5:24 PM EST, December 18, 2012
No high school in America did more to shape the sound of jazz than a magnificent edifice at 49th Street and Wabash Avenue, on the South Side of Chicago.
Singer-pianist Nat "King" Cole, master vocalist Johnny Hartman, piano whiz Dorothy Donegan and saxophone giants Von Freeman, Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin all became virtuosos at DuSable High School.
But it wasn't just colossal musicians who were launched into the world from DuSable. Comedian Redd Foxx and TV star Don Cornelius went there too. So did luminaries in Chicago's political, financial and social words, including Mayor Harold Washington, Ebony and Jet magazine publisher John H. Johnson, entrepreneur-author Dempsey Travis and scholar-historian Timuel Black. Dr. Margaret Burroughs, co-founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History, taughtart at the high school for more than 20 years, starting in 1946.
These remarkable individuals and uncounted others made DuSable famous — and vice versa — and their legacy has resulted in one more triumph for the school: It has been designated a landmark by the City of Chicago, the move protecting this sacred space from future demolition.
"I danced — I popped a bottle of champagne" when the City Council granted landmark status on Oct. 31, says Delores Washington, who campaigned with fellow DuSable alums to make it happen.
"That school has so much history."
Washington and her colleagues on the DuSable High School Alumni Coalition for Action labored for years to win protection for the grand old building, which they felt faced potential threats. Any public building erected as far back as 1935 and occupying an entire city block, they reasoned, stood a good chance of someone wanting "to put the wrecking ball to it," says retired high school math teacher Moses Jones, class of 1961.
"Chicago will tear down your mama if she's in the way," adds Washington, who graduated in 1951. "You're in the way? You gotta go. We're gonna build something else over you."
The DuSable alums weren't going to let that happen if they could do anything about it, for several reasons — but one, above all.
"My own historical knowledge tells me that if you want to destroy people's history, the easiest way to do that is to destroy the physical," says Black, author of "Bridges of Memory" and, at 94, a walking history of life, culture and political discourse in this city.
"It's far more difficult to explain that history without that building," adds Black, class of 1937.
Or, as Jones puts it, "If people don't know their history, they're lost people."
More than a decade ago, city leaders had discussed closing DuSable, say the alums, galvanizing them to try to save it. The late James Wagner, who was a dean at the University of Illinois, and fellow alums succeeded, the institution evolving to serve as hometo three smaller high schools: Betty Shabazz International Charter-DuSable Leadership Academy; Bronzeville Scholastic Institute; and Daniel Hale Williams Preparatory School of Medicine.
But no one knew what the future would hold for DuSable, as Chicago's cash-strapped school system prepares to shutter still-to-be-named buildings across the city.
"We wanted to landmark it because … we knew that five years from now someone else (might) come along and say it has to go," says retired educator Dr. Grace Dawson, class of 1950 and president of the alumni coalition. "And we're trying to look for longevity."
If the DuSable alums appear to hold unusual passion for their school, it's not hard to understand why. For even beyond the jazz, civic and social stars that DuSable graduated, the institution holds a distinct position in Chicago history.
Early in the 20th century, the Great Migration brought waves of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north, with Chicago emerging as a central draw, thanks to opportunities for better work, pay and education. Much of the credit goes to the Chicago Defender newspaper, which proselytized for the city, Pullman porters distributing the papers wherever trains rolled and African Americans lived.
The tens of thousands who ventured north found that life was not easy or idyllic here, blacks often packed into tenement apartments crammed into narrow corridors on the South Side. Overcrowding at Wendell Phillips High School, at 244 E. Pershing Rd., prompted plans for a new school nearby. In the midst of the Depression, a $1.3 million grant from the federal government's Public Works Administration helped pay for the $2.8 million building that opened in February, 1935 as New Wendell Phillips High School.
A year later, the building was christened for Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, honoring the city's first non-Native American settler, and nothing like it ever had been seen here. Architect Paul Gerhardt Sr. designed a superstructure that stood three stories high, could accommodate more than 2,600 students and held 24 classrooms, 8 laboratories, 2 art rooms, 2 mechanical drawing rooms, 2 assembly halls, library, boys and girls gymnasiums, swimming pool, chorus room and rehearsal room.
