The Legacy Project unveiled two bronze plaques recognizing LGBTQ+ historical figures Pauli Murray and Matthew Shepard on Oct. 16.
The plaques, part of Northalsted's half-mile Legacy Walk, recognized Murray and Shepard's roles in advancing legal protections for LGBTQ+ people. The ceremony took place at 3418 N. Halsted St.
Legacy Project Executive Director and co-founder Victor Salvo opened the ceremony by highlighting the educational focus of the Legacy Walk, which is the world's only outdoor LGBTQ+ History museum. In addition to adding new Legacy Walk memorials each fall, the Legacy Project is developing programs about LGBTQ+ contributions to history and culture for Illinois public schools.
Salvo said he hopes the educational initiatives remind LGBTQ+ children "that they matter, and that they will always matter," he said.
Other speakers included First Deputy Commissioner for the Chicago Commission on Human Relations Kenneth Gunn, former Legacy Board Treasurer and Highfield Group representative Paul De Sousa, Director of Illinois Department of Human Rights Jim Bennett, Legacy Project board member/Gallagher Insurance representative David Martin and ACLU of Illinois Board President Jill Metz.
Murray's plaque describes how their identification as a non-binary person, before that term was in use, drove their scholarly writings supporting the 14th Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause. Almost every Supreme Court Case involving the Equal Protection Clause, such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), was influenced by Pauli Murray. Gallagher Insurance sponsored Murray's plaque.
"Pauli Murray is the most important person most of you have probably never heard of. Their contributions to the entire arc of civil rights is without rival," Salvo said.
Metz detailed a history of Murray's life and civil rights legal advocacy, noting that, "We all stand on the shoulders of people like Pauli Murray."
Gunn recounted his evolving awareness of LGBTQ+ civil rights and tied it into Murray's legacy.
"For me, civil rights was black and white," Gunn said. He attended law school to study the civil rights movement and become a civil rights lawyer. Conversations with LGBTQ+ activists and co-workers over the years broadened his understanding of civil rights.
"That's when it dawned on me: You know, civil rights is not a black and white issue, it's about all of us. And that's why Pauli Murray and the work they did was so important," Gunn said.
Shepard's plaque details how his horrific murder as a gay college student in 1998 served as a catalyst for legal protections. Advocacy in the wake of Shepard's death, and the death of James Byrd Jr., a Black man who was murdered a few months prior, resulted in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act becoming law in 2009. The Highfield Group sponsored Shepard's plaque.
"Here's a young kid who didn't ever want to be a symbol," Salvo said. "He just wanted to be a person and just live his life . . . Sometimes we have the power to shape our destiny, and other times destiny just clobbers you over the head."
In his speech, Bennett held up a picture of Shepard that was passed around at vigils and discussed the connection many gay men felt to him.
"You felt this vulnerability when you saw him. He just looked like a little kid, and his story was so heartbreaking. And, for me, who had just recently come out, that feeling of electricity when you first came out and you even touched another guy, and this possibility that life could be better, and it was," Bennett said. "And then to hear this story about this young man who just wanted that exact same thing. He just wanted to be connected to another human being and to love and be loved, and he was brutally beaten up for it."
Bennett further discussed the importance of supporting Illinois schoolchildren who to this day face anti-LGBTQ+ hatred and violence from their peers.
The Legacy Walk "reminds us of where we've been. It reminds us of what we have to do now, and where we need to go," Bennett said.
Salvo read each plaque aloud before sponsors unveiled it. Afterward, the celebration continued with a two-hour reception at Northalsted nightspot Sidetrack.