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Vanished Names and Cultural Amnesia

A walk through the neighborhoods of Chicago offers a rich education in the political, social, and cultural history of the United States for those who pay attention to the names of the public schools that grace our communities.  With the closure of fifty of those schools this summer, and the proposed sale, repurposing, and likely demolition of many of them, that educational experience will be forever diminished.  Gone, as well, will be a rich cultural legacy represented in those names, including treasured racial, ethnic, and immigrant stories upon which Chicago was built.

School names are perhaps not the most important thing being lost in the public school closings.  Yet this erasure of a significant portion of our literary, artistic, scientific, and social heritage must still be lamented.  Some of the names on the doomed schools are well known – Betsy Ross and Francis Scott Key of the American flag and the “Star Spangled Banner,” for instance.  Others are not exactly household names, but would have been well known to graduates of our public schools in an earlier, happier era – physicist Enrico Fermi who led the team that created the first sustained nuclear reaction, Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, Polish composer Ignance Paderewski, conductor Victor Herbert, German geographer Alexander von Humboldt, medical doctors William and Charles Mayo of Mayo Clinic fame, historian Francis Parkman. 

In some cases the naming of public schools represented an attempt to bring to public consciousness the remarkable contributions of communities whose stories had been suppressed by racism.  Among the schools to be closed is Crispus Attucks, named for an enslaved African American among the first killed in the Boston Massacre.  There are schools named for Olympic champion Jessie Owens, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, the first African American astronaut, Robert Lawrence, Matthew Henson who accompanied Admiral Peary and may have been the first to reach the North Pole, and Garrett Morgan who invented the traffic signal, now a ubiquitous part of American life.  As these schools close and their names disappear from public view, will this once invisible legacy become invisible again?

I had to look up a number of names.  Ana Roque de Duprey bridged the turn of the 20th century during her career as a highly honored educator in Puerto Rico.  In 1917 she founded the Puerto Rican feminist league.  Elizabeth Peabody’s life spanned the 19th century; a Transcendentalist along with Emerson, the Alcotts, and Thoreau, she opened the first English language kindergarten in the United States.  Alfred David Kohn was a Chicagoan who founded the first school nutrition program in the Chicago Public Schools.  People like this devoted their lives to making education more welcoming to all Americans.  The loss of what their names represent speaks volumes about what is happening to public school children across the land.

Governor John Altgeld of Illinois pardoned three men convicted in dubious trials following the Haymarket bombing and opposed efforts to break up the famous Pullman strike by force.  Senator Lyman Trumbull was a co-author of the Thirteenth Amendment that enshrined the abolition of slavery in the U.S. Constitution.  Later in his career he defended Socialist Eugene Debs and others involved in the Pullman strike.  With their names erased from our public buildings, how will our school children remember that there were once public officials who defended workers and supported the rights of organized labor?

There is at least one bit of bleak humor in this sad litany.  Elihu Yale Elementary School will be closing.  Its students will be absorbed into John Harvard Elementary School.  Located in impoverished Englewood on the south side of Chicago, it seems unlikely that there are any “sons of Eli” among the school parents to protest this ironic Ivy League footnote.

But the bitterest irony of all has to be the closing of Mary McCleod Bethune Elementary School.  Bethune was an educator and prominent Civil Rights leader during the first half of the 20th century.  In Daytona Beach, Florida she founded what would eventually become Bethune Cookman University.  During Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency she served on the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, also called the “Black Cabinet,” which advised the president on civil rights issues.  Few made more important contributions to the modern Civil Rights movement.  In 1954 she published an article in the Chicago Defender on the occasion of the Supreme Court’s reversal of the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case

“There can be no divided democracy, no class government, no half-free country under the Constitution.  Therefore, there can be no discrimination, no segregation, no separation of some citizens from the rights which belong to all. . . .  We are on our way.  But these are frontiers we must conquer. . . .  We must gain full equality in education. . . in the franchise. . . in economic opportunity, and full equality in the abundance of life.”

Now as her name disappears along with countless other heroes who ventured toward various intellectual and social frontiers, we can only sadly wonder at the meaning of this loss of such a cultural treasure.  And we must hope that others will follow to replace names engraved in stone with acts of courageous and prophetic resistance lest our city only be known for the pursuit of wealth symbolized by buildings with names like McCormick Place, Wrigley Field, Rockefeller Chapel, United Arena, and the Pritzger Pavilion.

John H. Thomas
May 30, 2013

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  • Guest (Leslie Kolkmeier)

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    Beautifully written, but such a sad commentary on where we seem to be headed. I fear new buildings will bear the names of people wealthy enough to buy their place above the door rather than work for the good of the children and their families. Thank you for keeping our eyes open to the injustice.

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