Wendell Phillips Academy High School
244 East Pershing Boulevard
Historical profile by Elizabeth A. Patterson
An imposing building by William Bryce Mundie, Wendell Phillips Academy High School sits at the corner of East Pershing Boulevard and South Prairie Avenue, near the southern edge of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Established in 1904 and named for an abolitionist, within a few short decades of its founding, Wendell Phillips had become Chicago’s first predominantly African-American high school, a point of pride and an important anchor for the surrounding community.
The Chicago Board of Education built Wendell Phillips High School to replace the aging South Division High School which stood about two miles north, at 26th Street and Wabash Avenue. A four-story brick structure designed by Board Architect James R. Willett, South Division High opened in January 1884. With its 17 classrooms and fourth floor assembly hall, South Division was the third of four “divisional” high schools built to educate the city’s older children after the Chicago Fire. The divisional high schools, though built with future growth in mind, soon overflowed with students, as Chicago nearly doubled in size through annexation in the years around 1889. (1)
By the end of the 19th century, the educational needs of the South Side had far outpaced the capacity of the old South Division High School. Even as South Division celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1900, representatives of “South Town,” led by former City Councilman and soon-to-be U.S. Representative Martin B. Madden, President of the Western Stone Company, were pleading for a new school building, decrying the existing structure as “altogether unfit to the purpose for which it is used, and a constant menace to the health of the children and teachers who are obliged to use it.”(2) The Board of Education soon began to plan for a modern high school about two miles further south, on 39th Street (now Pershing), between Prairie and Forest (now Giles), in what was then a primarily middle- and working-class neighborhood, many of whose residents were European immigrants.
Board Architect William B. Mundie designed a symmetrical, three-and-one-half-story Neo-Classical style structure of brick and limestone, its primary façade facing south onto 39thStreet. At the center of this façade, three elaborate stone portals frame the main doorways. Three-story Ionic stone pilasters divide the nine central bays. Decorative stone lintels with prominent keystones top the second and third story windows.
Above the central portals, just below the roofline, the school’s name is incised in large letters within a stone panel. At either corner of the building, pavilions with quoined corners project slightly beyond the central mass of the building. On the somewhat simpler east and west façades, along Giles and Prairie, Mundie placed secondary entrances topped by limestone pediments and set in projecting bays. A smooth limestone water table anchors the base of the building, and a simple cornice caps it. Classrooms run along the three street facades in a U-shaped fashion; Mundie filled the central core with a first floor assembly hall and gymnasium.
On November 4, 1902, South Division students and alumni gathered to lay the cornerstone for the new structure, which was to be the largest high school in the city. (3) The Board hoped to open the much-needed facility in September, 1903, but labor troubles intervened: from August to December of 1903, construction workers refused to continue working because one contractor had tried to use non-union laborers. The strike was eventually resolved, and the new building finally opened at the start of the 1904 school year. (4)
The Board of Education named the new high school in memory of noted abolitionist Wendell Phillips (1811–1884). A Harvard-educated lawyer and son of Boston’s first mayor, Phillips took up the anti-slavery cause in 1836, shortly after seeing the near-lynching of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. A member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and a gifted public speaker, Phillips was known as “abolition’s Golden Trumpet.” After the Civil War, he dedicated himself to other causes, including Native Americans’ rights and women’s suffrage. (5)
In the first years after its opening, Wendell Phillips High School’s student body was primarily of European descent. From the start, however, African American students also attended the school. The Near South Side had long been home to a small African-American community, and by the turn of the 20th century, the narrow “Black Belt” was growing southward. (6) While there were only four black Phillips graduates in 1912, twenty-five African Americans graduated with the class of 1914, and the number continued to grow. (7)
