Race and the Politics of Chicago’s Public Schools: Benjamin Willis and the Tragedy of Urban Education

  • John L. Rury

Abstract

This essay examines the development of schools and educational policies in one city, Chicago, Illinois, during a time when its school system underwent a process of dramatic change. The Chicago schools were led by Superintendent Benjamin Coppage Willis from 1953 to 1966, one of the most widely acclaimed urban school leaders of his time. Public education in Chicago became something of a showcase under Willis’ leadership, but it also ultimately came to exhibit many of the problems of racial inequity and discrimination endemic to the age, most of which he was quite reluctant to acknowledge publicly. Eventually, however, Willis was not able to avoid these issues, and he became embroiled in the growing storm of controversy over racial injustice in education following the historic 1954 Brown decision. The long-standing political arrangements that had guided big city school systems since the progressive era, and which had become so familiar and comfortable for him, proved inadequate to the task of governing urban public education in the era of civil rights. The challenges facing the school leaders of this period were further compounded by the process of suburbanization and the subsequent transformation of urban neighborhoods along the line of race and social class. As Whites left the city in ever-larger numbers, Chicago became a different city in the 1960s, and this presented a host of challenges that its educators had not faced before.1

Keywords

Migration Transportation Income Explosive Hunt 

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. 2.
    For an influential statement on the state of urban education in the 1980s and 1990s, one that accepts the proposition of urban school inferiority, see Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in Americas Schools (New York: Harper, 1991), passim.Google Scholar
  2. On the low state of public opinion regarding big city school systems, particularly regarding perceptions of bureaucratic control, see Dan A. Lewis and Kathryn Nakagawa, Race and Educational Reform in the American Metropolis: A Study of School Decentralization (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), Ch. 2.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    These figures are calculated from data in Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1975),Ch. A;Google Scholar
  4. and Idem., 1980 Census of Population, Volume 1, Characteristics of the Population, Chapter A, Number of Inhabitants, Part I, United States Summary (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1983), 227;Google Scholar
  5. also see Kenneth Fox, Metropolitan America: Urban Life and Urban Policy in the United States 1940–1980 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1985), 51.Google Scholar
  6. On the urban-suburban migration at this time and its effect, see Jon C. Teaford, The Twentieth Century American City, Second Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), passim;Google Scholar
  7. also see Kenneth T. Jackson, The Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), Ch. 12.Google Scholar
  8. 4.
    These figures are from Irving Cutler, Chicago: Metropolis of the Mid-Continent, Third Edition (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishers, 1982), Ch. 5, and Chicago Fact Book Consortium, Area Fact Book: Chicago Metropolitan Area, 1980 (Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago, 1984), xvi, xvii;Google Scholar
  9. For a discussion of early trends, see Otis Dudley Duncan and Beverly Duncan, The Negro Population of Chicago: A Study of Residential Succession (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), Ch. VIII;Google Scholar
  10. also see Paul Kleppner, Chicago Divided: The Making of a Black Mayor (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1985), Ch. 2;Google Scholar
  11. and Ann Durkin Keating, Building Chicago: Suburban Developers and the Creation of a Divided Metropolis (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988), passim.Google Scholar
  12. 5.
    Fox, Metropolitan America, Ch. 2; Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, Ch. 15; Arnold Hirsch, “With or Without Jim Crow: Black Residential Segregation in the United States,” in Arnold R. Hirsch and Raymond Mohl, eds., Urban Policy in Twentieth Century America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 65–99;Google Scholar
  13. and Andrew Hacker, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile and Unequal (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992), Ch. 1.Google Scholar
  14. 6.
    Gregory D. Squires, Larry Bennett, Kathleen McCourt, and Phillip Nyden, Chicago: Class, Race and the Response to Urban Decline (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), Chs. 2 and 4.Google Scholar
  15. 8.
    For changes in the 1950s, and conflicts over changing housing patterns, see Arnold Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), passim. On subsequent years, see Kleppner, Chicago Divided, Chs. 2, 3 & 4;Google Scholar
  16. William J. Grimshaw, Bitter Fruit: Black Politics and the Chicago Machine, 1931–1991 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), Chs. 5 and 6.Google Scholar
  17. Also see Gary Rivlin, Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race (New York: Henry Holt, 1992), Ch. 1.Google Scholar
  18. 10.
