Two weeks ago, Kartemquin Films confirmed that it had footage of the arrest of Bernie Sanders at a school segregation protest in August 1963. The Chicago Tribune subsequently uncovered from its archives a striking photo of the 21-year-old University of Chicago undergrad being carried by two police officers.
National media attention in the wake of this find focused on how these photos might affect the senator’s image. But the full story of how a black Chicago neighborhood rose up to fight school segregation has gone untold in the local and national press.
The story of the battle at 73rd and Lowe—a story that resonates with today’s battles over public education in Chicago—begins in a former thrift shop and warehouse.
Only a few years earlier the surrounding Englewood neighborhood had transitioned from white to black. By 1963 its public school classrooms were overcrowded to the point of prompting a crisis. To cope, the Chicago Public Schools began to convert a former Goodwill storefront and warehouse at 71st and Stewart into an elementary school with a planned capacity of 1,200 students. In January 1963, 435 students were to be transferred to the unfinished building—which also happened to be located next to busy, unguarded Illinois Central railroad tracks.
Community opposition was swift. Parents pulled their children from the still nameless school, picketing the building with signs that read “This Was and Still Is a Warehouse,” “The Railroad Tracks Will be Your Children’s Playground,” and “This is a Firetrap and Not a School.” School administrators tried hard to explain how the secondhand warehouse with no playground space or fire sprinklers would make “an excellent school.” Alleging that “outside elements” were whipping up the controversy, principal John W. Hahn grumbled that the protests were “all too well organized to be spontaneous.”
After a personal inspection by superintendent Benjamin C. Willis, the mostly empty facility was closed down, but only for the semester. And while Englewood parents rejoiced over the success of their boycott, they knew they were in for a longer fight: Chicago Public Schools had promised to reopen the warehouse as an elementary school in the fall semester.
Willis, who had started his career in a four-room Maryland schoolhouse, reportedly drew the highest salary of any public official in the country with the exception of the U.S. president and the governor of New York. To his supporters, he was worth every dime—during his decade as superintendent he raised teacher salaries and added 91 elementary schools and five high schools, all without bankrupting the city.
But the “Willis Warehouse,” as it was called by the black press, was part of a larger pattern of school administration in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools presented its makeshift classrooms as a solution to the problem of soaring enrollments in neighborhoods with shifting populations, rather than improvisations intended to keep black students out of white schools with lower teacher-student ratios. As the Chicago Board of Education did not gather statistics on the racial composition of its schools, Willis, who was white, could pretend to be the color-blind defender of neighborhood schools.
That spring, Rosie Simpson was elected president of the newly formed 71st and Stewart Parent Council, named after the location of the warehouse-school the group pledged to close down. By June, it appeared that the council’s hard work negotiating with the school board had paid off. Following a suggestion by Simpson, Willis recommended that the renovated warehouse be turned over to Wilson Junior College, which badly needed the extra space.
But at the end of July, the parent council learned that CPS planned to install 25 mobile classrooms just a few blocks away, near the intersection of 73rd and Lowe. Parents dubbed the mobile classrooms “Willis Wagons.”
To parents, it seemed as if the location were picked out of spite. Located roughly a half mile away from the closest public elementary school, this planned educational archipelago was bounded on one side by an alley a block long and on the other by a curving railroad embankment.
As Willis later told the press, students would have to wait “only” two years while their new school building was being constructed.
In its call to block construction of the temporary site, the parent council had an ally in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Founded in Chicago in 1942, the interracial social justice group was dedicated to nonviolent principles. But its confrontational tactics had won the enmity of the Chicago press, particularly after CORE shut down the school board building during a July 18 sit-in in which it demanded concrete measures to desegregate Chicago schools. Comparing CORE’s methods to those of blackmailers and racketeers, the Chicago Daily News insisted that Mayor Daley and the school board “must do whatever is necessary” to make sure that CORE’s attempt to “coerce” the school system did not succeed.
The demonstrations that occurred along the railroad embankment in August 1963 hadn’t been the only protest against the wagons. But the intensity of the protests there can only be understood in the context of the desperation of a neighborhood. Parents would not be picketing a school, or even the future site of a school, but a useless field where no elementary school should be. Yet Englewood parents seemed to have had no supporters in the mainstream white print media. Of the 11 members of the school board, they had at best two allies. No one in power wanted to negotiate.
On Friday, August 2, the first day of protests, there were 67 arrests of both black and white demonstrators, virtually all for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. In the driving rain, they knelt or lay in the mud in front of construction trucks, defying police orders to move.
“I have three school-age children,” said one woman arrested for blocking a truck. “I intend to see that this segregated school system doesn’t hurt them anymore.”
Over that weekend, angry residents dumped broken washing machines, stoves, wrecked cars, and other trash on the worksite. As crews struggled to clear the field, 75 more protesters were arrested. The comedian Dick Gregory joined the demonstration, which gave the protests additional coverage. “One thing about these mobile units is that for the first time in the history of the world the schools can run away from the kids,” Gregory told the Chicago Daily News.
With the arrival of the first mobile classrooms, protesters obstructed police vehicles, climbed utility poles, lay on railroad tracks, and chained themselves together. “The action resembled a movie or television scene in which a settler’s wagon train is being attacked by Indians,” the Tribune opined.
The situation threatened to spiral out of control. Newspaper photos show protesters being tossed headfirst into police trucks. On August 13, the Chicago Police Department reported that several officers had suffered injuries from flying rocks. Accusing Chicago police officers of attempting to provoke the demonstrators, the Reverend John Porter told area residents, “We are going to proceed to sit-in with dignity, stand-in with dignity, lie down with dignity and stand up in our struggle for freedom in dignity.” Simpson, who had been arrested twice, called for three weeks of picketing and a possible boycott of CPS. “We are going to let Chicago and the whole world know we are tired of inferior education for our children.”
Willis, returning to the city from a lucrative consulting job for the state of Massachusetts, held a disastrous press conference at which he was unwilling or unable to answer any question about the conflict at 73rd and Lowe. Still, all four dailies continued to oppose the protesters. “The near riot at 73rd Street and Lowe Avenue is irrational not only because of the behavior of the mob but because the issue chosen as the occasion for violent demonstration does not merit serious attention,” complained the Tribune. Daley himself charged that the demonstrators were “outside agitators” that did not represent the parents of the school district.
Regardless, the autocratic Willis had clearly lost control of the situation, and while Simpson was away at the March on Washington, the school board voted unanimously to move all the trailers from 73rd and Lowe to three different elementary schools in black neighborhoods. This move drew protests, but not with the same intensity. Although Willis tendered his resignation that fall, the school board cravenly rejected it. A spectacular one-day boycott of the Chicago schools—which Simpson helped to organize—prompted nearly 225,000 pupils, some 47 percent of the district’s student body, to walk out of their classrooms. Willis remained schools superintendent until 1966.
Although some might see the victories won at 73rd and Lowe as limited, a small win in a bigger battle to desegregate public education, as many as 800 children were saved from spending two years in an educational trailer park, one with almost no facilities, under the rumble of freight trains. In 2016, those victories are worth celebrating—and worth learning from. v
Special thanks to University of Illinois at Chicago professor Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who spoke to the Reader for this story.