Walking by Van Buren and Ogden on the West Side, visitors looking closely at the entrance sign along the walkway to Malcolm X College will see the carving of a fist, one of the school’s main symbols “back in the day.”
Built in 1970, Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Van Buren St., a center for the “black power movement” on the West Side in the 1970s, attracted people from across the country.
The college attracted idealistic young teachers and socially conscious students. Black political figures and entertainers flocked to the only school in the nation at the time bearing the name of Malcolm X.
But before the campus was built, the two-year community college was located on the third floor at Crane High School in 1967, about a block away from its current site. It wasn’t yet named after the slain civil rights leader either, but was called Crane Junior College.
The city planned to build a new building on the West Side and considered naming it after a historical black figure. Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. were considered.
But the students attending college at Crane wanted their new school named after someone they more closely identified with. Malcolm X was their choice, but not the choice of the white community-college officials, according to teachers and students who were there from the start.
“We were more of the mindset of Malcolm X than Dr. King,” said Allen Hood, a student at Crane Junior College and member of Malcolm X College’s first graduating class.
Hood opened a clothing store on the school’s first floor after graduating and has remained a fixture with the school as a volunteer and “unofficial” historian of the school. Hood, a father or four, knows the school like the back of his hand.
As the ’60s were winding down, Hood and other students wanted to make sure city officials named the school after Malcolm X. They held protests and organized the students. Crane’s third floor also could not hold the growing number of junior college students wanting to attend.
City officials, who, according to Hood, wanted to name the college after any black figure other than Malcolm X, eventually relented, albiet reluctantly. The college had its name.
Until the campus was built, teachers and students set up temporary spaces at a Cook County Hospital building across the bridge from the Van Buren site and another location near Maxwell Street. The two spaces were named after Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, both of whom led slave rebellions in 1860s. On April 10, 1971, Malcolm X College opened its doors.
Students and faculty marched across the bridge on Ogden from CCH to the new campus. The three-story, sleek black building was an architectural marvel (Truman College on the North Side would be built with a similar look).
The school attracted attention in and out of Chicago.
“This school became a mecca for anyone who was black and living at that time,” said Bernard Williams, the school’s current director of public relations, who frequented the school in the ’70s while working in local television.
In the early years, afros and dashikis were the norm, and a raised fist in the air meant power. The school attracted such notable blacks as Nikki Giovanni, Stokley Carmichael and Jesse Jackson. Entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr. visited the school. Gospel singers Andre and Sandra Crouch and the R&B group Earth, Wind and Fire, would perform at the college.
Chicago news reporter Harry Porterfield and radio personality Herb “Cool Gent” Kent also visited the school in the early days.
NBC Channel 5 news anchor Warner Saunders and Cong. Danny Davis (7th Dist.) taught classes there in the 1970s. A former member of the Harlem Globetrotters, John Wilson, would coach the men’s basketball team in the late ’70s.
Along with a recording studio on campus, the college had a television studio and produced shows highlighting the school and community. Those programs were broadcast on Channel 26 and were so popular and innovative that the city colleges of Chicago would follow suit and put programs about the other city colleges on the channel. The television studio eventually relocated to Kennedy-King College on the South Side, but the City College’s station, now on channel 20, began at Malcolm X.
Along with music and television, the school had dance, drama and literature clubs, among others, geared toward the black experience.
“The students were more socially conscious and came in with an understanding about their culture and who they were,” said Madeleine Norton, an instructor in Communcation and Fine Arts, who started as a project coordinator in the school’s learning and instruction resources department in 1971 before evenutally moving to teaching.
The college, not surprisingly, attracted political and social figures.
The Black Panther Party, which began organizing students at Crane, moved over to the new campus. Chicago chapter leaders, Bobby Rush, now a U.S. congressman, and the late Fred Hampton, recruited members there.
Before the decade was out, enrollment would reach 8,000 students, but many folk came to the school just to be a part of it.
Some of the teachers, like Norton who started in the 1970s, were young themselves.
“It was my first teaching experience,” said Gladys Harris, who started in the business department as a lab supervisor before becoming an instructor in communications and fine arts. “I had so much energy and enthusiam because I wanted to make a difference. I’ve been married to this school.”
Much of the school’s early reputation is credited to the campus’ first president, Charles G. Hurst.
Hurst would implement ideas that were at the time considered radical, including having the school celebrate Nat Turner’s birthday instead of Christopher Columbus. By 1973, Hurst was replaced. The school, though, continued on.
As the times changed, so did the atmosphere at the school. Presidents immediately succeeding Hurst had their own ideas about what the school should be. The institution would see six more presidents, including four between 1988 and 1991. Since 1992, Zerrie Campbell, a former instructor at the college, has served longest.
So many students now, Norton and Harris said, are more concerned about their cellphones and outfits than their history. But the school’s legacy, many believe, will stand the test of time.