By Chinta Strausberg, Chicago Crusader
Retired Westinghouse Professor Bennie W. Johnson, his students, Rev. Paul Jakes and others recently installed Leon Hillard as a Black Pioneer in basketball at the Burr Oak Cemetery where they also placed a marker on his grave.
Johnson, who once ran youth programs for President John Kennedy and brought the vocational programs to Illinois, said it was important to place a marker on Hillard’s grave “because he was a Black Pioneer.
“He was a Black man who went to 89 countries representing African Americans as a goodwill ambassador representing American basketball,” said Johnson.
“Now that he has a marker on his grave, people will know who he is because they placed him in an unmarked grave,” Johnson said. Hillard was killed by his wife in March of 1977.
Reflecting on his friend, Johnson said Hillard “helped to develop a lot of youth programs in Chicago. He worked for the Chicago Park District. He had two hot dogs stands on the south and west sides working with the youth. He was a great guy.”
“We had the most dynamic basketball programs in the country, and Hillard was one of my advisors in developing those programs.” Johnson said placing a marker on Hillard’s grave was a way of honoring a man who helped the youth across the city.
Jakes called Hillard an “icon in America and throughout the world. His fame came at a time when discrimination against Black people was high; however the Harlem Globetrotters were overcomers of segregation by their gift.
“Their talent gave them an opportunity to advance in sports giving a green light for other Black people years to come. So when we think about Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing Dr. J, Michael Jordan and others, doors opened because of talented basketball players from Phillips High School, Crane, Westinghouse and McKinley high schools in Chicago,” Rev. Jakes said.
“Harlem was the largest Black community in America so the coach gave them the name the Harlem Globetrotters. They were called goodwill ambassadors of sports who have traveled far and wide representing our country. But most of all they represented their families their communities and African American people.”