Two women from Gage Park High School’s Class of 1969—the neighborhood namesake high school’s first integrated graduating class—hosted a fifty-year reunion for the class’ Black students on the weekend of June 28 and 29.
Pamela Hunter-Jones and Berdell Wheeler-Gregg, two classmates who have been friends since the fourth grade and who now both live in Georgia, have been planning the event for over a year. Both Wheeler-Gregg and Hunter-Jones saw their fifty-year milestone as an opportunity to celebrate their classmates and their memories.
“We just got the yearbook out and we just started Googling people’s names,” said Hunter-Jones in an interview with the Weekly. “[There were] about 110 African-American students who started in 1965 as freshmen. When we graduated, there were only forty-three of us left because of people getting kicked out and parents not wanting us to go through racial unrest anymore.”
The integration of Gage Park High School in 1965 after the changing of the school’s boundary lines was followed by violent attacks as white residents began targeting and assaulting Black students throughout the sixties and seventies. Police officers were constantly deployed at the school to prevent rioting, but according to From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago by Jakobi Williams, they “seemed to be either ineffectual in or uncommitted to protecting black students from the more than 4,500 white youths in and around the school.” In 1970, 500 Black high school students organized a march to protest the school administration’s lack of action in responding to the violence. According to Williams, the associate CPS superintendent proposed the school’s boundaries be changed again to “increase the population of white students and decrease the number of Black pupils.” While white parents, students, the PTA, and the Gage Park administration supported this proposal, the measure became an opportunity for many to reinforce segregationist policies. The proposal was later withdrawn in 1971. In 1972, over 1,000 white parents and students boycotted the high school for ten weeks. While these parents cited “overcrowding” as the reason behind their boycott, Jet Magazine reported they refused to attend the school “until several Gage Park students, nearly all of them Black, are transferred to all-Black high schools” like the nearby Englewood High School. In response, the Tribune reported Black students, parents, and members of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) picketed the school.
For alumni like Hunter-Jones and Wheeler-Gregg, memories of the violence still remain clear. Hunter-Jones, who was vice president of her senior class, recalled being led onto her school bus with police escorts, people chanting “go back to where you came from,” and things being thrown at her. Both Hunter-Jones and Wheeler-Gregg said that their brothers initially attended Gage Park but graduated from other high schools because of the constant violence aimed towards them. Moreover, they noted that Black students were more often punished with suspensions for fighting compared to white students.
Yet for both women, the experiences of the Black students from Gage Park during this era emphasized the importance of holding a reunion specifically for Black alumni.
“I did a Black student reunion specifically because many of the students who went to Gage Park had experiences that weren’t good ones. People calling you names, spitting in your face, teachers not being supported. A lot of people would say, ‘I’m not coming to be with the people who abused me,’” said Hunter-Jones. “And then we put specifically African-American alumni, and we’re getting a little blowback…but now people are getting excited.”
Hunter-Jones hopes the event can also help their fellow classmates fondly look back on memories of being a teenager in the neighborhood—like going to house parties or blue light parties—as well as powerful and meaningful memories of being a Black student at Gage Park during the late sixties.
“I remember when [Martin Luther King, Jr.] was assassinated,” recalled Hunter-Jones. “One of the gentlemen who will be at our reunion was the associate superintendent of [Chicago Public Schools.] He came through and knocked on all of our doors and said, ‘King is dead.’ And everybody walked out—all the Black students walked out. And they told us, ‘if y’all walk out you’ll be suspended.’ They told me I’d get kicked off the cheerleading squad. And I didn’t care, I walked out.”
While the event was specifically aimed to celebrate the Black students of the class of 1969, the event didn’t exclude anyone, and the event also welcomed alumni from the classes throughout the seventies, and even neighbors and alumni who attended neighboring schools like Harper or Lindblom. Both women noted that about sixty-five classmates and friends traveled from all over the country to attend the reunion.
The event, which was held at the Chicago Marriott Midway hotel on June 28 and 29, included a meet & greet and formal banquet. Hunter-Jones hopes that the event inspires more students from Gage Park to host their own reunions.
“Fifty years is a milestone, and we’ve lost quite a few of our classmates already,” said Hunter-Jones. “If we never get to meet again, I wanted to do it this time.”
Rachel Kim is the Weekly’s former education editor. She last wrote about Surf’s Up South Shore for the 2019 Food Issue.