Wanda Bridgeforth has been coming to my writing class for so long that she’s working on the third volume of her self-published memoir. On the Move includes essays about her years at DuSable High School in Chicago: coming down from the ceiling in swings at a high school dance, schoolmates in tuxes tap dancing at formals, jazz bands performing at sock hops every Friday night and “Hi-Jinks” student talent shows that outshone professional theatre in Chicago during the 30s and 40s. “With such musicians as Nat cole and all of those guys, we couldn’t miss!” she told me with a proud laugh.
Singer-pianist Nat “King” Cole and Wanda weren’t the only superstars who attended DuSable High School in Chicago. Master vocalist Johnny Hartman, piano whiz Dorothy Donegan and saxophone giants Von Freeman, Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin all learned their chops at DuSable as well. Mayor Harold Washington went to DuSable, and so did Ebony and Jet magazine publisher John H. Johnson. Comedian Redd Foxx and Soul Train star Don Cornelius graduated from DuSable, too.
DuSable High School opened in 1935 and is described in Landmark Status reports as “the first high school in Chicago built to serve an exclusively African-American student population.” Wanda joined the DuSable High School Alumni Coalition for Action over a decade ago, when Chicago city leaders first started discussing closing the school. The coalition’s efforts finally convinced the city to designate DuSable as a landmark this year, and reporter Howard Reich was wise enough to seek Wanda out and interview her for a Chicago Tribune article about the landmark status, which will protect the building from future demolition:
”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.
Part of the neighborhood near DuSable was flattened in the 1960s to make room for the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project, and The Chicago Tribune reported that some of the people from the old neighborhood refer to the so-called urban renewal as “Negro removal.” The article said commercial life was driven away from the area,” in the process diminishing what so many had worked so hard to build at DuSable.”
Wanda was in the first class to start its freshman year at DuSable, and she often remarks how important her high school days were to her. Now, thanks to the personal essays she writes and her work to get it designated as a landmark, her beloved high school will not be forgotten. DuSable High School Alumni Coalition for Action hopes to stage a major celebration of the landmark status this spring, and if that happens, you know I’ll be asking Wanda to take me along as her date. If she gives me that honor, trust me: I’ll wear my dancing shoes.