How blacks, particularly on the West Side, fought to learn

UIC professor's new book outlines blacks' struggle for better education on West and South Sides

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By Bonni McKeown

The West Side's role in Black Chicago's battle for better education was illuminated on April 24 at Hull House, where Elizabeth Todd-Breland, an assistant history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, presented her new book, "A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago since the 1960s."

Published by the University of North Carolina Press, the book traces the 1960s protests over second-rate school facilities, black teachers' battles for equal standing with whites in the Chicago Teachers Union, and protests over school closings and privatization during the Daley and Rahm Emanuel administrations.  

The struggle for equal education among blacks in Chicago started with the waves of black southern migrants during the 20th century. Many blacks were hemmed into a few South Side neighborhoods by racial housing codes and were only admitted to certain schools. 

For instance, Hefferan Elementary was 94 percent black and overcrowded, while nearby Horatio May had virtually no black students. Classes were so packed that black students had to attend in half-day morning or afternoon shifts, and black schools received only 60 percent of the Chicago Public Schools money that went to white schools. 

When city school superintendent Benjamin Willis began to order the building of temporary prefab classrooms rather than integrating and sharing facilities, community leaders including Brenetta Howell Barnett led West and South Side boycotts against the "Willis Wagons." 

In 1963, 250,000 students walked out of school in protest. The local community's goal, the historians agreed, was not racial integration as much as it was better facilities.

Meanwhile, educators like Dr. Barbara Sizemore, Marva Collins and Hannibal Afrik (Harold Charles), saw that "integration" often meant black teachers got fired and black students were tracked into lower level classes. 

In 1963, as principal of Dvorak Elementary, Sizemore got rid of grading and tracking and infused the curriculum with African studies. Her students' test scores rose. She later challenged racial bias in standardizing testing as Washington D.C.'s superintendent of public schools.

 Collins started her own West Side Prep School and gave special attention to disadvantaged children, but was unable to sustain it. Afrik helped form a national network of independent Afro-centric schools and led a move to employ neighborhood black contractors to work in schools. Civil rights leaders, whose ultimate goal was integration, were not in synch; they saw these efforts as separatist. 

As manufacturing left the West Side in the 1960s for the south and overseas, black people found steady middle class jobs in teaching. They pushed for a greater voice in the Chicago Teachers Union and more community say-so in schools. Local School Councils began under Mayor Harold Washington. By the mid-90s, Mayor Richard M. Daley had re-centralized power at city hall. 

Since then, city policies have favored more charter schools, closing public schools and hiring of young white teachers. The CTU under Karen Lewis fought back, engaging parents and students in strikes for better working and learning conditions.   

Schools need funding systems to encourage equity in resources, Todd-Breland said.   

Property taxes systems build up schools in wealthy areas and starve those in poor areas. Poverty itself affects children's ability to learn. Policies that tie education funding to students' performance on arbitrary tests end up penalizing rather than helping poor kids.  

"In this age of austerity," she said, the issue is where to get the education investments from. 

Todd-Breland said she was motivated to write her book based on her experience working in a charter school and attending a CPS school led by Sizemore. 

"Black communities were not seen as places that generated ideas for better education," she said, "but my research was showing otherwise. When federal money comes in, people in the community want a voice in how that money is spent. History can help us challenge these false narratives."


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