Lively music, smiles and laughter filled the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center during a celebration of life for award-winning author and community activist Susan B. Peters.
Peters passed away on Friday, Dec. 16, at age 73.
It wasn’t the typical atmosphere of a memorial service but it’s one that embodied the spirit of Peters, who loved ones and friends described as “kind,” “generous” and “tactfully opinionated.”
The proud parent and grandparent, storyteller, community leader, producer and friend was remembered for her dedication to the Chicago community in a service Thursday evening.
The ceremony kicked off with African musical processions of drums and other instruments. Twyler Jenkins, mistress of ceremony, then welcomed the crowd that nearly filled the museum’s auditorium.
“Peters gave us a reason to celebrate today,” Jenkins said. “She gave us a reason to applause. She gave us a reason to live life fully. And thank you all for coming and bringing your presence here to the DuSable Museum of African American History.”
Chris Harris, pastor of Bright Star Church and St. James Church and the CEO of Bright Star Community Outreach, then lead a prayer, but not before asking the crowd to cheer in celebration of her influential life.
“If you knew, loved, respected, sometime, if you saw how she dressed and you were jealous of her a little bit, would you please stand on your feet and go crazy for the amazing Miss Susan?” Harris said.
Harris credits Peters for helping him connect with the University of Chicago School of Medicine and opening his eyes to what hospitals could do for the community. The university is now a partner with his organization that focuses on social development, health and other advocacy on the Southside, particularly in the 3rd and 4th ward.
“Now we are where we are because of the foundation Susan helped to lay,” Harris said. “The legacy that Susan has built and left will live on. I pray that for generations to come the name Susan Peters will be remembered in the halls of classrooms and the hospital rooms and the community at large.”
She grew up in Chicago, graduating from DuSable High School and DePaul University. In 1978, Peters joined the Original Hebrew Israelite Foundation, or The Nation. She began working for the Liberian Red Cross for ten years and eventually became the Directress of the Liberian Red Cross. She then left the position to open the “First Steps Child Development Center.” The school was forced to close shortly after due to the impending civil conflict.
She returned back to Chicago’s South Side with her five children in 1990. There, she got involved with Real Men Cook, a program under Real Men Charities that hosts a food tasting family celebration featuring men volunteering to cook for and serve the community.
Under her leadership, the event expanded into a multicity Father’s Day celebration. Real Men Charities also went on to see success working with the Illinois Department of Public Health to fight prostate cancer and extend life expectancy of Black men.
Rael Jackson, president of Real Men Cook, came up on stage to speak on his close work with Peters.
“Susan was always about her people, Black people,” Jackson said. “Her life has been dedicated to the upliftment of Black people, Black communities and Black families. And I believe that’s what brought her to Real Men Cook, Real Men Charities.”
Jackson said some of his own family was with Peters during her time in Liberia.
“It’s interesting when people become your family, and the bonds tend to be a little bit stronger than sometimes people with your own blood,” Jackson said. “That’s how I feel about Susan. Just a great woman, great spirit.”
Leif Elsmo, the executive director of community and external affairs at UChicago Medicine, reminisced on his time collaborating closely with Peters at the university, saying he was first to hire her onto the team. He later helped celebrate her retirement, only to “promptly hire her back” as a consultant.
“When you’re around a talent and a person as special as Susan, it’s hard to shake and equally hard to let go,” Elsmo said.
He said Peters made an “indelible impact” on the University of Chicago Medical Center and the Southside community that surrounds it. He described her as a “continuous source of ideas” for ways of fostering the relationship between the hospital and underserved areas.
“For over a decade, Susan worked with the determined and creative spirit to help build a wide and well-traveled pathway between the medical center and the community,” Elsmo said. “Susan left a legacy of meaningful and lasting relationships with our community rooted in collaboration that will endure. We are forever grateful.”
He also described her as one of the “most graceful” people he’s ever met, even when they disagreed.
“We walked together in some very tricky situations, and occasionally had conversations where we disagree,” Elsmo said. “Sometimes even when things were the most chippy, she could gracefully check you, and it felt like a compliment, and later you’re like, what happened? And then you reflect and you realize that you always learned something. I certainly did.”
For over a decade, Peters helped bridge University of Chicago Medical Center and its service area of 32 communities on Chicago’s South Side to help improve health and well-being.
She also launched the weekly Community Health Focus Hour on WVON Radio 1690. She increased staff participation in community events, such as Real Men Cook, Black women’s Expo and more. She also established a Diabetes Education program, launched bilingual community health education and built UMC’s fitness program into a model of civic partnership on the South Side.
Her rich experience in event planning and networking helped the center’s Office of Community Affairs establish an unprecedented presence in Hyde Park.
In addition to her extensive community involvement, Peters also authored eight books. Her memoir, “Sweet Liberia: Lessons from the Coal Pot,” chronicles her and her family’s eleven-year journey in Liberia between the country’s April 12, 1980 coup and the civil war in 1989.
She received the Black Excellence Award for Nonfiction from the African American Alliance of Chicago and Mate E. Palmer award for Nonfiction from the Illinois Press Women’s Association.
She was also adventurous, learning to swim at 60. She often at the Kroc Center and fostered close friendships at a swimming group. She also loved to exercise her green thumb community garden, where she’d spend hours. She was also remembered her fashion sense, as people often described her as “elegant” and the “best-dressed” in the room.
On top of her busy social life and career, she raised five children and was a proud grandmother of thirteen grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Her daughter, Hope Peters, said she watched her mom make continuous sacrifices for her and her siblings as a single parent. She said her mom was the kind of person she could always count on. From financial advice to a parenting question, she said her mom “always seemed to have the right answer.” She remembered always receiving texts saying, “Hopey, I know you’re doing your best, head down, working hard. I love you.”
“My mom will always be the greatest person I will ever know,” Hope Peters said. “Even though she’s gone in her physical state, her spirit will forever live through us. Her literature will continue to teach us. That’s all she ever wanted. And to my siblings, I want to say that though her passing is tragic and unexpected, she is our guardian angel now. We are forever protected. Family first and last.”