Racial conflicts sometimes arose in the early years, as when, in 1915, the school’s dean of girls began to hold weekly dance functions, and then established racially-separated ones after some white parents protested the inclusion of African American students. (8) In 1917, The Chicago Defender, a locally-published and nationally-distributed African American newspaper, optimistically noted the potential for more harmony when it published a photograph of a platoon of Phillips High School cadets at a citywide event. Noting the presence of “members of the Race, the Jew, the Greek, the Irish, and the Swede, all led by Sergeant Hughes [an African-American student],” the photograph, it said, “brings out true manhood, no color, no creed, all one.” (9)
By the early 1920s, Wendell Phillips’ student body was predominantly African-American, the first such high school in Chicago. The school’s changing racial make-up followed that of the surrounding neighborhoods, which had seen an increasing influx of black southerners since 1910. Encouraged by The Chicago Defender, many of these African Americans had come in search of dependable jobs in Chicago’s expanding industrial sector. They found such jobs, but also discovered restrictive covenants forcing them to live in only a narrow corridor on the city’s South Side. Often known as Bronzeville, this area became a thriving hub of African American commerce and culture. (10)
Wendell Phillips High School quickly became one of Bronzeville’s most important institutions. The building held not only high school students (considered the pride of their community), but also “prevocational students” – sixth, seventh, and eighth graders who were thought likely to drop out before high school without extra attention. (11) The presence of the prevocational program made Wendell Phillips a logical location for a junior high school when, in 1924, the Board of Education created such schools citywide for seventh, eighth, and ninth graders. (12)
By the late 1920s, the student population far outpaced the capacity of the school building, necessitating the use of portable classrooms and the implementation of two half-day shifts. In 1931, the Board of Education began building a larger high school (also to be known as Wendell Phillips) at 49th and Wabash, but the project was delayed due to a shortage of funds. By the time the new high school reached completion in the mid-1930s, however, it had become apparent that it could not hold all the neighborhood’s high school-age students. The Board of Education therefore decided to send only sophomores, juniors, and seniors to the new Wendell Phillips High School, while freshman attended the old Wendell Phillips school. (13) The Board also decided to add a new elementary school wing onto the old Phillips building. (The junior high program within the old Phillips building had been discontinued in 1933 as a part of a district-wide cost-saving measure. The Board had repurposed the space as elementary school classrooms.) (14)
Unfortunately, on January 29, 1935, even before the new school opened, the old Wendell Phillips building caught fire. The central section of the building, which held the assembly hall and gymnasium, as well as the heating plant, was gutted. Despite the destruction, the surrounding classrooms were open for business a few days later, the same day the new Phillips was dedicated. (15) (The following year, the new Wendell Phillips High School, designed by Paul Gerhardt, Sr., was rechristened in honor of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the Haitian-born first settler of Chicago.) (16)
By the spring of 1936, Board of Education Architect John C. Christensen had developed plans for repairing and improving the central portion of the old Phillips High School, including a new assembly hall, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a lunchroom, and chorus and band rooms. The new elementary school wing would run north of the original building along Prairie Avenue. (17)
Christensen’s brick and limestone addition echoes many elements of Mundie’s 1904 design (the brick quoins and raised stone basement, for example), but has somewhat more streamlined ornamentation (e.g., it lacks a cornice). The words “Wendell Phillips Elementary” are incised over the addition’s two entrances. The building projects were not yet fully complete when a second fire swept through several classrooms in November, 1937. (18) Repairs were soon made.