The building, at 4934 S. Wabash Ave., was fashioned "in a visually subdued variation on the Art Deco architectural style that historians have labeled 'PWA Moderne,'" says the Landmark Designation Report. "The building is modestly decorated, with limestone used to provide visually simple detailing such as vertical and horizontal banding delineating building piers and connecting rows of windows. Building entrances are ornamented with stylized Art Deco-style geometric and foliate ornament carved from gray limestone. Small medieval-influenced towers (showing the continued influence of the earlier Collegiate Gothic architectural style on school buildings such as DuSable) rise above building entrances and are visually enhanced with modernistic carved-limestone eagles, a decorative motif popular in the 1930s for public buildings."
The school's towering chimney to this day stands as a beacon in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood, visible from vast distances.
Here was "the first high school in Chicago built to serve an exclusively African-American student population," the Landmark Designation Reports observes, and it was state-of the-art.
Yet it was what happened inside that edifice that mattered most.
Because this was "an all-black school, we did not experience prejudice there," says Wanda Bridgeforth, class of 1939 — the first to complete four years at DuSable.
"When the black kids went to the white schools, we were not permitted or invited to participate in their activities," adds Bridgeforth, 91. "At DuSable, we did everything.
"When we came along, education was a big thing. That was the goal of almost every kid, of every parent. I know my mother and father always said to me, 'I want you to do better than I did.' …
"My mother said, 'I don't want you to have to do house work. I want you to have a career."
Bridgeforth did — as an audiometrist and bookkeeper — and she credits DuSable with helping to make that possible.
"After school, everything was offered," she recalls. "We had print shop, auto shop, wood shop, electrical. We had art, music. It was just an experience."
Above all, jazz put DuSable on the world's cultural map, and there was a reason for this: Capt. Walter Dyett, the ferociously disciplined band master who taught these kids about the rigors of music and the responsibilities of life.
"In that band of 100, Capt. Dyett could hear a single wrong note and cuss you out for it," author Travis told me in 1998. "That man could hear a fly spit on cotton, and he punched it to you."
It was Dyett who set an exalted musical standard for these students and drove them to meet it. The "Hi-Jinks" student talent shows that electrified DuSable were performed at virtually a professional level, according to those who witnessed them, and the proof lay in the fact that no less than Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Lunceford and others routinely visited DuSable to recruit talent.
But by the 1960s, part of the neighborhood was flattened to make room for the Robert Taylor Homes public housing across State Street from DuSable. This "urban renewal," which its victims often called "Negro removal," drove residents away and drained the commercial life from the area, in the process diminishing what so many had worked so hard to build at DuSable.
The school's alumni have labored ever since to restore the place to its former glory, but they say they didn't start getting real traction on guaranteeing the future of the building until Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, recently took up the cause.
"From them I was inspired to proceed with the landmark designation (process)," says Dowell, who insists the alums did all the heavy lifting.
"They did most of the research to help make the case. My role was the role of a public elected official, to advocate on their behalf.
"The largest stumbling block was getting the Chicago Public Schools to agree to the landmarking, because they don't typically like to landmark public schools.
"I met with the CPS brass to try to convince them."
Why did Dowell join the quest?
"Because there had been very significant contributions by African Americans who graduated from DuSable High School to the city of Chicago, to the country and to the world," she says. "And I just felt that history should not be lost or forgotten."
So what's next in the landmark process?
"Just celebrate," says Peter Strazzabosco , spokesman for the city's department of Housing and Economic Development.
To the alums, their achievement will matter most to the students who may know the history least.
"We want to encourage our kids to keep looking up and moving forward, to realize opportunities are there that they have to just grasp," says Dawson, president of the alumni coalition.
She feels the school's remarkable history only can inspire new generations, and she and the coalition hope to stage a major celebration of the landmark status in the spring.
"We want to try to tell the story of DuSable and the small schools too," says Dawson, "so the kids who come along today will know that historical background."
Now that the building's future has been secured, that history will not be wiped away.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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