Editor’s note: The Reader-has teamed up with Renata Cherlise, the founder of Blvck Vrchives, “a curated visual journey through history,” to create multimedia narratives of black life in Chicago using the Sun-Times archive. This week’s feature explores the real Cooley High and the 1975 film of the same name.
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.
All photos: Sun-Times Print Collection
Music: I’m On My Way, by Mamie Brown and Choir, Folkway Recordings