By the mid-1940s, the Wendell Phillips building was in constant use. At night, adults came for “Evening School” courses in academic subjects, English for non-English-speakers, citizenship, trades such as millinery and architectural drawing, and wartime training including preflight aeronautics. High school students were again attending school on split shifts. To address overcrowding at the grade school level, the Board of Education added a 20-room extension to the elementary school wing in 1944. (19)
Crowding was still a significant problem in the 1960s. Students attended school in three shifts, and some classes were held in portables. The school underwent a major rehabilitation in the early 1970s, but by that time the population of Wendell Phillips High School had finally begun to fall, as African Americans relocated to other areas of the city. In the 1990s, the Public Building Commission completed exterior improvements and created new greenspace and athletic facilities between Wendell Phillips and Mayo Elementary, just to the north. (20) In 1999, the Chicago Conservation Center restored four seriously deteriorated murals that date to 1906, just after Wendell Phillips’ construction. These are among the oldest murals in the Chicago Public Schools. (21)
Wendell Phillips High School has a long history of accomplished alumni. A group of Phillips basketball players of the 1920s joined the semi-professional “Savoy Big Five,” which quickly became the renowned Harlem Globetrotters. Entertainers such as Nat “King” Cole, Dinah Washington, and Sam Cooke were Phillips graduates. So, too, were publisher John H. Johnson and historian and author Timuel D. Black. In fact, there have been so many successful graduates of Wendell Phillips High School that its alumni association created its own Hall of Fame in 1979. This list of notable alumni continues to grow. (22)
Noteworthy for both its architecture and its strong associations with the history of African-Americans in Chicago, Wendell Phillips High School was named a Chicago Landmark in 2003. (23) In recent years, the Wendell Phillips building has been home to the Ida B. Wells Elementary School. In September 2013, the Wells School moved a block north, into the existing Mayo Elementary School building. Wendell Phillips Academy High School, since 2010 a turnaround school affiliated with the Academy for Urban School Leadership, remains in the landmark 1904 building. (24)
- Department of Public Instruction, City of Chicago, Twenty-ninth Annual Report of the Board of Education for the Year Ending June 30, 1883, pp. 34, 76-78; Department of Public Instruction, City of Chicago, Thirtieth Annual Report of the Board of Education for the Year Ending June 30, 1884, pp. 15, 72. The other three divisional high schools were: West (1880, Augustus Bauer; 1884 addition, J. J. Flanders), North (now, Salazar Elementary Bilingual Education Center; 1883, Julius Ender), and Northwest (1889). In 1911, South Division High School became the first home of Lucy Flower Technical School. For more information on the divisional high schools, see Dale Allen Gyure, “Monuments to Education,” Chicago History, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Fall 2003, pp. 54-57.
- “Plead for New High School: Citizens from the South Side Want the South Division Building Replaced by a Better Structure,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 15, 1900; “Silver Anniversary of a High School: South Division Will Celebrate its 25th-Birthday Next Month—Remarkable Growth of the Institution,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 27, 1900. South Division actually remained open as a manual training school, and in 1911, became the first home of Lucy Flower Technical High School for Girls.
- “Board to Build Business School; Announcement Made at Cornerstone Laying of the New South Division High,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 4, 1902.
- “Building Delay Bars Out Pupils,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 26, 1903; “Ultimatum Sent Unions by Board of Education,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 9, 1903; “Six New Schools Ready,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 2, 1904.
- Adrian Capehart, “Douglas,” and Wallace Best, “Grand Boulevard,” The Encyclopedia of Chicago, ed. James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 244, 357.
- Wendell Phillips High School: Preliminary Summary of Information Submitted to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks in September 2002, p. 6; “Twenty-Five Pupils Graduate from Wendell Phillips High School,” The Chicago Defender, June 27, 1914.
- “’Jim Crow’ Rule, Or No Dances, Say Schoolgirls,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 6, 1915; “Discrimination at Wendell Phillips High School Can’t Be Smoothed Over,” The Chicago Defender, January 23, 1915.
- “A Wonderful Picture,” Chicago Defender, June 23, 1917.
- “Douglas,” The Encyclopedia of Chicago, p. 244.
- “Better English,” The Chicago Defender, May 27, 1922.
- “Assigns School Divisions for Junior High,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 3, 1924.
- “New Phillips High School to Open Tomorrow; Classes Also to Continue in Old Building,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 3, 1935.
- “Schools Listed in $5,716,000 Building Plan,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 2, 1935; “School Economy to Save Millions on New Buildings,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 17, 1933.
- “New Phillips High School to Open Tomorrow; Classes Also to Continue in Old Building,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 3, 1935.
- “Change Name of Phillips High School,” Chicago Defender, April 25, 1936.
- “New Phillips Grade School,” Chicago Defender, April 24, 1936.
- “Launch Inquiry in $15,000 Fire at High School,” Chicago Tribune, November 19, 1937.
- ”Evening School at Phillips High to Open Sept. 13,” Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1943; 2 Shift Schools Pose Problems, Asserts Report,” Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1943; “Building Ready to House 1,500 Pupils by Dec. 1,” Chicago Tribune, November 12, 1944.
- Heather Becker, Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive- and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1906 (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002), pp. 174-175.
- http://www.phillips.cps.k12.il.us/alumni; http://www.wendellphillipshalloffame.8m.com.