opened a barbecue stand that sold 10 cent apple and peach pies and lottery tickets to provide for the family. In 1945, Houston began her life’s work: a series of prison ministries that began in the Cook County Jail and corresponding work to decrease recidivism rates. She also led campaigns to increase local schools’ quality.

In 1966, Houston was with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during march in Gage Park. “Whenever they marched, Ma prayed before they left,” Sinclair remembered, “and Dr. King said he always felt safe when she prayed.”

Houston later became involved in the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket, served on three gubernatorial corrections advisory panels and was the first woman in Illinois allowed to minister death row inmates. Sinclair would chauffeured her around in a station wagon upon which Houston painted “I was in prison, and you visited me,” a line from the Gospel of Matthew. When she died in 1980, at age 80, prisoners and wardens attended her funeral at the Operation PUSH headquarters, 930 E. 50th St.

After accompanying her mother on a mission to Stateville Correctional Center in suburban Crest Hill, Illinois, near Joliet, in 1971, Sinclair became a chaplain herself. “All my children were part of Breadbasket, and I’m still a part of Operation PUSH with Rev. Jackson,” said Sinclair, an alumna of DuSable High School, 4934 S. Wabash Ave., who has lived on 41st Street for a half-century.

Her mother habitually annotated a Bible with the dates on which she read particular passages, so Sinclair, who still does prison ministries at age 98, knows exactly when Houston read the scriptures she preaches today. Sinclair has preached in Cuba, South Africa and Malawi; to commemorate Black History Month each February, she visits every prison in Illinois.

“We still go to prisons, we didn’t stop going when she died,” said Sinclair. Indeed, she said she was ministering to prisoners the day after her mother’s death.