(Photo Credit: Dawn Kish)
By Carole A. Parks
The 50-knot winds and waves 30-feet high besieged Captain William “Bill” Pinkney’s 47-foot cutter for 48 hours, knocking it over twice and disabling most of his instruments. If he survived, thousands of miles and countless months (two in total isolation) still lay ahead. Surely this qualified as the moment to wonder why a 50-something South Side Chicagoan from modest origins would attempt sailing solo around the globe. But not in the case of this man dedicated to personifying his vessel’s name – Commitment.
Though admittedly “scared,” Captain William “Bill” Pinkney did not feel alone or without resources. He set out on his quest “to teach my grandchildren what you can do with the fundamentals you learn in the first 12 years of school.” He communicated with them throughout his journey via a satellite hookup. “I ended up with not two, but 30,000 grandkids. I had a whole wall of pictures of them across from my navigation station. With all those people thinking about me and praying for me, there was no way I couldn’t make it.”
More importantly to Pinkney, “Children could literally see someone tackling the ups and downs in life, the perseverance and faith in yourself it takes to succeed. My emotions were real – how I felt when things went wrong or at the beautiful sunrise after a storm.” A pioneering community-based educational program designed under the guidance of Northeastern Illinois University professor Iva Carruthers, in partnership with IBM engaged students in solving problems or learning about new cultures right along with Pinkney. The multi-media, interdisciplinary curriculum covered topics from math and geography to languages and nutrition.
Thanks in large part to Chicago Superintendent of Schools Ted Kimbrough, 75,000 pupils throughout the Chicago Public Schools system vicariously accompanied Pinkney, joined by 21,000 in Indiana and others across the country. “Here’s a Chicagoan who went to city schools whom the children can relate to,” Kimbrough said at the time. “When it’s all over, he’ll be a legend for the kids.”
Pinkney’s completed 32,000-mile, 22-month-long trip begun in 1992 established him as the fifth American – first Black man of any nation — to singlehandedly sail via Cape Horn one of the most treacherous routes around the world. With a three-person crew and rotating group of U.S. schoolteachers, Pinkney embarked in 1998 on a five-month, 12,000-mile Middle Passage Voyage retracing slave ship travels between Africa and the Americas. From 2000-2003 he captained The Amistad, a replica of the vessel African captives in Cuba took over in 1839, demanding return to their homeland. After the ship’s seizure by the U.S. government, John Quincy Adams successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court the captives’ right to be considered human beings rather than property.
Movies, books, videos, exhibits, and articles have chronicled Pinkney’s internationally renowned, historically significant accomplishments. Police boat sirens and a musical celebration at Navy Pier heralded his return to Chicago in 1992. An honorary street sign on Monroe between Columbus and Lake Shore Drive bears his name. Now residents of his old neighborhood, along with the local sailing community, propose recognizing this living legend at the renovated 31st Street Harbor, blocks from where he first dreamed of adventure.
“I am stunned and overwhelmed I would be considered for such an honor,” Pinkney responded at this news. I thank all involved for their belief I would be a fitting representative of my native Bronzeville.” He loves supporters’ desire to perpetuate at the harbor his unique model for interconnecting education, self-actualization, black history, and community sailing. He especially appreciates the possibility of a permanent safe harbor for young people who remind him of himself.
Born September 15, 1935, Pinkney grew up at 33rd St. & Indiana Ave. Marion Henderson Pinkney raised her son and his younger sister Naomi alone after William Sr. was “institutionalized.” Recalls Pinkney, “We had gangs back then too, black and white. Going into another neighborhood could get you killed. By age 15, I’d gotten the message from everywhere – the school system, neighborhood – I wouldn’t amount to much, that I had a very bleak future because of my background.”
Pinkney credits his mother, a domestic worker whose formal schooling ended at the 8th grade, for helping counteract such negative influences. “She taught me how to cook, clean house, sew, place full dinner settings, penmanship, elocution, proper manners, how to dress – basically how to work and survive in the larger society. Today, people are so isolated. They don’t know how to be outside their insulated environments.”
