Part III in a series on the history of educational equity efforts in Oak Park and the surrounding area:
School integration in the Chicago area has always depended on neighborhood housing integration and largely still does. For most of the 20th century, Oak Park was in step with white sentiments across America and took its own place in the larger resurgence of racism, anti-Semitism, and nativism in the years after World War I. In the 1920s white racial hostility grew in Oak Park, as evidenced by over 300 members openly participating in the Walosas Club, the Oak Park chapter of the women’s Ku Klux Klan. The only Black church in Oak Park, Mount Carmel, was mysteriously set ablaze in 1923. It never reopened and much of the small Black population left for Maywood and Chicago.
Starting with the violent attacks by white mobs on black residents in Chicago’s infamous 1919 race riot, with 23 Black and 15 white deaths, forward through the period of Oak Park housing and school integration in the ’70s and ’80s. The African-American community in Chicago endured and resisted blatant racist school policies. Community groups including the NAACP repeatedly challenged these injustices. Blacks in Maywood would do the same in the Civil Rights Era and in the late ’70s. The Proviso Teachers Union, in an alliance with 13 Maywood community groups called COPE (Coalition for Outstanding Proviso Education) demanded a voice in curriculum planning to counter the proposed downgrading of graduation requirements.
Chicago – separate and unequal
The overwhelming consensus among Chicago African-American education advocates in the generations before school integration in Oak Park was that ending segregation was the best path to equal education opportunity for black children. Racial inequities tied to segregation were pervasive in Chicago schools. These included permissive transfers of white students out of Black schools, 50 percent less resources for operations in Black schools, a higher percentage of first-year teachers, higher proportions of substitute and uncertified teachers, and higher percentage of teacher departures in Black schools compared to white schools.
Overcrowding in black schools was appalling, with school populations twice that of white schools. According to the NAACP investigation, 80 percent of Black schools had double shifts where students had three hours of school, compared to five hours in single-shift schools. Only 2 percent of white schools did. Class size was 31 in white schools and 39 in Black. On top of these inequities, a racist curriculum tracking system was pervasive.
Tracking of working-class whites and students of color was pioneered through re-structuring designed by the Commercial Club of Chicago at the start of the 20th century. This meant a two-tiered system — one for working-class children and one for families of the middle class and manager class. The Chicago Federation of Teachers, America’s first teachers union, under the leadership of Margaret Haley, militantly opposed corporate Chicago’s tracking as unjust and undemocratic.
In the first decades of the 20th century, scientists claimed to offer new evidence to rationalize the tracking system that Black, Latinx students, and poor white students endured. They created the culturally- and racially-biased IQ test which was used to sort students. Tracking for Black children in Chicago equaled limited education opportunity and being subjected to large doses of remedial and vocational learning. Some of these same practices would appear in Oak Park when schools eventually integrated in the 1970s.
Proviso – segregation and resistance to integration
In 1967, before real integration came to Oak Park, Black students rose up against racially unjust practices and white-dominant traditions at Proviso East High School. Black students were spurred on by many years of school and housing protests in Chicago and inspired by the new Black Power ideology of militantly resisting oppressive racial injustices. Their rebellion, called “riots” in the media, and by dominant culture defenders, started as a protest against what had been a perennial ritual — white students selecting an all-white Arbor Court which would reign over an annual dinner, dance and celebration.
In 1967, when the court was announced at Proviso, a large racial fight broke out. Cook County police were brought in and patrolled the school for days in this first of Black student revolts around the nation. Similar actions followed in 1968 with the assassination of Dr. King. In December of 1969, following the assassination of Fred Hampton, the Black student rebellion resumed after the school refused to memorialize the Maywood graduate who led local youth civil rights actions as a student, and then became chairman of the Black Panther Party.
At Proviso Black student academic grievances were numerous. There were few Black teachers in a school where 30 percent of students were African American. Students read only white American literature, and history classes and texts were devoid of racially affirming Black history and culture. Well into the ’60s in Maywood, job advertisements for high school students specified white applicants only. In a pattern to be repeated in Oak Park, Black students were virtually excluded from academic courses in a racially segregated curriculum tracking system.
Oak Park schools – a different path?
Meanwhile, by the early ’70s there were only a few dozen African-American students in Oak Park schools. Still, both Black and white community leaders knew a significant change was underway. As related in episode two, fair housing received early and dominant attention in Oak Park in the post-Civil Rights Era. By 1975 schools became the central focus. Just how to manage integration in education in ways that the dominant culture would support consumed school leaders and brought major opposition from large numbers of white parents.
Our next episode turns to the tumultuous beginnings of “managed integration” in Oak Park schools.
John Duffy is a co-founder of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education.