Monday, July 7, 2008

The shots heard `round the district.

Okay, I'm trying to condense 60+ years of history as background for the rest of the story. The key is to understand that Proviso High School was never what one would call an exceptional academic high school. This was working class territory. The graduates of Proviso typically went to work in industry, manufacturing, printing, line work. The areas largest employers were Western Electric, Continental Can Co., Sunbeam... Shift work. Union jobs in the trades. The kind of jobs that anchored communities. The district's student population swelled with post war baby boomers. By the mid 50s, a second campus was needed to accommodate the growth. At its zenith the school housed 5000 students. In 1958 Proviso West High School opened. Analysis of the 1960 Census data showed a student population of 8000 with projections of 10-12000 by the end of the decade. That should be the pride, history and tradition of Proviso. A reflection of the 10 hard-working communities that feed into the system.

Then Continental Can closed its factory in Maywood. Sunbeam moved its manufacturing plant. The local economy began to decline. The 60s were a tough decade in many ways, but nowhere was that more apparent than within the walls of Proviso East and Proviso West High School. The closed factories and lost jobs hit the Maywood community the hardest. A victim of the times? It's population had already begun to diversify as workers of all races tried to live closer to work. Blacks from Chicago found Maywood almost accepting, there had been a significant black population in Maywood since its earliest days. The combination of lost jobs in Maywood and the upheaval in Chicago's neighborhoods caused a major shift. White flight took hold. Proviso East High School experienced a shift in its demographics.

A young Maywoodian, Fred Hampton, entered the school in the fall of 1964. He became active in student government. By 1966 he was speaking out against policies that he felt were exclusionary. He lodged a formal protest that the school's homecoming court did not have a black representative even though the student body was 30% black. The reaction of school administrators and officials was predictable, but unfortunate. Rather than beginning a real dialogue on race, they closed off debate and discussion. They fell back to policy and tradition.
They reflected and fed the more racist leanings of some to the detriment of all.

By the time Hampton graduated in 1968 Proviso East was a racially balanced school; numbers wise, but was still thought of as a white high school. There was a sense that resources were being shifted to Proviso West. That some aspects of opportunity at East were being shut down. Racial tensions and incidents were becoming common.

On Thursday, December 4, 1969, everything exploded. On Chicago's west side, Fred Hampton, now a leader in the Black Panther movement, was killed. Assassinated in a pre-dawn raid. Word hit the Proviso East campus and students reacted. Badly. They defied school authorities who ordered them to return to class as though nothing had happened. The tensions that had been simmering were erupting in loud and angry ways. There were now two sides of willing combatants. The "system" broke down. Police were called in, followed shortly by the National Guard to "restore order". That only seemed to fuel the factions. Classes at East were cancelled. The Christmas break, scheduled to start the following week, was called early. Classes at Proviso West continued as usual.

During the break, the administration and board met and promulgated NEW RULES at Proviso East. The rules were published in the area's weekly papers and mailed to every student's home.
School IDs were to be worn at all times. Students were forbidden to congregate in groups of more than three. The incidents had been discussed; therefore no further discussion was allowed. Any student who defied a teacher or school employee would be expelled. Any student on school grounds was subject to search and interogation.

A sizable segment of the student body did not return when school reopened in January. Parents quickly transferred students into private schools or sent them to relatives while other arrangements were made.

The new rules were implemented and enforced. Some claim they were selectively enforced and targeted. At years end, students graduated from a very different place than they had known.
No further discussions were had. NO questions were answered. The students were told to forget it. This became POLICY.

In a few short years, Proviso East became a 98% black school, while Proviso West remained 98% white. Racial tensions at East largely dissappeared.

Private schools bulked up on the refugees. They offered an affordable, acceptable alternative.

But wait... it gets even stupider...

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