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

  • John L. Rury


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


Public School Black Community Black Student White Student Chicago School 
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© John L. Rury 2005

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