1984 was a remarkable year. Prince and his band, the Revolution, released his film and the album Purple Rain; The Soviet Union boycotted the Summer Olympics being hosted in Los Angeles; Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire while filming a Pepsi commercial; The movie Ghostbusters hit the silver screen and went on coin an iconic phrase (who ya gonna call?); The longest game in Major League Baseball history was played between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago White Sox; and the National Brotherhood of Skiers celebrated their eleventh year of formal membership in the United States, soon to become one of the largest organized ski clubs in the nation.
Behind the energy, love and passion of skiing stood two icons: Art Clay and Ben Finley. The two friends had collectively brought together one of the most respected, copied and envied organizations to grace the mountains across the world.
Jerry Pressley, a savvy and experienced skier, was a member of a Chicago Ski Club affectionately called ‘The Gang’ and then later a member of the Chicago Sno-Gophers. Vail, Copper Mountain, Aspen and Heavenly Valley were stomping grounds for the annual black ski fests that in the early years commanded between 6000-10,000 members in attendance.
He was also a commissioned photographer chronicling the community activities of Operation Push and Operation Breadbasket also photographed pictures for Budweiser, one of the earliest sponsors for the National Brotherhood of Skiers, which were, to the delight of Black America, featured in Ebony Magazine.
Always brainstorming, promoting and taking it to the ‘next level,’ one blustery winter evening Art made a phone call, gathered some friends, and asked Jerry to capture the attitude, character and “Badassfullness” beauty and persona of the African American Skier.
Though it appeared to be captured on a summit or the base of a slope of an exotic locale, the picture was actually taken in the Seven Hills area of Washington Park on the south side of Chicago.
It may be coincidence, or purposeful that Art chose this section of Chicago, a community rich with significant history - With its proximity to the former site of the 1893 world’s fair and a prominent African American history museum, the Washington Park community area has a deep history at every turn. The entire eastern portion of the community is a large park of the same name that connects to the Midway Plaisance park, the University of Chicago, and the Hyde Park community area. The Midway Plaisance runs all the way to Jackson Park, the site of the Museum of Science and Industry and the former site of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Washington Park, Jackson Park, and the Midway Plaisance were all designed by famous landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
Irish and German immigrants who worked for the railroad and
meatpacking industries first settled in the area in the 1860s, according to the
Encyclopedia of Chicago. Starting in the early 20th century, African Americans
moved into the community as the Great Migration brought in those leaving the
Jim Crow South.
The picture became Art’s calling card. He had business cards made with the picture to promote the National Brotherhood of Skiers. In the early 2000s Jerry reached out to Art and asked him if he would mind if he used the photo to market a shirt with its likeness. Art didn’t mind at all, and the picture is still in regular rotation, (with staged attempts to recreate the scene) but most of all adored and respected by snow skiers young and old. Thanks to Jerry Presley and Art Clay for their indelible stamp and vision in their contribution to chronicling Black History.
Contributed by Robyn Gant
Citation: Wingard, Monique, “The Story of Washington Park.”