Stories and memories of the '63 Boycott from participants themselves.
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1962 Burnside Sit-In Finally Gets a Memorial

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A new mosaic mural at Burnside Scholastic Academy commemorates a pivotal moment in the movement to desegregate Chicago’s schools.

Throughout the month of January 1962, students and parents held a sit-in at Burnside School to protest de facto segregation in Chicago Public Schools.  The school board had redrawn district lines to relieve overcrowding, transferring many students at predominantly African American Burnside School.  However, instead of integrating nearby Perry School, a predominantly white school, black students were sent to distant Gillespie Upper Grade Center, drastically increasing their morning commute.  Tony Burroughs, who was 12 when he participated in the sit-in, recalls that Gillespie was seventeen blocks away from his house, while Perry was a mere four blocks from Burnside.

Starting on January 2, students and parents, filled the main hallway of the school.  Around 17 students and 29 parents at Burnside participated.  Sixteen parents and civil rights workers were arrested on January 16 and another ten were arrested on January 17th.  The charges against all defendants were dropped.  A court injunction was denied and eventually the students transferred to Gillespie.

The protest was modeled on similar lunch counter sit-in demonstrations in the South, and was organized primarily by the mothers of Burnside’s PTA, led by Alma Coggs.  After the first day of the protest, ministers and local civil rights workers, mostly from The Woodlawn Organization, were inspired to join the PTA moms.  Protests started breaking out at schools across the city.

In effect, the 1962 Burnside Sit-In established the loose coalition whose greatest success would be the massive school boycotts of ’63 and ’64.  A combination of civil rights organizations, parents, and educators with the support of ministers worked together to form the organizing bodies of these demonstrations.  The sit-in also affirmed that the community by-and-large would openly support the movement against segregation.


8th grader Amiya Smith speaks at the dedication.

Last Thursday, a memorial to the 1962 Burnside Sit-In was dedicated in the very hallway where it took place at Burnside Scholastic Academy.  Tony Burroughs, noted genealogist and author, who participated in the sit-in with his parents when he was 12, said the memorial was a tribute to the parents who taught their children to stand up for change.  “This wall means that the mothers can finally get the respect and recognition they deserve,” Mr. Burroughs told the attendees, a few of whom had also participated in the sit-in.

Anne Smith looks at a picture of her sister, Alma Coggs, head of Burnside’s PTA at the time of the protest.

The mosaic mural was designed by artist Carolyn Elaine, who enlisted the help of Burnside students to complete it.  Two 8th graders, Amiya Smith and Deon Myles, also spoke at the dedication.   Principal Kelly Thigpen is incorporating this history into the school’s culture; the first five days of school for all Burnside students will now include a lesson about the 1962 Sit-In and a trip to the mural.  There are also seats in the hallway dedicated to each participant in the sit-in featuring pictures, news clippings and captions.  These chairs will become reading hubs for students.


Mr. Burroughs, whose efforts to have this event memorialized have been tireless, was beaming as he showed patrons around the exhibit.  “The sit-in has been buried for 50 years,” he said,  “But now, from these walls, Burnside students will never forget their history.”


See the rest of our photos after the jump.

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Educational apartheid in Chicago and the black teachers revolt of the 1960s

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We just discovered this excellent and exhaustive article exploring the revolt of Chicago’s African American teachers in 1960s.  From Daily Kos’s Bob Simpson:

The revolt transformed Chicago public education, improving the curriculum and bringing more democracy into school policymaking. It also hastened the “white flight” of many white parents who believed racial politics in Chicago was a zero sum game, that gains by blacks must inevitably come at their expense. It helped pave the way for the election of the progressive Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, a man who deeply believed in the power of multi-racial coalitions.

Read the whole article.

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:

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!

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.

Remembering Roberta Galler, 1936-2014

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One of the organizers of the 1963 Boycott, Roberta Galler (pictured above, center) passed away on Wednesday. She leaves behind a legacy of Civil Rights activism.

Retired Chicago teacher Fred Klonsky posted this on his blog:

Fellow Boycott organizers Don Rose and Rosie Simpson, both featured in our forthcoming documentary, sent us statements as well.

Don Rose:

“Roberta’s death is a real loss. So smart, dedicated and competent. Working alongside her in numerous civil rights activities in Chicago was a pleasure, a privilege and a major learning experience. She is one of the few people who really made things happen while others stood before the cameras and took the credit. I was especially impressed when she told me about working “undercover” as kind of a spy in a white racist/anti-Semitic group–I believe for a Jewish agency. Took guts and courage in addition to all the qualities I mentioned above.”

Rosie Simpson:

“Roberta was an extraordinary person. Roberta was really committed to the movement and was an inspiration to a lot of people, especially in the SNCC office. She was a dynamic person. I’m grateful that our paths crossed, and her personality was just – I wish I could’ve had a personality like hers. She always smiled, was always upbeat, and always positive.”

