The late Silas Purnell, founder of the College Preparation and Placement program at Ada S. McKinley Community Services was responsible for assisting over 50,000 students with applying to and accessing funds to attend college. He believed that every student deserved the opportunity to attend college and that grades and the lack of funds should not be a detriment to any student who desired to attend college.
Ada S. McKinley Community Services
Silas Purnell served on Ada S. McKinley’s board of directors. However, during his time as a board member, he realized there was a critical need to assist with college applications and in obtaining financial assistance. He subsequently resigned from the board and joined the staff of Ada S. McKinley and began serving students out of a small room located in the basement of the Dearborn Homes housing development at 29th and State Street. It was in this sacred space that Purnell opened a critical door of opportunity for African American students to receive a college education by providing one-on-one counseling and locating financial resources for students to help fund their college education.
Each year, Ada S. McKinley serves 1,700 students (500 middle school and 1,200 high school students), offering services such as college placement, financial aid learning opportunities, virtual college tours, and more.
From Student Mentee to Vice President
Ms. Venise Hardy, Vice President of Educational Services, is responsible for the college placement program, the early intervention program for students in grades 6-8, and the Department of Education-funded TRIO program. She recalled that Mr. Purnell served as an invaluable mentor and remembers her experiences with him as she was sent to canvass the Dearborn Homes to sign up students in the housing development for the program. “By the end, I had enrolled 100 students. We had students from the Dearborn Homes attending 6-week academic enriched programs, theater, and computer science at the nearby Illinois Institute of Technology. Mr. Purnell talked me into staying with Ada S. McKinley and I became a coordinator. He helped me apply to graduate school and provided me with a young public administrator scholarship,” she noted. Hardy recalled, “Mr. Purnell was very transparent about opportunities and the lack of opportunities that existed for black and brown students. He made sure that students knew that there was a world outside of their immediate environment, noting ‘how can you aspire to be better if you have not been shown opportunities outside of your community that can open doors?’”
Silas Purnell, the Mentor
Eric Williams, former director of college placement at the Trinity Higher Education Corporation (THEC) of Trinity United Church of Christ, shared that when he was hired by Trinity UCC’s then-Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., Wright instructed him to go to Ada S. McKinley and “sit at Silas Purnell’s feet” to gain valuable resources that THEC could utilize for its students. He added, “I learned the importance of having facts about what schools would do the best job with black students.” Williams shared that Purnell was intentional about securing financial aid for black students heading to college. “Mr. Purnell would say, don’t go after the federal dollars until you know how to help black students get to college. Many colleges have the grants, but do not help black students go to college. He built a network of contacts and reminded me to know the people who are working at the institutions who can assist the students,” he added.
An Alumni’s Reflection
Zeke Morris recalled his experiences with Silas Purnell and Ada S. McKinley. “I played football in high school and thought I’d be a star athlete in college. However, my grades didn’t qualify for scholarships. As I was about to give up, I met Mr. Purnell, who told me that giving up was not an option,” Morris shared. “Mr. Purnell told me that I was a special individual and that I could do whatever it was I wanted to achieve. He helped me enroll in Upper Iowa University – he treated everyone as if they were his own children,” he added. “Mr. Purnell helped me to prepare for the ACT and made sure I understood the process and that I studied for the exam.” Today, Morris is the designated managing broker of EXIT Strategy Realty/EMA Management and he was recently elected as president of Illinois REALTORS, the first African American to hold the position. He also provides mentoring for future leaders in the realtor industry.
Continuing the Purnell Legacy
According to its website, Ada S. McKinley has placed more than 75,000 African American students in more than 400 colleges and universities throughout the U.S. Many leaders and professionals have credited Silas Purnell and the College Preparation and Placement Program with giving them the support needed to pursue a post-secondary education.
In keeping with Silas Purnell’s legacy, Ada S. McKinley is searching for alumni. If you were a student who received services through the agency, visit https://www.adasmckinley.org/silas-purnell-alumni-outreach/ to sign up to receive updates and remain connected.
Donna Hammond is a contributing writer for the Chicago Defender. Follow her on Facebook, DeeLois Speaks, and on Twitter, @deelois623.