In the days after Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton was assassinated in his West Side apartment on Dec. 4, 1969, Black students at Hampton’s alma mater, Proviso East High School in Maywood, convened in the school’s Social Room to strategize how they would mourn.
They had wanted to hold a memorial in the school’s auditorium to honor Hampton’s legacy, but the idea “sparked racial tension among Black students and white students,” recalled Nicole Wilson, District 209’s communications director, during a ceremony in the East auditorium on Aug. 29.
“White students didn’t want a memorial here,” Wilson said. “So they used Room 126 down the hall to strategize how they would make it known that they didn’t want a memorial. Meanwhile, you had the Black students in the Social Room strategizing and planning to host the memorial service they would hold in this auditorium on Dec. 11, 1969.”
The school’s racial climate was so tense, Wilson said, that fights continued to break out in the wake of Hampton’s assassination. The fights “caught the attention of the FBI and army intelligence, who came into the building and put up cameras to monitor and record what was happening right here at Proviso East after the death of Chairman Fred Hampton.”
Over five decades later, Wilson and a few hundred other people were in the auditorium on Sunday to celebrate the fact that the district had just renamed the Social Room after Hampton.
The Chairman Frederick A. Hampton Social Justice Room is now adorned with a large image of the slain icon along with a brief biography that hangs over the room’s fireplace.
On Sunday, numerous elected officials at the local, county and state levels spoke to how their own lives and careers were touched by Hampton’s legacy.
“I’m his seed and I am a part of his legacy,” said Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, a 1986 graduate of Proviso East.
“His work was not in vain,” she said. “It was his fight that delivered some of the civil rights we have today. They called him radical.”
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, a 1989 graduate of Proviso West High School in Hillside and a Maywood native who spent his youth swimming at the village’s Fred Hampton Pool, lauded Hampton’s ability to forge diverse coalitions and alliances.
“Chairman Hampton built a coalition,” Welch said. “He went into rooms where they had guns and he had none, where they didn’t like him, and he went into that room anyway. He built coalitions one group at a time.”
Those who spoke on Sunday indicated that the room renaming might be the start of a course correction after years of Hampton not getting his due.
Lightford said that, despite attending the high school where Hampton made his mark, she didn’t learn about him in any classes.
“There have been so many cases where the masses of people have been obliterated out of history,” said Fred Hampton Jr., Hampton’s son and chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs, before referencing the Black Panthers.
“A group of brothers and sisters, ranging from 14 to 21 years old, stood up on their own terms and served the people. They sacrificed,” he said.