Pinkney would scan the horizon beyond and watch boats floating on Lake Michigan at 31st St., “the only beach where black people could go without fear or harassment.” Decades earlier, riots had marked the still racially segregated shoreline – in 1919 when whites throwing rocks caused the drowning death of a black teen who crossed an invisible line at 29th St.
Pinkney found the spark to overcome most any barrier, courtesy of his seventh grade teacher at Steven A. Douglas Elementary School, Gladys Berry. She hooked him on reading. One of the books was Call It Courage, by Armstrong Sperry, about a Polynesian boy who conquers his fear of the sea by setting out alone in a small boat. Pinkney identified with Maftu’s various plights, exulted in the moments of triumph. He realized, “That could be me!” and vowed to himself he too would one day have a great adventure.
Pinkney’s enlistment in the Navy upon graduating Tilden Technical School initiated what became a nearly half-century journey to fulfill his childhood goal. The twists and turns took him through troubled waters as a young husband and father, driving him to be more “present” for his daughter and her children in later years. After his discharge, he landed in New York City. He met his second wife, Ina. He studied film makeup. His eventual reputation as the expert in cosmetics for black women earned him high-level positions at Revlon and, in Chicago, Johnson Products.
Once back home, Pinkney raced the famous Chicago to Mackinac event. He became the Commodore of the Belmont Yacht Club and a member of the prestigious New York Yacht Club.
While in the Navy, Pinkney had traveled to Puerto Rico. The island kept drawing him back to crew boats and, ultimately, to make it his home base. By 1977, he had transitioned from a dingy transported on the top of his car, to owning a 29-foot sailboat. He wears today the gold hoop in his left ear symbolizing successful navigation of the particularly hazardous waters of South America’s Cape Horn.
Now in his late 70s, Pinkney remains as active as ever. He runs charter tours, pilots boats for others, travels internationally giving inspirational speeches, and still handwrites responses to children curious about his adventures. His and third wife Migdalia’s residence in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, attracts familiar and new travel buffs from everywhere. But if they were to visit Chicago, they would see scant evidence of his roots.
“My house, the other houses in that neighborhood, are all gone. And everybody I knew. IIT, developers, they’ve eaten up the northern end of Bronzeville.” Pinkney laments. He keeps a souvenir brick from the original 1890’s Douglas School that had introduced him to Gladys Berry. Rebuilt in the 1970s, its principal in the 1980s suggested he use his circumnavigation voyage to inspire a wider range of children. Students there during his trip were among the first to hear he had made it through his worst weather and to welcome him home. Chicago Public Schools recently reconstituted Douglas into John J. Pershing West Middle School. When contacted for photos, the harried staff preparing for this fall’s opening had no time to worry about the dispensation of old media documenting the school’s participation in making history.
“There’s a connection to Douglas here,” notes fourth-generation Bronzeville resident Delmarie Cobb, organizer of the Pinkney naming campaign. She refers to the park at the lake end of 35th St. in which sits the tomb and statue of the man known for his debates with Abraham Lincoln. She gestures toward the closed funeral home just east of Pinkney’s old school, where the Griffin family discovered years ago they had opened on the former Camp Douglas Civil War site. The Griffins erected memorials honoring black soldiers like their forebear who served in the Union Army, as well as the thousands of Confederate troops who died while imprisoned there.
Cobb has long championed preserving the African American legacy intertwined with the country’s history. She has witnessed the obliteration or dismissal of nearby buildings once inhabited by famed journalists, businesspeople and artists. Watched families set adrift by urban renewal, the loss of good jobs, shuttered neighborhood schools, and few positive activities for young people.
“If there were ever a time the community needed anchors, it’s now,” observes Cobb. “The 31st St. beach has been one for years. My mother talked about how people used to sleep there on hot summer nights. They called it ‘the poor man’s Riviera.’ The recent reconstruction has basically privatized a large portion. It’s decreased accessibility and made it less inviting for the locals. Bill Pinkney stands for the opposite. He comes from here. He represents what could be, should be. And a sailor too? Honoring him at our harbor is a ‘no brainer.’”