If you’ve read the acknowledgment pages of ‘Kings,’ you’ve seen the name Warner Saunders, followed by the title of this tribute. That phrase was a personal joke between Warner and I, as well as a reference to our point of origin.
Sometime between 1998 and 2000 (I don’t remember the date), Warner produced a series of black history month shorts for NBC5 News. One such short was about The Harlem Globetrotters, with Abe Saperstein being “the founder.” I knew differently and decided to call him after the broadcast. Surprisingly he was gracious enough to take my call. After introducing myself I went on to talk about the true origin of the team (Philips High School/Savoy Big Five), and that Saperstein only named the team for the sake of marketing and promotion. Warner’s response surprised me. “To tell you the truth, Nate, I do know that story.” With that he went on to detail what he knew. And indeed, he knew the story. So I asked him, ‘why does this Saperstein story keep going?’ To which he replied, “Well, Nate, I guess it’s just another case of Christopher Columbus;” to which I replied, “Yeah, well, I hear that guy’s sail had holes in it.” Then we shared a great laugh. I was content to leave it there and thanked him for taking the time. Warner, however, had other ideas.
Two days after talking with Warner by phone I was sitting in his office at NBC5 in front of a TV camera, talking about the rise and fall of Chicago’s policy racket. After the segment aired Warner telephoned me and said, “Nate, my mother wants to talk to you.” Some time that evening I spent about two hours on the phone with Warner’s mom, Georgia Saunders, who gave me quite the back story. Warner grew up on the second floor at 428 E. 47th Street, just off South Parkway, across the hall from a flat occupied by Ted Roe and his wife in the 1930s. Warner’s dad, Gus, worked for the Kelley brothers; a married couple close to Warner’s parents, Charlie and Maude Craig, worked for the Jones brothers. Outside of that building, an ear shot away from South Parkway, young Warner could hear the voice of Edgar G. Brown and other community activists, known in those days as “race men,” preaching about the state of black owned businesses in Bronzeville. Warner and I both wanted to see the neighborhood rise from the ashes into something vibrant reminiscent of the glory days.
Over the years Warner and I stayed in touch, often by email; we talked about the rise and decline of Bronzeville, and the mixed bag of political nuts pimping and suppressing grassroots revitalization efforts.
On the evening of Sunday October 7, Warner weighed in on a Facebook post about policy king Ed Jones and the policy business. In that post Warner recalled, “Mr. Roe…would always stop and give us a quarter and tell us to save our money, we would be rich.” I told myself I would call him on the coming weekend. Three days later on Wednesday morning I got the word that he was gone. My mind was blown.
Warner Saunders was foundational to the rise and success of ‘Kings’ and all of the tentacles spawn from it. He didn’t even have to take my phone call but he did. He saw something in me that caused him to take a chance putting me on television. I have come to believe that he was exercising that rich Bronzeville tradition he was raised in; that tradition of ‘race men,’ policy kings and activists, helping their people get to the next level.
Indeed, I stand on Warner’s shoulders. It is his generosity, belief in helping and care that I continue to pay forward in my life. Warner Saunders was a Good Fellow, and I will miss him dearly.