This Sunday marks 60 years to the day nearly 250,000 CPS students “skipped school.”
It wasn’t a skip-day, though — it was a boycott. Students and their parents flooded the streets of Chicago in what’s known as Freedom Day, a massive protest of the segregation in Chicago Public Schools and the superintendent at the time, Benjamin Willis.
An excerpt from Rachel Dickson’s “Why should we commemorate the 1963 Chicago Public School boycott?”:
“The superintendent of schools, Benjamin Willis, had to do something to address the overcrowding, but instead of allowing students to cross the color barrier, he started placing trailers in the parking lots of the black schools. Rosie Simpson of the Englewood community called them the “Willis Wagons.” In some schools, segregation was maintained even within the school, such as at Waller High School (now Lincoln Park High School), where classes of white children continued to meet inside the building, but classes of black children were forced to meet inside the trailers. Tensions mounted, and parents started organizing. In some cases, they laid in the dirt overnight to prevent bulldozers from coming to prepare the ground for trailers to be placed.”
Charles Smith, a former organizer and leader with the Congress of Racial Equality, known as CORE, was 22 at the time and participated in the 1963 CPS boycott.
“There was a combination of multiple groups that came together to make it happen,” Smith said. “We thought it was really important for kids not to go to school that day because CPS got paid by the headcount, so we were penalizing the school system.”
CPS suffered a $470,000 financial loss on Freedom Day alone.
Elisabeth Greer, co-founder and board member of Chicago United for Equity, said the 1963 CPS boycott has served as an example to follow for herself and others.
“It’s inspiring,” Greer said, “and it taught me that boycotting and fighting against the system is possible.”
More recently, a group of people including Greer, other parents, teachers and students was able to save National Teachers Academy, a high-performing predominantly Black pre-K through eighth grade school in the South Loop, from becoming a high school under the demand of affluent families in the community.
“It was largely a result of us building upon what had come before us in 1963,” Greer said. “… If they did it back then when the situation was so oppressive in the ‘60s, then we could do it as well. We fought for our existence. … It seemed like it was a fight impossible to win. We were fortunate to be able to win our fight through the legal system. …We’re still open and thriving.”
Join Chicago Tonight host Brandis Friedman on Monday, Oct. 30, at noon for a virtual “Black Voices” Community Conversation for a much deeper dive into the 1963 CPS boycott, and hear from other organizers and leaders at the time. To RSVP, visit wttw.com/events.