Hampton's death was a turning point

Opinion: Columns

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

Part II of a series on the racial tensions at Proviso East during the 1960s as recalled by Doug Deuchler, an Oak Park resident who taught in District 209 and later became a librarian at Proviso West:

Fred Hampton graduated from Proviso East High School in 1966. He was 20 years old when Doug met him, still deeply involved with the school and the Maywood community. Maywood didn't have a public pool and blacks were not welcome at neighboring pools. So Hampton organized caravans to Cermak Pool in Lyons. 

From an early age, Hampton made meals for kids in his neighborhood. Later, as chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panthers, he started a breakfast program. To feed their minds, Hampton compiled a list of reading materials. Doug recalled that Hampton parroted Malcolm X in describing how racist the country was. He was a charismatic speaker who attracted crowds wherever he went. One of his causes was for Proviso to elect a black Homecoming Queen, which reportedly led to disturbances in 1967 that spilled over into 1968 and '69.

Doug and the younger teachers gravitated toward Hampton. Doug treated him to cheeseburgers at the Maytown Restaurant. But the day Hampton was shot, Dec. 4, 1969 in the tactical raid by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, some of his colleagues said he should have been shot earlier. Students didn't show up for class that day. When the school refused to hold a memorial for Hampton, Doug saw mobs of students smashing shops as they made their way toward 5th Avenue. Proviso shut down on Dec. 5 for a "Christmas break" that lasted the rest of the year.

When Hampton was laid to rest at a nearby church, Doug and three white teachers attended to pay their respects. Upon arrival, they worried that they might not be welcome. A group of Black Panthers came out and encircled them. They escorted them into the church to view the body. One of the Panthers had been a troublemaker in Doug's class. He was so moved by the actions of these young men, he still sheds tears when he talks about them. 

Doug recalled that the racial incidents at Proviso were "completely underreported" by the local newspapers. TV stations provided extensive coverage and he suspected some viewers used news reports to justify their racist views. He remembers white parents showing up at school to take their children home. Some never came back. 

Most of these white students were from Forest Park and Melrose Park. Meanwhile, the black population of Maywood continued to grow. The problems at Proviso "ruined the community in so many ways," he said. Forest Park and Melrose Park gradually disconnected from the high school and enrollment dropped. 

Only one force united the school. 

"Basketball games could bring everyone together," Doug said. "Joe Ponsetto and Doc Rivers were like religious figures!" School days, though, were still marred by disturbances. By the late '80s, Doug was burned out as an English teacher. He transferred to Proviso West to serve as head librarian. That school, too, was experiencing rapid racial change but without the trouble that had plagued Proviso East. "It broke my heart that it couldn't have gone better." 

Proviso East is a "beautiful facility," he noted, with abundant green space. Though he retired from D209 in 2003, he still cares deeply about Proviso and is, "Uplifted by what I hear from people who work there. The discipline is better and the atmosphere is positive."

The most positive development is the new board and the change in leadership at the top. He recalled that Proviso used to be "political" in its hiring practices and awarding of contracts. He is also heartened by the influx of Hispanic students, bringing diversity to the school. He believes the major renovation of Proviso will further improve the facility. 

Doug just wishes that racial change had been handled better back in his teaching days. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy to write off certain minorities."

Or like a community writing off a high school. 

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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