The Class of Blackness: Chicago
Blvck Vrchives: The Class of Blackness - a research based series examining the yearbooks of predominately Black high-schools across America. The series begins in Chicago & takes a look at the many ways Black lives were documented and celebrated throughout the years. Photographs sourced from the yearbooks on Classmates.com (September 2, 2018)
“Austin was a white, middle class, Irish and Jewish bastion until the 1960s, when the westward expansion of Chicago’s highly segregated black population spread to parts of Austin. This extension of the west side ghetto had begun decades earlier but accelerated rapidly in the years following World War Two. (Spear)
Existing Austin residents resisted the influx for some time, but that resistance collapsed and massive white flight ensued. Austin was virtually all-white in 1960 but by 1970 it was about one-third black, and at this point it was apparent to that Austin was facing rapid racial transition, a realization which accelerated the pace of change.”
The 1970s witnessed classic block-by-block resegregation in Austin, an event that had enormous psychological impact on Oak Parkers (Goodwin 1970). By 1980, Austin was three- fourths black, and from Oak Park’s perspective, across the street lay a newly created ghetto. Austin as a whole was nearly 90% black in 1990, over 90% black in 2000, and the tracts that lay on Oak Park’s eastern edge were as high as 99% black. (United States Census, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000)“- excerpt from Reconsidering The Oak Park Strategy: The Conundrums of Integration by Evan McKenzie and Jay Ruby
“Then there was the kid who sat near him in homeroom.Nat Cole sat right behind me,” said [Timuel] Black, 91, a 1937 DuSable graduate. “He was a nice guy. We talked about music all the time.”
To ensure the Bronzeville’s school’s legacy as a breeding ground for African-American talent, Black and other members of the DuSable High School Alumni Coalition for Action are seeking landmark status for the institution. The effort comes as DuSable — which in 2005 was split into three schools — celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.
“Your most prominent blacks, your first this and your first that, they all came from DuSable,” said Delores Washington, a semi-retired teacher who graduated from DuSable in 1951. “It’s very important that the community knows these icons came from this building.”
excerpt from Chicago Tribune: Alumni seek landmark status for DuSable High School by Glenn Jeffers (2010)
“ON THE WEST SIDE OF CHICAGO QUITE A number of years ago, there was a boy who loved basketball, who, even to this day, can feel the snowflakes falling on his face on a winter’s evening as he shot alone on a schoolyard hoop, under yellow street lamps, in his gloves and coat.
He loved the feel of the ball, the sense of its going through the netless hoop, and dreamed as he retrieved the wet ball in a snowbank that one day he might drive through whole teams and flip a pass behind his back to a cutting teammate -- in the fashion of Bob Cousy of the Celtics, whom he had seen on television -- or just pull up and drain a jumper from 20 feet out. Swish! Yeah!
And while the boy never became a pro -- though he did play high school and college basketball -- the wonder of his innocence is still fresh in his adult mind. Still fresh, too, was the emergence of the disagreeable, but unmistakable, reality of his limitations in that field.” - excerpt from NY Times Dreaming Hoop Dreams by Ira Berkow (1994)
It’s been nearly two weeks since Ben Wilson was shot and killed in front of the School Store. But Vincennes Avenue still seems to be the most desolate, lonely place in the world, especially for anybody who knew Benji.
Lots of 17-year-olds get shot and killed in the streets of Chicago, 13 this year alone. Chances are nobody even remembers their names. But they remember Ben Wilson, who was 6 feet 8 and called the best high school basketball player in the nation.
Every day, hundreds of phone calls come into Simeon High School, where Wilson was a senior. Companies send money for a Ben Wilson scholarship fund and National Basketball Association stars Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre and Magic Johnson send $1,000 checks. But none of this can stop the sorrow in this cold, hard city, which probably hasn’t mourned so much since Mayor Richard Daley died nine years ago.”
The 1975 film Cooley High proved to be more than just a “coming-of-age story about black teenagers living in the housing projects of Chicago in the early 1960s,” as the Tribune once put it. The film, directed by Michael Schultz and written by Eric Monte, depicts the lives of the students at Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School and Upper Grade Center—the real Cooley High. And, it explores the socioeconomic factors that hindered equal opportunities for black youth both inside and outside the classroom.
Prior to being demolished in 1979, Cooley served 7th through 12th grade students, approximately 90 percent of whom were residents of the neighboring Cabrini-Green public housing complex. Parents and students at Cooley, along with those at other Chicago public schools, fought a continuous uphill battle for equal education. In a 1965 meeting with the Chicago Board of Education, Clarence James, a Marshall High School Sr. expressed his dismay with overcrowding in the classroom, as many students were left sitting on floors and windowsills due to inadequate resources.
A few years later, James’ brother, Riccardo, began leading walkouts with other students insisting CPS hire more black educators and administrators. The advantages in these demands are later realized in the film Cooley High, with a black History teacher, Mr. Mason, played by Garrett Morris, who understood the unique hardships the students faced and encouraged them to follow their dreams beyond the classroom in his dual role as teacher and father figure.
Like Cooley High, the TV series Good Times shows black youth tackling inequality in schools, and shines a spotlight on racial disparities in Chicago. Good Times (also created by Eric Monte, along with Mike Evans) depicted the struggles the Evans family faced while living in Cabrini-Green in the 70s. The fictional Michael Evans, played by Ralph Carter, becomes well known for his political activism, including criticizing the quality of education at his fictional school, Wilson Elementary.
As we approach the 41st anniversary of the Cooley High film release, we take a look back at the students who attended Chicago public schools during the 60s and 70s, and the struggle for quality education that still resonates today.