Monthly Archives: March 2014

Help Us Identify People In Englewood Protest

In early August of 1963, a protest took place at 73rd street and Lowe in Englewood at a site where the Chicago Board of Education was installing “Willis Wagons,” which were aluminum trailer classrooms used to perpetuate de facto school segregation.  The trailers were ordered to be placed on the playgrounds and parking lots of many African American schools as a permanent solution to overcrowding by CPS Superintendent Benjamin Willis.

The site was by train tracks.  Protestors picketed and covered the area with garbage.  Police and protestors clashed, resulting in many people being thrown in paddy wagons.  Comedian/activist Dick Gregory, Lillian Gregory and organizer Rosie Simpson took part in the protest.  Other protestors ID’d in a news articles below are William Yancey, Sibylle Bearskin, and Janet Haywood.

We have footage of the protest that took place in early August, 1963 at 73rd and Lowe.  Watch it below.  If you participated in that protest, please contact us through the site or at  If you know anybody who took part or recognize anyone in the video, encourage them to contact us.


Below are some photos and articles from the Chicago Daily News concerning the protest:

A History of Willis Wagons


In the early 1960s, “aluminum mobile school units” – in other words, trailers – were placed on the playgrounds and parking lots of African American schools as a permanent solution to overcrowding. The trailers, ordered by CPS Superintendent Benjamin Willis, were used to maintain de facto segregation in the schools. Sylvia Fischer, a 3rd grade teacher from Shoesmith Elementary and one of the organizers of the 1963 CPS Boycott, told us last year: “A school could be side by side, one would be white and one would be black, one would be comfortable in terms of the number of children in that school, and the other would be overcrowded to the point where sometimes the children were on double shift.”

Bob Lucas, another organizer of the Boycott and leader of Kenwood Oaklawn Community Organization, spoke with us several years ago: “When a black school that was close to a white school became overcrowded, rather than permitting the black kids to cross a block and go to the white schools, the Willis Wagons were put up on the campuses of the black schools in order to contain them.”


One of the key demands of the Boycott was that these trailers be removed. On August 6th, 1963, prior to the Boycott, a protest was organized by community leader and CPS parent Rosie Simpson on a site in Englewood at 73rd and Lowe where a school was being constructed entirely out of Willis Wagons. That’s right; no school, just trailers. We will be posting newly discovered original footage of that protest next week.

The trailers were eventually removed, although there are some reports of a few hanging around the Chicago Public school system as late as the 1990s.

Here’s an article by Paul West about Willis Wagons from the Chicago Tribune on August 3, 1963:

’63 Boycott at Chicago Filmmakers and KAM Temple

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Last Saturday, March 8, 2014, Chicago Filmmakers hosted a workshop called Interactive Storytelling: Models for Film and Media Makers, and invited the ’63 Boycott team to share our experiences. Associate Producer and Outreach Coordinator Rachel Dickson shared with fellow filmmakers some of the ins and outs of launching an interactive website and outreach campaign before the film itself is finished. To date, we have received over 40,000 unique visitors to our website and over 50 boycott participants have been tagged. We were joined on the panel by Kartemquin’s Dan Rybicky, who spoke about the interactive website for his film, Almost There, and three other talented filmmakers.

On Tuesday, March 11th, we presented the ’63 Boycott work in progress to the Munch and Learn group at the KAM Isaiah Israel Temple in Hyde Park. Over lunch, the group of over 30 community members asked questions, gave feedback, and shared their memories of the segregation and protests in their neighborhoods in the 60s. We were happy to be a part of the conversation.

Activist Remembers ’63 Boycott

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Chicago-based activist, artist and educator Dr. Marguerite Mariama-Moore sent us her memories of the 1963 Boycott and the Civil Rights movement:

Last year, as I watched coverage of the 50th anniversary commemoration of The March on Washington, I was quite moved by the many memories it evoked: I was 13 years old during the first march and although too young to travel alone, disappointed at not being allowed to go. However, years later, I made a point of taking the trek to DC to participate in the 20th anniversary celebration.

