We'll be posting some of the source material that we come across while making the film, such as newspaper articles, personal photos, comunity meeting notes, and more.

Art Shay photos now on ’63 Boycott site

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Images of the 1963 Chicago Public School boycott taken by legendary photographer Art Shay have now been added to the website and will be used in our in-progress transmedia documentary project ’63 Boycott.

A former freelance photographer for Life, Time, Sports Illustrated and more, Shay snapped countless celebrities and important moments of the 20th century. His photos of the boycott show protest leaders and regular Chicagoans flooding the streets. Head to the gallery to click and tag people you recognize in the photos, so that we can track them down and include them in the documentary.

The original group of images on the ’63 Boycott site are stills digitally captured from original 16mm film footage shot of the protests by Kartemquin founder Gordon Quinn. Since the project launched in 2013 even more footage has been discovered and incorporated in to the in-progress documentary edit. We recently added a key interview with parent organizer Rosie Simpson into the work in progress cut, and we are continuing to search for completion funding.

If you participated in this protest, please contact us. Take a moment to browse our Photo Gallery page; if you see yourself, or anybody you know, please leave contact information on the picture. We want to hear your story. Please sign up for our mailing list to get news, and donate to support the film’s completion.

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:

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.

February 25, 1964: Freedom Day II

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On February 25th, 1964, over 175,000 Chicago Public Schools students boycotted school to protest segregation and inequality.  Like the first boycott on October 22, 1963, the protest included a march downtown and Freedom Schools – makeshift classrooms in churches and synagogues featuring Civil Rights-based curriculum – for boycotting students to attend.

Freedom Day II really showed the school board the power of the protest movement, and that it was not going to stop. Superintendent Willis’s days were numbered after this protest, with his career ending in an early “retirement” in 1966.

Below are articles from the Chicago Defender on February 26th, 1964, reporting on the success of Freedom Day II, which coincided with the boxing match that first made soon-to-be Muhammad Ali a heavyweight champion.

If you have any stories to share about Freedom Day II or the initial 1963 Boycott, please contact us!

After Boycott, CCCO Attempts to Negotiate

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In the weeks and months that followed the Boycott, the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), a union of 17 separate civil rights groups, tried to negotiate with the school board over the thirteen demands made on Freedom Day. The board frequently gave them the runaround, escalating tensions that would eventually result in another massive school boycott, Freedom Day II, in 1964.

Chicago Defender, Oct 28 1963 (full article):


Chicago Defender, Oct 30 1963 (full article):


Chicago Tribune, Nov 1 1963 (full article):

Chicago Tribune, Nov 3 1963 (full article):

Chicago Defender, Nov 7 1963 (full article):


Chicago Tribune, Nov 17 1963 (full article):


Chicago Defender, Dec 2 1963 (full article):

Downtown Gears Up For Massive Protest


At about 3:30 pm on October 22, 1963, march captains from all corners of the city would have been leading thousands of people to the protest downtown.  Many of the protestors would have been students, protesting the conditions at their school.

Although the police were ready for a riot, the Boycott was by most accounts completely peaceful and, as Boycott organizer and former CPS teacher Sylvia Fischer told us in 2013, “we just felt the children of Chicago had shown the very best of themselves.”

The clip below also features never-before-seen footage of the Boycott: