Randle was an important but little-acknowledged character in the story of Barack Obama’s community organizing years. She discovered that the Chicago Housing Authority was removing asbestos from the projects -- but only from the offices, not from the apartments. One day in 1986, Randle saw a group of men in Hazmat suits at the Ida B. Wells Homes, where she was working as an organizer. She knocked on the mask of one of the workers, and asked what he was doing.
“Removing asbestos,” he said.
Randle called her friend Martha Allen, who wrote for the Chicago Reporter, and together they peeled up a tile from a kitchen floor and sent it to a lab, which found it contained between 30 and 50 percent chrysalite asbestos. Allen’s muckraking exposé was picked up by the Tribune and Channel 2’s Walter Jacobson, creating a PR ruckus that eventually forced the CHA to remove asbestos from five projects.
Randle and Obama attended an organizers’ meeting every Tuesday at the Community Renewal Society. When Obama heard Randle talking about asbestos removal in Ida B. Wells, he sat down next to her.
“We’ve got the same problem in Altgeld,” he said.
Together, Obama and Randle organized a bus trip to CHA headquarters, where residents sat in the hallway until the director agreed to attend public meetings at both Altgeld and Wells.
That’s not how Obama told the story in Dreams from My Father. In fact, he didn’t even mention Randle, even under a pseudonym. He portrayed the asbestos piece as a campaign that began in Altgeld, and was carried out by “Obama’s Army.”
Randle, who lived most of her life in public housing, helped Obama in another way, too.
“She was part of the important mentoring for Barack, and helping to mentor him in the relationships with public housing residents and the black community,” said Al Kindle, who worked with Randle on campaigns for Ald. Toni Preckwinkle. “She helped him open doors to get into the lives of the people, so it wasn’t just an academic conversation. She taught him about the black experience.”
Among Randle’s advice to Obama: don’t wear your usual preppy attire when knocking on doors in the projects.
“Wear jeans,” she said. “No one’s going to open the door if you look like a Public Aid caseworker.”
I met Randle last year, when I was working on my book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President. Randle was proud of her association with the new president: she’d built a little Obama shrine in the living room of her Wentworth Gardens apartment, with clippings from New York Times articles in which she’d been quoted, and a presidential invitation to the inauguration.
“She was most proud that she felt that African-Americans in Chicago were the standard bearers to keep it going for the entire nation,” Kindle said. “That included Harold as mayor and then Obama as president. She was proud to be part of that movement, and it gave her life substance and purpose.”
Randle was 56 years old.