Joan F. Small, who worked 16 years as the first deputy commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and spent her retirement volunteering for arts, culture and social justice nonprofits, died on June 24 at 78.
Small was born on Sept. 12, 1941, in Chicago to the late Amos and Ella (Peters) Flemings, the middle child of sisters Eunita Johnson and Maxine Leftwich, who survive her, and grew up in Woodlawn and Chatham.
Leftwich confirmed the news of Small's death. Other survivors include brother-in-law Costello Johnson; friend James Parks; nieces Gina Perry, Pamela Eatman, Lisa Smith and Mia Johnson; nephews Darin Johnson and Derek Smith; and several grandnieces, grandnephews and cousins.
After graduating from Hirsch High School, 7740 S. Ingleside Ave., in 1959,she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for three years before receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology and social work at Roosevelt University in 1964.
While a student at Roosevelt University, Joan met, fell in love with, and married a handsome fellow student Lynn Small. Over the years, together they came to be known as a “power couple,” their union bonded through complementary strengths and talents. Their marriage in 1962 lasted for 57 years, until Lynn’s death in 2019.
Her first job was at the Cook County Department of Public Aid in 1964, where she worked as a caseworker at the Robert Taylor Homes in 1964. Five years later, she joined the administrative staff at United Charities Chicago, now the Metropolitan Family Services, working in their development program.
“Joan said that an outgrowth of doing social work was her realization of the need for Black children to be able to see their faces reflected on the walls of institutions, such as the DuSable Museum of African American History, which inspired her to do volunteer work for the museum,” Leftwich wrote.
In 1987, Small was hired as the director of development for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, where she organized and implemented fundraising campaigns, developed marketing strategies and established sponsorships with corporate partners, local cultural institutions and arts agencies.
In 1988, she was appointed the department’s first deputy commissioner, managing daily operations and overseeing most program divisions and administrative activities, including the Chicago Sister Cities International Program. She also served as the department liaison to the mayor’s office for key governmental functions and legislative issues.
While working in the job, Small recorded an oral history for The HistoryMakers, speaking warmly of a memorable trip to South Africa, to the cities of Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town soon after Nelson Mandela’s administration came into power. She also presented a paper on cultural tourism while at the job.
Small, who lived in Hyde Park for 40 years, was active in several local and national nonprofit organizations, including as a director of Americans for the Arts and as chair of the Leadership Advisory Committee of the Art Institute of Chicago. She was a member of Know Your Chicago, The Links Inc., The National Smart Set, and the Friday Club. Her board affiliations included the Alliance Française de Chicago, the National Conference of Community and Justice, the Goodman Theatre, the International Visitors Center of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Advisory Board, and the Metropolitan Family Services Women’s Board.