Fannie Rushing:

“I was deeply saddened to read of the death of Roberta Galler. She was truly an instrumental and important part of the history of SNCC in Chicago and the boycott.”

Learn more about her life here.

Student boycotter chronicles her experience in short story

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Eden Elieff, author and ’63 Boycott participant, used her memories of the protest as the backdrop to her short story, “Police Work”

Several months ago, we were contacted by author Eden Elieff, who shared with us her experience as a student participant in the 1963 Boycott:

When the boycott took place, I was all of seven years old. Yet it made quite an impression on me. I grew up in Hyde Park and was going to Shoesmith School at the time (the elementary school on 50th Street and Kenwood Avenue, the place where Obama cast his ballot in 2008). Because of the politics of the community, most people I knew participated in the boycott, that is, the parents of my classmates pulled their kids from school so that they would participate in it. I clearly remember going to the church of St. Paul Church of the Redeemer across the street from Shoesmith for activities, which included singing (“We Shall Overcome”) and listening to information sessions about what was at stake. We sat in the church activity hall with kids of all races and incomes.

The whole thing made quite an impression on me because here we were being pulled out of school for a political protest, and when you’re that young, such an event will imprint you.  And then of course a month later, JFK was shot. We were primed quite young about the world we were living in.

In any event, the whole thing was such a defining moment for me that I included the event as a backdrop plot point in a short story I wrote about my childhood.

Here’s an excerpt from Eden’s short story “Police Work” and followed by a link to the story in its entirety.  Note that the event she refers to seems to be an amalgam of several different protests of that era – Boycotts in 1963 and 1964, as well as the SNCC-organized Christmas Loop Boycott.

In the fall of fifth grade, I got to stay home from school for a day to boycott the mobile classrooms Mayor Daley was planning for the schools in the black neighborhoods of the city, to the west and north of us.  The year was 1964, and in my school, which was more than half black, this plan of the Mayor’s did not go over well, even though we were not directly affected.   Everyone said the black neighborhoods should be getting money for new schools, not those trailer park arrangements.  See? people in Hyde Park would say.  Daley was a bad man and not fit to be Mayor.  He cared only about the Irish neighborhoods.  They’d say, name one Paddy who’s ever seen the inside of a mobile classroom – or of a jail cell, for that matter, since all the Irish crooks were out on the streets running City Hall.  So the adults and community leaders said:  Mobilize!  Which meant boycott work and school and join the big march downtown, the first civil rights protest in Daley’s reign.

My father wasn’t particularly political, and he became even less so after my mother had left in an effort to diminish her influence on us, so I had no idea how he’d react to all this.  I told him I would become an outcast if I didn’t participate in the boycott – even though deep down, I shared his indifference.  As far as I was concerned, if being political meant no school, then political I was.

“We might as well move to Marquette Park if we don’t support the boycott.  You know, where neo-Nazis march down Cicero Avenue,” I said to my father on the Saturday morning before the boycott day.  I was repeating word-for-word what I’d heard some mother say at school, knowing the Nazis were the one topic that could get him going.  Marquette Park could have been in St. Louis as far as I knew.

“What do you mean, neo?”  He looked up from the bowl of pancake batter he was whipping up.  It was always pancakes on Saturday morning.  “If your father was a Nazi, and you’re still a Nazi, then that’s what you are.  A Nazi.  I’m not a neo-Democrat.”

I thought about this for some seconds.  I’d always thought his father was a Republican.  “What if your father wasn’t one but now you are?”

“You’re still a Nazi.”

“So you’re saying I can go downtown to the march?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, coughing into the pancake batter.  “Have yourself a ball.”

Read the whole story.

After a long career as a teacher at Lake Forest Academy and other independent schools in the Chicago Area, Eden moved to Houston, where she is working on a novel set during Urban Renewal movement of the late 50s and early 60s in Hyde Park.  

Thanks Eden!

Boycott organizer Don Rose writes about 50th Anniversary


Activist and political consultant Don Rose, who served as the media director for the 1963 Boycott (see footage of him in 1963) writes for The Chicago Daily Observer about our 50th anniversary event and reflects on the legacy of the Boycott:

The boycott’s point was to protest the intentional segregation of Chicago schools and the unequal treatment of the black schools—which then warehoused half the school population. Today, with the white school population around 10 percent, anything resembling integration is virtually impossible, but unequal treatment persists—as witness the closings of 49 black and Latino public schools with more to come.

Read the full article.

As part of his media strategy, Don wrote “These Schools Are Your Schools” to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and had folk musicians record the song, which he then broadcast on the radio and from sound trucks to promote the Boycott.  Listen to that song, which he references in the article.