    On this point see William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), Ch. 1;Google Scholar
  19. also see Wilson’s earlier book, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), Chs. 2 and 4;Google Scholar
  20. and Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), Ch. 4.Google Scholar
  21. 11.
    On the development of the Chicago Public Schools in the early twentieth century, see John David Hogan, Class and Reform: School and Society in Chicago, 1880–1930 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), Chs. 1 and 2;Google Scholar
  22. and Julia Wrigley, Class, Politics and Public Schools: Chicago, 1900–1950 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1982), Chs. 1 and 2.Google Scholar
  23. Also see Mary Herrick, The Chicago Schools: A Social and Political History (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1971), Ch. 4.Google Scholar
  24. 13.
    For an overview of the system under Willis’ leadership in the 1950s, see Herrick, The Chicago Schools, Ch. 16. On Willis’ building campaign and growth in the systern, see Cynthia Ann Wneck, “Big Ben the Builder: School Construction, 1953–66” (Ph.D. diss., Loyola University—Chicago, 1989), Chs. III, IV, and V.Google Scholar
  25. 15.
    For a capsule portrait of Willis, his major accomplishments and personality, see Larry Cuban, Urban School Chiefs Under Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 1–8.Google Scholar
  26. For Willis’ somewhat rocky relationship with the press, see Thomas Foster Koerner, “Benjamin C. Willis and the Chicago Press” (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1968), Introduction.Google Scholar
  27. 16.
    The quote can be found in Herrick, The Chicago Schools, p. 425. For Tyack’s characterization of urban school leaders, see David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot, Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 1820–1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1982), Part II.Google Scholar
  28. 18.
    The quote is from “Statement on September 6, 1961 to Television Reporters and Press,” Box 3, Willis Papers. On Willis’ professed ignorance of racial composition of the Chicago Public Schools’ students and staff, see Alan B. Anderson and George W. Pickering, Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986), 77. On Willis’ opposition to bussing and other alternatives to the neighborhood schools, see Wneck, “Big Ben the Builder,” Ch. VII.Google Scholar
  29. 19.
    Robert J. Havighurst, The Public Schools of Chicago: A Survey for the Board of Education of the City of Chicago (Chicago: Chicago Board of Education, 1964), Ch. X. Havighurst reports the correlation between socio-economic status and achievement levels as .8. My own calculations show the relatiosnhip between race (percent black) and achievement to be slightly weaker and negative at -.72. Interestingly, socio-economic status was positively associated with college plans (-.71), and negatively associated with remedial reading enrollments (-.54). Black enrollment was positively correlated with remedial reading (.86) and negatively with socio-economic status (-.47). Clearly, race and socio-economic status worked together in Chicago’s high schools to produce two quite different patterns of achievement. On current levels of achievement in Chicago schools, see The Chicago Assembly, Educational Reform for the 21st Century (Chicago: Harris Graduate School of Public Policy, 1998), 36, and the background report prepared for the Assembly by Melissa Roderick, “Educational Trends and Issues in the Region, the State and the Nation.” The Chicago Assembly report indicates that only about 20 percent of Chicago eleventh grade students scored above national medians in reading and math during the early 1990s. Roderick documents the low achievement levels in contemporary Chicago Public High Schools: by 1990 only about 10 percent of Chicago public high school students scored in the top quartile in mathematics and reading achievement on nationally normed tests (54).Google Scholar
  30. 20.
    “De Facto Segregation in Chicago Public Schools,” The Crisis 65 (February 1958), 87–95, 126–127; Herrick, The Chicago Public Schools, pp. 310–312; Anderson and Pickering, Confronting the Color Line, Ch. 3. Chicago, of course had a long history of racial inequality in education, and this also may have contributed to heightened sensitivities on these questions. See Michael W. Homel, Down From Equality: Black Chicagoans and the Public Schools, 1920–1941 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), passim,Google Scholar
  31. and Judy Jolley Mohraz, The Separate Problem: Case Studies of Black Education in the North, 1900–1930 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979), passim.Google Scholar
  32. 22.
    The best account of this is in Anderson and Pickering, Confronting the Color Line, Ch. 3. For an overview of issues of racial inequity in Chicago’s schools in the latter 1950s and 1960s, see William A. Vrame, “A History of School Desegregation in Chicago since 1954” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1971), passim.Google Scholar
  33. 26.
    These events are described in fulsome detail in Anderson and Pickering, Confronting the Color Line, Ch. 3. Also see Herrick, The Chicago Schools, Ch. 16; Cuban, Urban School Chiefs Under Fire, Ch. 1; and James R. Ralph, Jr., Northern protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago and the Civil Rights Movement (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 14–25.Google Scholar