During the march in ’63, I distinctly remember how my family and I sat in front of the TV glued to every moment of that event. That same year, my friends and I boycotted school to take part in one of several small protest marches against the so-called ‘Willis Wagons”. It was scary to be guided into a police van (paddy wagon) and shocking to see adults who had been beaten for resisting arrest. Weeks later, as the number of marches grew, the effort congealed into a major movement that culminated in the now famous event in October 1963.

My civil rights activism continued and one of the most memorable experiences would take place, again, during my high school years. Participating in the July 1966 march and rally led by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from city hall to Solder Field, was exhilarating (at the time, my father – a policeman who later became a detective – stood guard in a security line in front of the building; I broke ranks with my fellow marchers to go over and hug my dad). My feelings of exhilaration and pride grew as the crowd moved toward the field growing larger by the minute. By the time we reached Soldier Field, the audience was huge. It was a powerful moment and a preview of what would become my life as an artist/activist/educator.

Marguerite Mariama-Moore, Ph.D.

Stories from the Cleveland Boycott

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Protestors in the 1964 Cleveland School Boycott

The 1963 Chicago Public School Boycott was part of a wave of community activism to desegregate schools across the country.  On April 20th, 1964, students in Cleveland Public Schools also boycotted for equality.  Howard Emmer, today an education activist in Chicago, contacted us with his story of the ’64 Cleveland Boycott:

I am currently involved in the Chicago “education justice” group, Parents 4 Teachers. As a 17-year old white high school student I participated in the April 20, 1964 school boycott in Cleveland, Ohio that was led by Cleveland Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). I grew up in Cleveland. I did not attend school that day at my suburban high school, Cleveland Heights High School, and instead I attended a Freedom School in a church in the Black community. I learned for the first time about Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and other aspects of Black History that day. When I returned to school the next day I handed in a form I had been given at the Freedom School that said I was out sick, “sick of segregation”! The school did not consider that an excused absence and I served a detention. That was the first time I was sanctioned for standing up for what I believed in.

The 1964 Cleveland school boycott mirrored the 1963 school boycott in Chicago. I have lived in Chicago for the past 31 years and am a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher. Chicago Public School policies of today perpetuate the racism I fought against almost 50 years ago. Today, schools are closed in high poverty communities of color, primarily the Black community. Most neighborhood schools are underfunded, suffer from large class size, and a two-tiered system that favors a few elite schools has emerged, due to CPS policies.

Howard Emmer today.

Thanks Howard!  We did a little cursory research on the Cleveland Boycott and found this write-up on Metropolitan Community Church’s website.  Read the whole article here and an excerpt below:

On April 20, 1964, an estimated 60,000 black children stayed away from district schools in a boycott organized by a group of ministers and civil rights activists known as the United Freedom Movement. That represented about 85 percent of black students in a district that then had more than 150,000 students overall.

Between 35,000 and 45,000 boycotting students — roughly the size of the entire district today — attended special schools set up by the UFM that day in churches, homes and community centers. They received lessons on the achievements of black people in government and the arts and lessons on the importance of education, all taught by volunteer housewives, social workers and former teachers from other districts.

“A loud voice representing hundreds of thousands of Cleveland citizens today shouted, ‘Segregated schools in Cleveland must go,’” UFM coordinator Harold Williams told The Plain Dealer at the end of that day.

The UFM’s most immediate complaint may strike many as odd today: the district’s plan to build new schools in black neighborhoods. But the group viewed that as a way to keep schools segregated.

The district ran neighborhood schools, so segregated neighborhoods had segregated schools. In some cases, black students at overcrowded schools were bused to other neighborhoods. That drew complaints and led to voters approving a school construction program in 1962.

The UFM protested construction of the new schools since that would prevent busing and integration, according to Plain Dealer accounts.

Two weeks before the boycott, the Rev. Bruce Klunder, a Presbyterian minister, had been killed when he tried to block a bulldozer with his body at a school construction site in Glenville.

Because of these and other protests, the school board agreed to bus black students to promote integration, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. But the disputes over busing and integration led to federal court oversight of the district, which did not end until the 1990s.

