By Gwen Hillary
The Chicago Public Schools were almost totally segregated in the 1950’s when Gwen’s participated in an accelerated English program and first integrated a South Side High School. She succeeded in getting an “A” in the class but had an encounter with the police that threatened to overshadow her academic accomplishments.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Hamlet-Goes-to-Jail-Life-Changing-Experiences-in-1959
- What were some of the factors that kept the city of Chicago from integrating its schools before the 1960s?
- Discuss some reasons why many young people endured hostility and violence to integrate schools and other facilities. How were they were able to overcome their fears?
- Why did Gwendolyn feel that she was representing her race when she attended the all white high school? Have you ever felt this kind of pressure?
- Have you, like Gwendolyn, made a decision to do something you know is not what you should? What were the consequences?
- Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High by Melba Pattillo Beals (Ages 12 and up.)
- Through my Eyes: The Autobiography of Ruby Bridges by Ruby Bridges
- Ruby Bridges was a 6-year-old girl who helped end public school segregation in the South (Ages 9 and up.)
- Ruby Bridges The Movie
- African American/Black History
- Crossing Cultures
- Education and Life Lessons
- Family and Childhood
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
Hi, my name is Gwen Hillary.
Now, when I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, in Chicago, Chicago had been labeled as the most segregated northern city in the United States. Children in black neighborhoods often went to school in double shifts. Some in the same family would go at different times. Some would go early in the wee hours of the morning, and the second child might go starting his school day mid-afternoon. Other children were educated in mobile units that were housed on the playgrounds. All to keep the school segregated in those overcrowded communities. In 1957, something happened that changed the whole educational system in the United States. The Soviet Union successfully launched the first Earth orbiting artificial satellite into space.
It was October 1957. There was a fierce competition that ensued between the Soviets and the United States. There was an increased emphasis on scientific research, space exploration, and the schools had to step up. Now, between 1956 and ’60, I was a student at Englewood High School, an all-black school on the southside. And in spite of the school being totally segregated, I had caring, nurturing and totally competent teachers. A new program was devised at my high school, a college preparatory high school, and I was placed in that program. Boy, oh, boy! No longer could I take typing and sewing and cooking and home economics and sewing, all those classes that supposedly would prepare me for life. Huh. I was programmed into chemistry, physics, foreign languages, and there weren’t those easy A’s. Now was also an important time in my high school career, when in 1959, I was going into my senior year. A special program was created that would be conducted at an all-white high school, South Shore High School 76th and Constance.
Now, any participating school could send two of their promising students to attend this enrichment summer program. We were going to study a fall semester of college literature and get credit for it too, in that 8 weeks. We were going to read many works by Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, among other works. It was going to be very intensive and I knew that I, not only was representing my school, proving myself academically cable… capable, but I was representing my own race. And so, I went there, determined to do my best and to excel. It seemed that the first day we walked into the school, that there was such a big shock to see us. There were four black students. No black student had ever set foot in that school. There were no black cooks. There were no black custodians. Everyone was shocked, but that was the first day.
The next day, the shock was on us. You see, when we left that building at the end of the school day, there were boys waiting for us on the corner. And they had rocks in their hands and they began to throw rocks at us. And I actually ran, scared to the bus stop. I did that Day 2, which was Tuesday. Day 3, Day 4, and by Day 5, on Friday, huh, I had had enough. So, when Monday came, and we left school, and those guys were standing there ready to pelt us with those rocks, I ran with my companions, and they got on their respective buses but not me. I had had enough. And so, I watched and I saw that they went into a school store, near the school, where everyone would congregate. Guess you could buy ice cream and school supplies. I boldly walked into that store. I found the guys I was looking for, and I walked up to them and I said, “I’m here now. What are you going to do, face to face?”
They were so shocked and embarrassed, the whole store got quiet. And each one said, “What are you talking about? I don’t know you.”
I said, “Oh, you know. But it’s going to stop today!” And guess what? There were no more rock throwing incidents. I thought the summer was gonna go pretty smoothly. But back on the home front, in my own neighborhood, huh, something else happened.
You see, it was a sunny afternoon and I had been out selling Avon products. My mother would let me keep all of the money I earned to buy my clothes and other incidentals. And I had money in this pocket, and in my other pocket, I had a paperback copy of Hamlet. We had to study hours and hours each night to keep up with the amount of work we had to do. And as I was standing there, some friends came up and they said, “Gwen, we’re going to go riding on the back of some motor scooters. Want to come?”
Now I knew. I knew there was no way I should have gotten on the back of those motor scooters. What would my mother think, sailing down South Park Avenue with my arms wrapped around some boy? And no helmet either! Huh! I was tired of always being the good one. So, I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
I thought we’d be back in time and my mother would never know. Oh, I climbed on the back, and wrapped my arms around, and it was wonderful, the wind blowing. All of a sudden, a police officer pulled over the young man on the first motor scooter and said, “You don’t have a license plate on your bike, young man. And you’re going to have to come down to the station.”
Well, the other guys started protesting, trying to help him. And he said, “I tell you what. All of you would go down to the police station.”
Now that’s when I got off and I said, “Sir, I’ve got my carfare in my pocket, and I’ll just get on the bus and I’ll…”
“Nah, huh. No, young lady, you are with them and you going to go down to the station with them.” Me? Going to jail? I couldn’t imagine! What was my mother going to say?! What was she going to do?! My mother did not spare the rod. And so, I cried, I pleaded, I begged.
But he said, “You’re going with the rest of them.”
We got to the station. And at first, I would not even give him my mother’s phone number. But I did. And when he called, I could just imagine her on the other end of that line.
And finally, she said, “I don’t drive, but I’ll send someone to get her.”
Oh, I cried, I cried. I was just so upset with myself. But then I realized, I had homework to do. So, I took out my copy of Hamlet, and I started to read. Police officer noticed that I was reading this book, and he said, “What are you doing?”
And I told him all about the course, and all about the work, and how exciting it was. He said, “What are you doing with these other guys? You don’t belong with them. What are you doing with them?”
I didn’t answer. But I did question what was I doing with them. You know, Hamlet had to get himself together in that book, you know, “to be or not to be.” Well, I’ve made some decisions about how my life was going to be from that point on.
My mother sent my aunt. When we get home, oh, I was so afraid. What was she going to do to me once she opened that door? But the mother I saw when I entered, was one I had never seen before. Her eyes were so sad, and she was silent. She looked so tired. And it upset me so much, that I vowed I never wanted to cause this much pain to my mother again. My mother didn’t speak to me. Not then, not that night, not the next morning. But after school the next day, she did say to me, “I hope you will reflect upon that incident yesterday and what changes or decisions you’re going to make in your life.”
One decision I made was that I was going to get an “A” out of that course. I had worked and worked, and I can say, that I was one of the few students who received it that summer. You see, that’s what I wanted my mother to remember. And not that it was the summer that I and Hamlet went to jail.