Obama Presidential Center to dedicate space to slain teen Hadiya Pendleton

Chicago, Illinois – Hadiya Pendleton made sure to send her mother a picture of her outfit each day of her trip to Washington, where she and her high school bandmates performed at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

The Obamas announced the Obama Presidential Center will include a space dedicated to Hadiya Pendleton (l.), who was killed by a gunman in a Chicago park.
The Obamas announced the Obama Presidential Center will include a space dedicated to Hadiya Pendleton (l.), who was killed by a gunman in a Chicago park.  © Collage: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

In the most memorable photo, the 15-year-old majorette dancer from Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood playfully winks and sticks her tongue out while wearing a sharp black dress shirt.

Back home, her mother Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton beamed. She knew the teenager was teasing her for insisting on daily snapshots of her stay at the nation’s capital.

"Those are happy times," Cowley-Pendleton told the Chicago Tribune this week. "I feel joy whenever I come across those pictures – with a little bit of sadness because that’s all I have."

Days after the January 2013 inauguration, Hadiya was fatally shot at a South Side park about a mile north of the Obamas’ Kenwood home when a gunman fired into a crowd.

Outrage over her slaying reverberated across the nation, and she became a symbol for the anti-gun violence movement in Chicago and beyond. Hundreds attended her funeral, including Michelle Obama, who began a years-long friendship with Cowley-Pendleton afterward.

Friday, the former first lady announced that the Obama Presidential Center, slated to open in 2025 on the South Side, will feature a public space dedicated to Hadiya so that future generations will remember her story. The naming of the Hadiya Pendleton Winter Garden came one day before the nine-year anniversary of her death.

"The way her story ended, I think, was abrupt," Cowley-Pendleton said. "It was 15 years. I never saw that coming. So for her name to keep being spoken, she continues to live on and she continues to be a beacon of light."

In a video announcement, Michelle Obama described the 15-year-old as having "extraordinary power and potential" – potential that was robbed by a bullet. But she added that her spirit will continue to inspire others through the gathering space inside the presidential center. Early renderings of the building show tall glass walls and lush plants hanging from the ceiling, a design meant to reflect the warmth and joy that Hadiya radiated.

"The Hadiya Pendleton Winter Garden will be a dazzling public space full of freshness and light," Obama said. "It will offer a warm welcome to all of the forum’s visitors. It will be a place to gather, a place to connect and hopefully to see the potential that lies in each and every person we cross paths with."

Hadiya's parents hope to spread awareness about gun violence

Michelle Obama (r.) stands with Hadiya Pendleton's parents, Nathaniel (l.) and Cleopatra, as President Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address in February 2013 (archive image).
Michelle Obama (r.) stands with Hadiya Pendleton's parents, Nathaniel (l.) and Cleopatra, as President Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address in February 2013 (archive image).  © IMAGO / ZUMA Press

Hadiya, whose name means "gift from God" in Arabic, was powerful and creative behind the baton, whether twirling it during band practice at King College Preparatory High School or during Obama’s inauguration, her mother said.

After returning from Washington, Hadiya gushed on about exploring either politics or journalism as a career. But Cowley-Pendleton never got to see which path her daughter would take.

Cowley-Pendleton said the week leading up to Saturday, the nine-year mark of Hadiya’s death, comes with a spike of anxiety, memories resurfacing at a swifter pace. For the most part, though, it’s the same as any other week.

"This week is every day of my life," Cowley-Pendleton said.

But what has changed, she said, is that now she strives to use each day as an opportunity to better herself and appreciate what remains in her life, including Hadiya’s brother who is now 19. The family wants to do right by Hadiya’s legacy of caring for others and staying true to her convictions.

Cowley-Pendleton also hopes to keep spreading awareness about gun violence through her advocacy work, even as Chicago’s past years of shootings have vexed her.

"It’s terrible, the way that our youth, their childhoods are being ripped from them," Cowley-Pendleton said. "What motivates me is to want things to be better, right? The frustration comes in (when) we have people here who need to really step back from the 'politics' of the violence that’s happening here in Chicago and just really do something about it. Period."

Obama Foundation CEO Valerie Jarrett told the Tribune this week that the Obamas too want to tackle the persistence of gun violence in Chicago, both through holding space for youth to brainstorm solutions at the Hadiya Pendleton Winter Garden or supporting community groups that do anti-violence work.

The latter effort entails continuing Barack Obama’s mentorship initiative for boys and young men of color, My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, as well as partnering with the University of Chicago and community organizations in the city, said Michael Strautmanis, vice president for civic engagement at the Obama Foundation.

"She was doing what you’re supposed to do, and our city should be safe for our young people to sit on park benches and talk to their friends, laugh with their friends," Jarrett said about Hadiya’s final moments. "We owe them more than that."

Cover photo: Collage: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

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