Anyone who has followed our Safe & Sound blog for a while knows who Wanda Bridgeforth is. You’ve seen her photo here. You’ve read her writing here. But do you know what she sounds like? Now’s your chance! Wanda Bridgeforth is going to be on the radio with me tonight!
Saturday, July 29, 9:30 p.m.
We’ll be on the radio from 9:30 pm to 10 pm, a live half-hour interview with Chicago journalist and author Dave Hoekstra.
You can also watch and listen to us live in the studio via WGN’s lifestream. And, if you’re out and about on Michigan Avenue, we’ll be in the sidewalk level studio at the Tribune Tower (435 N. Michigan)–you can look and and listen to audio that’s piped to the street.
A 95-year-old witty, wise and talented writer, Wanda has attended the memoir writing class I lead in downtown Chicago for over a decade now. On WGN Radio we’ll talk about her life, her writing, our memoir class and her role in my new book, Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors. To give you a better taste of what you might hear on air tonight, I’ll leave you here with an excerpt from Writing Out Loud where I introduce Wanda and her friend the late great Minerva Bell to readers. From Chapter 19, “Friends”:
Minerva and Wanda bring a slice of Chicago history with them. Tens of thousands of Southern blacks flooded into Chicago during the Great Migration of the early 20th century. The friends’ essays describe Bronzeville, the segregated neighborhood they grew up in, as a “city within a city.” Overcrowding, joblessness, and poverty were facts of life, but so was literature, jazz, blues, and gospel music.
DuSable High School, the first Chicago high school built exclusively for African-American students, opened in the Bronzeville neighborhood in 1935. Minerva transferred in as a sophomore, and Wanda was a freshman. “I was in the birthday class,” Wanda reminds us.
DuSable was built on Chicago’s South Side 15 years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Wanda says it was built to keep schools segregated. “We were blocked in,” she writes. “We knew not to cross Cottage Grove, 51st Street or the train tracks.” Everyone inside those boundaries was Black. “That was our neighborhood, and DuSable was our neighborhood high school.”
When DuSable first opened, some neighborhood parents applied for permits to get their children into nearby White high schools. “Their parents didn’t think a Black school could be any good,” Wanda writes, adding that she felt sorry for those kids. True, DuSable classes could be very crowded; she remembers 50 or so students squeezing into classrooms. “But at those other schools, if you were Black and you wanted to be in a play, you had to be a maid or a butler,” she writes. “At DuSable, we did everything, we were in all the plays, we wrote the school newspaper. We were having such a good time at DuSable.”
Between the two of them, Minerva and Wanda were at the high school between 1935 and 1939. During those years they walked the hallways with some pretty impressive classmates, including Nat King Cole; John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines; Harold Washington, first African-American mayor of Chicago; Redd Foxx; and Dinah Washington.
“Nat Cole added King to his name later,” Wanda tells me with a laugh. “You know, like Old King Cole!”
They remember Dinah Washington when she was Ruth Jones, and they knew Redd Foxx as Jon Sanford. “His brother was Fred, that’s who Sanford and Son is named for,” Wanda tells us. “They changed their names once they were stars.”
DuSable’s initial fame was in its music program, and Wanda and Minerva both sang during the “Hi-Jinks” student talent shows there. “We were in the background, but we put on shows that were better than what was going on in Chicago professional theatres,” Wanda writes. “With musicians like Ruthie Jones and Nat Cole and all of those guys, we couldn’t miss!”
Tune in to WGN Radio tonight to hear Wanda tell her story in her own words. I promise you won’t be disappointed!