Shiny & Brand New
Narrated by Olivia Obineme
OLIVIA OBINEME: Imagine, if you can, you’re a Black, high school kid from Englewood walking down the halls of your new high school.
OBINEME: When the bell rings, you shuffle to your next class. It's auto shop.
OBINEME: Class is fine—the usual. Until you peek out from behind your car engine only to see a random British man in pinstripes and a bowtie, and he’s telling your teacher, quote: “this is a very impressive place you’ve got here.”
OBINEME: His name? Michael Marland, headmaster of a school in London.
In 1978, he visited Robeson as part of a tour of four Chicago high schools. In an article from the Chicago Tribune, Marland is quoted as giving the new school an A, noting that the building itself was, quote, “a magnificent structure.” That shiny new Robeson High School of the late 1970s started out similar to how this, now newer, $85-million dollar high school is getting its footing, in the shadow of another school. And in Robeson’s case, that shadow was Parker High School.
OBINEME: It can be hard to say goodbye to an old institution. Parker High School opened in 1901. But unlike what’s currently happening with Robeson, Parker wasn’t demolished to make way for a new school. The building was—and still is—standing right next to Robeson, on the same plot of land. The Parker High School building was converted to an elementary school once Robeson opened.
LIZ CHAMBERS: I wanted to actually graduate from the old school cause everyone else in my family had.
OBINEME: That's Liz Chambers, valedictorian of the first graduating class from Robeson High School. Her four older sisters had graduated from Parker.
CHAMBERS: So it seemed like I was missing out on the family tradition. So I did want a new school, but I didn’t want to graduate from the new school.
OBINEME: That sentiment, wanting a new school but not wanting to be disconnected from a legacy, is present in a lot of the conversations we’ve been having with Robeson alumni, like former student Keith Harris, a long-time Englewood resident. This is what Harris had to say in January, during the first of two community meetings CPS hosted to gather feedback about the new school proposal.
KEITH HARRIS: I went to Robeson High School and graduated in '84. I can't sit by and let them wipe out my history. And by closing these schools, they're wiping out our history. I don't know no other people in this city—in this country— that'll just let somebody come in their community and wipe out their history. We are not against the new school being built. Build it. Englewood needs a new school, but you're not going to close these schools. You're not going to put these kids in danger.
OBINEME: But CPS is closing them. And the statistic repeated again and again at these meetings, in press releases and transition plan documents to justify the closures is this: 92% of high school aged students living in Englewood travel outside of their neighborhood to go to school. That’s around 1,800 young people. Englewood needs a viable neighborhood school option, but not enough residents are choosing what’s there now. Robeson is severely under-enrolled. A school originally built for 1,500 students had only 129 enrolled in 2017, which is ironic because when it first opened, Robeson was quite the opposite. Classrooms were overloaded with kids.
CHAMBERS: Actually the new school wasn’t large enough for everybody.
OBINEME: When Robeson High School was originally planned in 1974, school district officials anticipated a student body of around 1,500 kids. But by the time the school opened in 1977, 2,300 were enrolled. Parker High School students became Robeson High School students—except some were still taking classes at Parker.
CHAMBERS: So, the juniors and seniors had to still have classes in the old building, which is Parker; and the freshman and sophomores had all their classes in the new building. And so when we had to do most of our classes at the old school and then only science classes at the new school, it was kind of just hard for us. Like you had your swimming class and then you had to come out wet and go over to the new building for any of the newer classes that you had over there. So we weren’t very happy about that.
OBINEME: The school was not without its problems. On top of the overcrowding, attendance rates weren’t that great. In a report published in the Tribune, the average daily attendance during Robeson’s first year was 8 out 10—tied for 49th out of 64 Chicago Public Schools. Lindblom Math and Science Academy, in West Englewood, ranked highest with a 94% attendance rate.
OBINEME: And remember Michael Marland, the British headmaster who toured the school back in ‘78? While he thought the school itself was impressive, he had a very different opinion about the community at large. Marland told the Chicago Tribune that the neighborhood he saw surrounding Robeson was “depressing,” telling the paper, “You’ve built a beautiful school, but nobody seemed to care enough to landscape anything past the edge.”
OBINEME: When Robeson opened, none of the students were white and three-quarters of Robeson students came from low-income families. It was the 70s—white flight had taken hold of Englewood. Robeson was new, equipped with dedicated teachers and a lot of extracurricular activities, but some of its students faced challenges outside of the school’s walls. During the football season of 1979, the Chicago Tribune profiled Robeson linebacker Ed Holmes.
FAB COLLINS: He was one [and] I was two. The top two best linebackers in the city at that time.
OBINEME: That’s Fabray Collins. He was Ed’s teammate. Fabray, who goes by "Fab" with friends and Coach Collins with students, graduated in 1980. He’s been Robeson’s football coach since 1989. The Tribune profile was titled “Robeson defender hitting legally now." It outlined Holmes’ criminal record, in addition to his success on the field.
COLLINS: One time he got in trouble and Coach had to go get him out of jail, you know. The day before the game, Coach have to go get him, you know, because we know we needed him!
OBINEME: According to Fab, Holmes was part of a gang.
COLLINS: It didn't hurt the team though, things he did didn't hurt the team. Didn't come around the team or it didn't affect nobody else on the team. But other than that, great line backer.
OBINEME: But the general code at the time was that if you were an athlete, you were given a pass and you didn’t have to join a gang. And sports were generally the most publicly highlighted aspects of Robeson High School in its early days. In searching for news reports of Robeson during its first decade in archives, it was just newspaper clipping after newspaper clipping of sports.