If you have any stories to share about the Chicago Boycott, the Cleveland Boycott, or any other school protest for that matter, please share your story with us!

An Update from CPS: West Side School Without Teachers, Former CPS Parent

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Rather than overcrowding, some high schools in Chicago are suffering from dwindling class sizes. WBEZ’s Linda Lutton reports on a high school in the Austin neighborhood where particularly low enrollment means that these students are going without teachers.

Read the article or listen below.


A former CPS parent writes to CPS blog District 299 about the effects of the school closings on his family:

I was unable to survive the closings, applied for 20 schools and got into none. So we are in private school as a result. I expect to pay an additional $175,000 in education costs for my daughter as a result of the school closings.

Read the article.

Leon Despres and the Boycott

This story was sent to us by Ben Alschuler:

I did not participate in the boycott, but my great uncle certainly did. His name was Leon M. Despres, and he was the alderman of Chicago’s Fifth Ward from 1955-1975.

This photo, taken by the Chicago Tribune and republished in his memoir, shows him being interviewed on that day at the Downtown Rally (Alderman Despres is to the right, with glasses).

Leon Despres was best known for being a perpetual thorn in Mayor Daley’s side and for his unwavering support of civil rights and fair housing. In fact, the black news magazine Negro Digest wrote an article about him in 1966 with the headline “The Only Real ‘Negro Voice’ In Chicago’s City Council.” This of course was during a period when there were actually six black aldermen serving on the City Council. These men, who were receiving benefits from Daley in exchange for their votes, were labeled “Silent Six.”

I highly recommend reading Leon’s article in the 1962 issue of Chicago Scene, entitled “The Most Segregated City in the North — Chicago.” ( In this article, one year before the ’63 boycott, Leon summed the situation up thusly:

“Our local governments — city, school board, and park district — give to the segregated area the least good schools, the lowest per capita recreation facilities, the poorest police protection, and the poorest municipal services. The school board passively follows a ‘neighborhood’ school policy, i.e. it simply accepts residential segregation as a foundation for schooling.”

He continued:

“To Chicagoans of African descent, Chicago has done something it never did to any other arrivals. The Chicago descendents of European immigrants, as they proved their abilities and exercised their choice, have been allowed the option of moving out of the immigrant neighborhoods and into multi-group middle and upper class white neighborhoods. But the Chicago descendents of African immigrants, no matter how educated, wealthy, accomplished, urbane, moral, or law-abiding — with the exception of those few who live on an island of hope such as Hyde Park-Kenwood and Lake Meadows — must remain forever in the segregated area. There is also housing discrimination against Chicagoans of Jewish and Asian ancestry, but it is not comparable in extent or ferocity with the segregation of Negro Chicagoans.”

I only met Len, as he was known to his family and friends, at the tender age of 101 during my family reunion in Chicago in July of 2008, shortly before he passed away. I am very grateful for the opportunity to have met him.

Controversy Over ISAT Leads to Boycott

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Photo from Empathy Educates

This week, a controversy at Chicago Public Schools has sparked an interesting debate that, at its heart, is about communities controlling their children’s education.  The Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) is being administered in classrooms all over the city this week.  Frustration arose after CPS made the decision to switch from the ISAT to another standardized test, the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP) test, to determine promotions and eligibility for highly selective high schools.

Why administer ISAT then?  The Tribune reports:

“The test is being administered only to fulfill a No Child Left Behind requirement, while more than half of states have sought waivers from such requirements,” AFT (American Federation of Teachers) President Randi Weingarten said in a news release.

“The test won’t inform instruction or assess student or teacher performance. It is not relevant to the current curriculum. It’s a meaningless hoop to jump through that benefits no one. So, why subject kids to it?”

Students are allowed to opt out, but some CPS parents are complaining that teachers and administrators have put undue pressure on them to take the test. 25 parents filed suit against CPS with the ACLU as a result. Teachers at two schools have voted to boycott the ISAT, refusing to administer it entirely.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments box below.

Chicago Tribune – a comprehensive look at the recent controversy.  Includes video.

ABC7 Chicago – includes video

Chicago Now – a blog about Chicago Public Schools that opposes standardized testing