The Rev. Leon Dorsey Finney, Jr., a powerful real estate developer who resisted the advances of the University of Chicago in Woodlawn during the early 1960s and built up a controversial real estate empire only to see it collapse toward the end of his life, died on Sept. 4 at the age of 82.
The Chicago Crusader confirmed the news after WVON first reported it.
Finney was born in Louise, Mississippi, in the Delta, on July 7, 1938, to Leon and Bertha Finney. He moved to Chicago as a child, where his father opened Leon's Bar-B-Q on East Garfield Boulevard in 1940. He graduated from Hyde Park Academy High School in 1957 and matriculated at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before dropping out and enlisting in the Marines.
In the mid-1960s, Finney joined The Woodlawn Organization (TWO), which was founded under the influence of famous community organizer Saul Alinsky in the late 1950s. The group fiercely resisted expansion plans by the University of Chicago, arguing that urban renewal projects would displace low-income and Black people. Finney was recruited by local organizer Lorraine Johnson.
“She said, ‘We work in neighborhoods, and we're trying to improve neighborhoods. We're trying to improve schools. We're trying to get people housing. We're trying to keep our people’s jobs,’” Finney said in a 2002 interview with “The History Makers” project. “‘We're trying to make sure Black people have some power to get things done.’”
While he had not wanted to be a social worker or preacher, he said he wanted to work along the lines of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King — “uplifting our people and not being part of this Black bourgeoisie” — so he signed up. Alongside protests and demonstrations, TWO was also involved in job training programs, including for gang members.
TWO’s organizing resulted in a pledge from the U. of C. not to build south of 61st Street. The organization was also given control over the 504-unit Woodlawn Gardens at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue with a federal loan and assistance from the U. of C.
The Sun-Times wrote, in an article about the project, that the relationship between TWO and the school was a “war turned into a working partnership.”
Finney was chosen as executive director of TWO in 1967. Two years later, he became president of the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation (WCDC), TWO’s development affiliate, a position he used to kickstart a decades-long career as a South Side real-estate titan and close counsel to politicians.
A 1980 article in a local Woodlawn paper recounted the 20-year anniversary celebration of TWO, including a “State of the Community” speech from Finney.
“Finney drew prolonged applause as he praised the people of Woodlawn — TWO’s membership,” reads the article. “In a rousing finish, Finney detailed the whole gamut of activities which enables TWO to provide services — through social service programs, community development projects and social action — to thousands of people each year.”
In 1988, when Finney retired from his position as head of TWO, the Herald wrote that he had been called both “an iron-handed ruler” and “an excellent president.” That same year, he served as state campaign manager for Jesse Jackson during his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Finney served as vice chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and was on the Chicago Plan Commission. He also founded the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church in Bronzeville, which became a city landmark in 2007.
As his real estate holdings expanded, Finney came under fire from tenants who accused him of mismanagement. Woodlawn Gardens, TWO’s flagship project, was forced to declare bankruptcy in the ‘80s. A federal investigation charged the group with “gross mismanagement” under Finney’s watch, finding that he moved over $800,000 from the project to other TWO holdings. In 2012, he was placed on the city’s scofflaw landlord list for code violations at his properties, including apartments with no heat or hot water.
In his late years, Finney fell definitively from grace. A Sun-Times exposé published last September detailed the downfall of WCDC, which Finney had used to acquire and manage his extensive portfolio of holdings.
WCDC filed for bankruptcy in 2018, revealing that it was nearly $2 million in debt — that number was later updated to $4.2 million. A judge in the case said she was “appalled” by Finney’s actions. The CHA cut ties with WCDC, which had managed up to a quarter of the agency’s properties, saying that the company had allowed temperatures to drop into the fifties during the city’s most recent polar vortex.
Last October, fifteen of Finney’s properties were sold off at auction for $7.7 million. Another, the Washington Park National Bank Building at 63rd St. and S. Cottage Grove Ave. was acquired by the Cook County Land Bank Authority. It had accumulated $3.7 million in unpaid taxes since the ‘90s, according to Curbed Chicago. The land bank announced last year that the building would be sold to DL3 Realty, a local developer, who plans to demolish and rebuild it as mixed-use retail.
Late in life, Finney earned post-baccalaureate degrees in economics, urban community development, theological studies and public administration from Goddard College, McCormick Theological Seminary and Nova University.