(ARCHIVED SOUNDBYTE: In comes number 92 Vincent Tolbert of Robeson putting [inadible] down!)
OBINEME: A title for one article clipping read,“Patched defense sparks Robeson.” The piece describes the football team's early successes, one season, thanks to Fab.
COLLINS: It was, it was fun. You know, you have a teammates that love the game and everybody, you know, knew what was going on and how to play football...a great coaching staff.
OBINEME: Another article, “Robeson victory especially sweet,”recounts Robeson’s one point victory over rival King High School in a basketball game. Robeson had lost to King the previous season. It was almost as if Robeson’s only value was in its athletics. Alfredrick Hughes is proof of that ideology. He was a star Robeson basketball player. After he graduated in 1981, he went to play for Loyola on the North Side. His 1985 Loyola team was the last time, until this year, that Loyola-Chicago made it to the sweet sixteen. But before he was a Rambler, he was a Raider. And basketball was his life.
ALFREDRICK HUGHES: My first three years, I was prepared to play basketball. I wasn't prepared to get a job. I wasn't prepared to be out in society and be a good person. I was taught basketball.
OBINEME: It wasn’t until his senior year when Alfredrick’s mother had to intervene.
HUGHES: One day, we sitting up in the house and um, she told me, "Read the papers," going into my senior year. I had a hard time doing it. She said, "Wait a minute, how do you get these A's and B's and just read the Sun-Times, and have a hard time doing it?" And she made one of the biggest moves in my life. I'll never forget. She walked up there at every teacher and the principal, "He's off the team."
What? I'm off the team? You understand I'm going into my senior year. I was named the 'best small forward' in Illinois and she said, "You're off the team." So how do I get a scholarship?
So she had every teacher in my principal office and she opened up the Sun-Times—she said, "Read it." And she looked at all of them, "How do we have A's and B's?"
She's said, "All of y'all are full of it."
OBINEME: Alfredrick did play his senior year, but he had to work really hard. He ended up taking extra classes to make up for the information he’d brushed aside his first three years at Robeson.
HUGHES: It wasn't about academics, it wasn't about—unfortunately the coaches, they don't prepare you for life. They prepare you to win games.
OBINEME: But his senior year, Alfredrick got a new coach. Coach Collins, a different coach Collins, who taught him less about basketball and more about how to live in the world.
HUGHES: My senior year coach Collins taught me how to be a man. He taught me how school is important.
OBINEME: Basketball and football were the backbone of a vibrant school community. But Robeson High School was much more besides sporting events. Liz Chambers walked us through her 1978 yearbook, flipping through page after page of different activities and clubs.
CHAMBERS: You know how some schools are known for their basketball team or football team. And for us it was modern dance, for some reason. These dancers were so outstanding.
OBINEME: Robeson even had a drafting club. And in 1986, Robeson senior Darryl Crosby won the grand prize in a city-wide architectural competition for designing a beautiful, butterfly-inspired bank building. Such academic success was not a rare occurrence.
CHAMBERS: It was very nurturing. We had teachers, especially those who had gone to HBCU's that had come back and really been vested in the students. They really wanted us to succeed. So, they poured their hearts into what they did. It was a very nurturing environment.—didn’t give you busy work, gave you assignments they knew would pay off for you in the long run.
Ms. Moore—she always gave you—she was our English teacher for our senior year. She always gave you an assignment that you had to go to the library for, you had to do some research. And there was no internet. And these kids have it so easy now. So I would have to get on the bus and go to 95th and Halsted where the Woodson Regional Library was because you couldn’t just go to any neighborhood library to do her research. You had to go to the regional library and that was just one, which was Woodson on 95th Street. So she was a person who really challenged you to step it up, like 'don’t give me a paper you didn’t research'.
OBINEME: Keith Harris, who graduated class of 1984, had a similar experience. We met with Harris, the acting president of the Englewood Political Task Force, in his Englewood office located in The Peace Center. He remembers being challenged, but in a good way, at Robeson.
HARRIS: You had to work for it. It wasn't like, 'OK, you came to class, we gon' give you an A, we gon' give you a B. No, you can get this grade but you've got to put in the work.' They did now what is now known as 'critical thinking.' It wasn't just 'OK, here's the program, here's the work—just do the work.' Like, 'no OK, this is it and how can you apply this to everyday situations?' And that was in all the classes: history, science, English, everything.
There was a history class and it was kinda—the project was based on law—and it was kind of along the lines of some of the cases that Thurgood Marshall had tried or had defended, or argued in court, and we had to pick three of this cases and dissect them. And we had to, you know, critically think, critically attack how he tailored his argument and tailored his cases to win them. The majority of people wouldn't expect that from Robeson. I didn't expect it, but once when I got there then it's like, 'oh OK, this is what we are doing here.' And I really enjoyed it.
OBINEME: In Chambers' 1978 yearbook, there’s a full-page note in which Robeson Principal Dr. Jacqueline Simmons spoke of Robeson’s future. “A new building,” she wrote.
CHAMBERS: “And new programs are only part of the requisites for a successful educational journey. We must emphasize the necessity for personal involvement and personal investment in a meaningful high school experience.”
ERISA APANTAKU: It sounds like something that could be written this year about the new school.
CHAMBERS: Yes, you can. So, I guess everything goes in a circle. Excitement and all the leadership that they put into starting up the new school will be right there for the new school 40 years later.
OBINEME: Simmons would remain principal of Robeson High School until 1995. But through the years, the new building and program feels began to wear off.