  34. 28.
    Roger Biles, Richard J. Daley: Race, Politics and Chicago (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996), 100; Herrick, The Chicago Schools, Ch. 17; Cuban, Urban School Chiefs Under Fire, 21–29.Google Scholar
  35. 29.
    Thomas F. Koerner, “Benjamin C. Willis and the Chicago Press,” 225–230. Hundreds of Bogan parents came to Board of Education meetings to protest voluntary transfer plans, including Willis’, but cheered Willis loudly and carried signs saying “We Support Dr. Willis.” Koerner suggests that Willis realized his support came from Whites, and that this made him responsive to their demands. Also see Cuban, Urban School Chiefs Under Fire, 17. For a somewhat abstract analysis of community mobilization around education issues in this period, see Joseph Weres, “School Politics in 33 Community Areas in Chicago” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1971), 57, 149, and 173. Weres notes that opposition to school integration was already highly organized in the period immediately following Willis’ departure.Google Scholar
  36. 30.
    The best account of mobilization in the Black community and among civil rights organizations is Anderson and Pickering, Confronting the Color Line, particularly Chs. 4, 5, and 6. Referring to the 1963 controversy over Willis, Anderson and Pickering note that “organized white neighborhood groups, such as the Bogan parents, became outspoken in his behalf,” but they offer no details of how widespread such a movement was. See 117–118. On white community mobilization over housing issues, see Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, Ch. 4; and Eileen M. McMahon, What Parish are You From? A Chicago Irish Community and Race Relations (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), passim.Google Scholar
  37. 32.
    Anderson and Pickering, for instance, note that Alderman James Murray spoke out forcefully against voluntary transfers, helping to incite and agitate Bowen demonstrators. See Confronting the Color Line, 117. Even Black alderman, long loyal to the Mayor, spoke in favor of Willis. See for instance, Koerner, “Benjamin C. Willis and the Chicago Press,” 126 and 257. For an especially adroit analysis of how the Daley Mayoral administration dealt with school politics in this period, see Paul E. Peterson, School Politics Chicago Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), Chs. 4 and 7.Google Scholar
  38. 39.
    Ibid. Interestingly, some Catholic leaders suggested that parochial school enrollments would insure neighborhood stability, a way of avoiding White flight. See John T. McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 240–241; Peterson, School Politics Chicago Style, 168; Kleppner, Chicago Divided, 55.Google Scholar
  39. 41.
    Peterson, School Politics Chicago Style, 165–173; on Redmond’s experiences in New Orleans, see Alan Wieder, Race and Education: Narrative Essays, Oral Histories, and Documentary Photography (New York: Peter Lang, 1997), Ch. 6. Of course, there had been considerable conflict over housing issues in the period immediately prior to the school crisis. See Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto, Chs. 1, 2, 3, and 7. Hirsch makes no reference to school issues, but it is clear that in some areas of the city—such as the Southwest side—they were clearly connected. On this point see Kleppner, Chicago Divided, 55.Google Scholar
  40. 42.
    Jennifer Hochschild, The New American Dilemma: Liberal Democracy and School Desegregation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), Ch. 5. On newspaper support for neighborhood schools, see Koerner, “Benjamin C. Willis and the Chicago Press,” 98–99, 119, and 143. On support for Willis, see 151, 161, 236 and 278.Google Scholar
  41. 46.
    Ibid.; also see G. A. Hess, Jr., School Restructuring, Chicago Style (Newberry Park: Corwin Press, 1990) passim;Google Scholar
  42. Maribeth Vander Weele, Reclaiming Our Schools: The Struggle for Chicago School Reform (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1994), passim;Google Scholar
  43. and G. A. Hess, Jr., “Introduction: School Based Management as a Vehicle for School Reform,” Education and Urban Society 26:3 (May 1994): 203–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 47.
    See Kenneth Wong, Robert Dreeben, Laurence E. Lynn, Jr., and Gail L. Sunderman. Integrated Governance as a Reform Strategy in the Chicago Public Schools: A Report on System-wide School Governance Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Department of Education, 1997), Passim.Google Scholar
  45. 48.
    Ibid. On patterns of inequality in the Chicago region, see The Chicago Assembly, Education Reform for the 21st Century, 37. As indicated in this report, Chicago schools enroll more than 70 percent of the low-income children in the region, and more than 60 percent of children from minority ethnic groups, even though they serve only about a third of the total metropolitan student population. For a national perspective on persistent educational inequities, see William L. Taylor, “The Continuing Struggle for Equal Educational Opportunity,” in John Charles Boger and Judith Welch Wegner, eds., Race, Poverty and American Cities (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 463–489.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John L. Rury 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • John L. Rury

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations