Masks required in Abakanowicz Research Center; optional for rest of Museum MORE

For Equal Education Opportunity

By 1960, Chicago’s Black population had reached over 800,000, and in Black neighborhoods, this meant schools were overcrowded, even though new buildings had been built for Black students. In December 1961, the Board of Education approved Superintendent Ben Willis’s plan to buy 150‒200 aluminum mobile school units (pejoratively called “Willis Wagons”) and install them at existing schools and in vacant lots. Black parents, neighborhood organizations, and civil rights groups also urged authorities to permit Black children to attend white schools with empty seats. Willis and the school board, however, resisted integration, preferring traditional neighborhood-based schools and refusing to reconfigure boundaries. Public outcries intensified in the wake of commissioned reports recommending dramatic steps to redress educational inequality.

black and white photo of protestors with signs
Freedom Day participants picket outside of City Hall (121 North LaSalle Street) to protest Superintendent Benjamin Willis. ST-15002998-0027, Chicago Sun-Times collection, CHM.

On October 22, 1963, a coalition of civil rights groups staged Freedom Day, a mass boycott and demonstration against segregated schools and inadequate resources for Black students. More than 200,000 of Chicago’s public school students—almost half—skipped class, leaving many schools on the South and West Sides virtually empty. The climax of Freedom Day was the march to the downtown office of the Chicago Board of Education. Thousands took to the streets, carrying signs that voiced their frustrations, many targeting Willis. Police met the nearly 10,000 protestors and prevented them from entering the Chicago Board of Education building.

two-sided freedom day flyer
Flyer advertising 1963 Freedom Day school boycott. CHM, ICHi-020839, ICHi-020840.

The protest ignited other demonstrations, each demanding an end to segregation in Chicago. Willis’s term ended in 1966, but attempts at integration by his successor, James Redmond, were hampered by board members and local politicians reluctant to anger whites who opposed integration. The failure of local initiatives led to federal and state intervention, resulting in a 1980 consent decree and court-mandated desegregation plan. But the movement of white students out of the system continued. Between 1970 and 1990 the white portion of the school population fell by nearly 75 percent. As the twentieth century drew to an end, the vision of integrated schools remained elusive.

Take a closer look at the boycott through our exhibition Facing Freedom in America.

Chicago Collections Digital Exhibition

The Chicago History Museum is proud to be a governing member of Chicago Collections, a consortium of nonprofit organizations that maintain vital collections of books, letters, images, or maps related to the Chicago area; preserve and share Chicago’s history and culture; and provide free and open access for all. As a way of sharing the resources of member collections, Chicago Collections has embarked upon a new phase of curation with the launch of digital exhibitions. Learn more about Freedom Day in their digital exhibition The 1963 Chicago Public Schools Boycott, which features materials from the CHM Research Center.

Chicago History Museum Sharing Chicago Stories