The first Chicago high school built to serve an exclusively African-American student population opened its doors in 1935, and Wanda Bridgeforth, a 93-year-old writer in my Wednesday memoir-writing class, was a freshman there that year.
Wanda swells with pride any time DuSable High School is mentioned — her Class of ‘39 was the first to complete all four years there. “I was in the birthday class,” she beams.
DuSable was built on Chicago’s South Side 15 years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision — Wanda says it was built to keep schools segregated. “We had boundaries back then,” she says. “We knew not to cross Cottage Grove, 51st Street or the train tracks.” Everyone inside those boundaries was Black, Wanda says. “That was our neighborhood, and DuSable was our neighborhood high school.”
When DuSable first opened, Wanda recalls some neighborhood parents applying for permits to get their children in nearby White high schools. “Their parents didn’t think a Black school could be any good,” she says, adding that she felt sorry for those kids. “Our classes were crowded,” she acknowledges, remembering 50 or so students squeezing into classrooms at DuSable. “But at those other schools, if you were Black and you wanted to be in a play, you had to be a maid or a butler. At DuSable, we did everything, we were in all the plays, we wrote the school newspaper, we were having such a good time at DuSable.”
Wanda was in high school between 1935 and 1939, and during those four years she walked DuSable’s hallways with some pretty impressive classmates, including:
- Nat King Cole, famous jazz vocalist and pianist
- John H. Johnson, Chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines
- Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, one of the first African Americans to sign with an NBA team
- Harold Washington, first African-American mayor of Chicago
- Ella Jenkins, leading performer of children’s music
- Redd Foxx, comedian and actor
- Dinah Washington, jazz vocalist and “Queen of the Blues”
Nat Cole added King to his name later,” Wanda says with a laugh. “You know, like Old King Cole!” She knew Redd Foxx when he was Jon Sanford (yes, like Sanford and Son), and she remembers Dinah Washington as Ruth Jones — they changed their names once they became stars.
DuSable’s initial fame was in its music program, and Wanda performed in the “Hi-Jinks” student talent shows there. “We put on shows that were better than what was going on in Chicago professional theatres,” she says. “With musicians like Ruthie Jones and Nat Cole and all of those guys, we couldn’t miss!”
Wanda was quoted in an Chicago Tribune article after her work with the DuSable High School Alumni Coalition for Action finally convinced the city to designate DuSable as a landmark. “When we came along, education was a big thing. That was the goal of almost every kid, of every parent,” she told the reporter. “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.’” Wanda did — as an audiometrist and bookkeeper — and she credits DuSable with helping to make that possible.
At DuSable’s 80th anniversary party earlier this month, Wanda received the Powerful Woman Award and will soon have her picture added to those of her fellow famous alumni on the school’s Wall of Fame. A poem Wanda wrote about her alma mater was included in the 80th anniversary program — I’ll leave you with her words here, along with a hearty congratulations to Wanda Johnson Bridgeforth, one very powerful woman.
Ode to DuSable
by Wanda Johnson Bridgeforth
Birthday Class 1939
Your doors were opened in One Nine Three Five
A lot of folks said you would not survive.
Because you were built in the “Hood”
Your educating would not be good.
To be sure their kids schooling was right
Parents sent them to schools that were white.
“Separate but equal” was their thought
But at DuSable we were well taught.
You produced doctors, dentists, nurses and teachers,
Lawyers, judges, artists, stenos and preachers,
Writers, composers and politicians,
Actors, dancers, singers and musicians.
Entrepreneurs and inventors carry your name
And your athletes have reached the Hall of Fame.
So we lift our voices to the sky
Singing the praises of
JEAN BAPTISTE POINTE DuSABLE HIGH.
Note: A savvy 74-yearold writer from my Wednesday memoir-writing class has started a blog called Beth’s Class where she publishes essays she and fellow writers from that class have written. Wanda’s Ode to DuSable was first published on the Beth’s Class blog, and essays by other writers from that class have been published there, too. Check it out!