Eyewitness to 1960s racial fissure at Proviso East

Opinion: Columns

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

(Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part column)

I'm proud that the Forest Park Review has been in print for 100 years but there's an era in the paper's history that doesn't make me proud. The Review and other local papers chose not to cover the racial violence that occurred at Proviso East High School during the late 1960s and early 1970s. I don't know why that decision was made but the first step in preventing school violence is acknowledging it exists.

This absence of coverage piqued my curiosity, so I interviewed an eyewitness. Doug Deuchler was a rookie English teacher, when violence was erupting in the fall of 1968. Doug is a long-time theater critic and contributor to our sister paper, Wednesday Journal. He spent decades working at Proviso East and still has a great love for Proviso. He gets choked up when he describes what he experienced.

Doug grew up in West Dundee, a northwest suburban community far-removed from Maywood in many ways. It was an enclave of German Lutherans, where the two career options were working at Santa's Village, or Haeger Pottery. Doug wanted no part of either, so he put himself through Western Illinois University. While majoring in English and minoring in history, Doug saw that Macomb was a segregated town. He decided to teach at an integrated school. 

On the day he signed his contract at Proviso, he could see the racial turmoil on display. The trouble had started a year earlier and had become a daily challenge. 

Proviso was packed with over 4,000 students and Doug estimated about a third of the student body was black. He believed these students felt disenfranchised. The administration and staff were mostly white. There was no black history being taught, or black literature being studied. The white students seemed to be in control. The tipping point came in September 1967, when five white girls were chosen for Homecoming Queen and her court. There was a large fight in the cafeteria and 100 state troopers responded. Doug was not there for that fight but witnessed other clashes.

The Maywood Police did not respond to the problems at Proviso, because the school is on Cook County Forest Preserve property. So they called the Cook County Sheriff for help. When violence erupted at the school, teachers kept their classroom doors locked until the sheriff's police arrived.

Proviso didn't have metal detectors, or armed security guards. When there was trouble, basketball coach Thomas Millikin responded with his assistant coaches, known as the "Millikin men." The school also asked parents to patrol the hallways. They finally hired two female security guards, one black, one white. The students called them "Salt and Pepper."

There was not only a racial divide in the school but a generation gap. Doug said the older teachers "couldn't hack this new world they inherited." Many took an early retirement, while the younger teachers pushed for change. The white students had their own division, between what Doug described as the "Greasers" and the "Climbers." The former were vocational students and the latter were college bound. While many black and white students got along well, Doug saw the most friction between black students and the white vocational students.

Doug endured almost daily disturbances and his worst memories were the hours spent in lockdown. He had large classes of 30-plus students and they had to sit for hours. Some students cried.  They couldn't use the washrooms. Doug had to improvise to fill the time. Finally, the police would arrive and dismiss the students floor by floor. The very worst day was Dec. 4, 1969, the day Fred Hampton was killed by the Chicago police. 

(Next week: Part two of John's interview with Doug Deuchler)

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com

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Robert C. Cox from Forest Park  

Posted: March 10th, 2018 3:14 PM

Forest Park sent a few hundred kids to Proviso East in those days. I lived it too, 1968-1972 and Doug is interviewed in my forthcoming book "Curious Proviso" as well. Good stuff John

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