Mark your calendars: Ninety-five-year-old writer Wanda Bridgeforth is appearing with me for an author talk at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago Tuesday evening, October 17, 2017 at 6 pm.
Stories by Wanda and other writers in my classes intertwine with mine in my new book Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors,” and she’s still trying to decide which essay from the book to read out loud at our library presentation. One thing you can count on, whatever Wanda decides to read, she’ll be bringing a slice of Chicago history with her.
Wanda’s father and her uncles were among tens of thousands of southern blacks who flooded into Chicago during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, and her essays in Writing Out Loud describe Bronzeville, the segregated neighborhood she 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.
So maybe Wanda will choose to read an essay about her formative years at DuSable High School. DuSable opened in that “city within a city” in 1935, 15 years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Wanda was a freshman at the new school that year and says DuSable was built to keep schools segregated. “We were blocked in,” she writes, describing the boundaries. “We knew not to cross Cottage Grove, 51st Street or the train tracks. 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 — Wanda 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.”
Wanda was at DuSable between 1935 and 1939, walking the hallways with jazz great Nat King Cole, comedian Redd Foxx, singer Dinah Washington and John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. “Nat Cole added King to his name later,” Wanda once told me with a laugh. “You know, like Old King Cole!”
The library Wanda and I will be appearing at on October 17 is named for another famous fellow graduate of DuSable High School. Harold Washington, the first African-American to be elected mayor of Chicago, attended DuSable with Wanda, too. Look for us at 6 pm on Tuesday, October 17 in the Authors Room at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State Street, right in downtown Chicago.
This post is the first of a series where I’ll be summarizing different essays Wanda is considering — to find out which one she finally decides to read, you’ll have to come to the presentation October 17!