DuSable High School a landmark with jazz as catalyst

DuSable High School

Four slabs of granite hold statue-like details of past working conditions and musicians in the north side of DuSable High School. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune / December 18, 2012)

No high school in America did more to shape the sound of jazz than a magnificent edifice at 49th Street and Wabash Avenue, on the South Side of Chicago.

Singer-pianist Nat "King" Cole, master vocalist Johnny Hartman, piano whiz Dorothy Donegan and saxophone giants Von Freeman, Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin all became virtuosos at DuSable High School.

But it wasn't just colossal musicians who were launched into the world from DuSable. Comedian Redd Foxx and TV star Don Cornelius went there too. So did luminaries in Chicago's political, financial and social words, including Mayor Harold Washington, Ebony and Jet magazine publisher John H. Johnson, entrepreneur-author Dempsey Travis and scholar-historian Timuel Black. Dr. Margaret Burroughs, co-founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History, taughtart at the high school for more than 20 years, starting in 1946.

These remarkable individuals and uncounted others made DuSable famous — and vice versa — and their legacy has resulted in one more triumph for the school: It has been designated a landmark by the City of Chicago, the move protecting this sacred space from future demolition.

"I danced — I popped a bottle of champagne" when the City Council granted landmark status on Oct. 31, says Delores Washington, who campaigned with fellow DuSable alums to make it happen.

"That school has so much history."

Washington and her colleagues on the DuSable High School Alumni Coalition for Action labored for years to win protection for the grand old building, which they felt faced potential threats. Any public building erected as far back as 1935 and occupying an entire city block, they reasoned, stood a good chance of someone wanting "to put the wrecking ball to it," says retired high school math teacher Moses Jones, class of 1961.

"Chicago will tear down your mama if she's in the way," adds Washington, who graduated in 1951. "You're in the way? You gotta go. We're gonna build something else over you."

The DuSable alums weren't going to let that happen if they could do anything about it, for several reasons — but one, above all.

"My own historical knowledge tells me that if you want to destroy people's history, the easiest way to do that is to destroy the physical," says Black, author of "Bridges of Memory" and, at 94, a walking history of life, culture and political discourse in this city.

"It's far more difficult to explain that history without that building," adds Black, class of 1937.

Or, as Jones puts it, "If people don't know their history, they're lost people."

More than a decade ago, city leaders had discussed closing DuSable, say the alums, galvanizing them to try to save it. The late James Wagner, who was a dean at the University of Illinois, and fellow alums succeeded, the institution evolving to serve as hometo three smaller high schools: Betty Shabazz International Charter-DuSable Leadership Academy; Bronzeville Scholastic Institute; and Daniel Hale Williams Preparatory School of Medicine.

But no one knew what the future would hold for DuSable, as Chicago's cash-strapped school system prepares to shutter still-to-be-named buildings across the city.

"We wanted to landmark it because … we knew that five years from now someone else (might) come along and say it has to go," says retired educator Dr. Grace Dawson, class of 1950 and president of the alumni coalition. "And we're trying to look for longevity."

If the DuSable alums appear to hold unusual passion for their school, it's not hard to understand why. For even beyond the jazz, civic and social stars that DuSable graduated, the institution holds a distinct position in Chicago history.

Early in the 20th century, the Great Migration brought waves of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north, with Chicago emerging as a central draw, thanks to opportunities for better work, pay and education. Much of the credit goes to the Chicago Defender newspaper, which proselytized for the city, Pullman porters distributing the papers wherever trains rolled and African Americans lived.

The tens of thousands who ventured north found that life was not easy or idyllic here, blacks often packed into tenement apartments crammed into narrow corridors on the South Side. Overcrowding at Wendell Phillips High School, at 244 E. Pershing Rd., prompted plans for a new school nearby. In the midst of the Depression, a $1.3 million grant from the federal government's Public Works Administration helped pay for the $2.8 million building that opened in February, 1935 as New Wendell Phillips High School.

A year later, the building was christened for Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, honoring the city's first non-Native American settler, and nothing like it ever had been seen here. Architect Paul Gerhardt Sr. designed a superstructure that stood three stories high, could accommodate more than 2,600 students and held 24 classrooms, 8 laboratories, 2 art rooms, 2 mechanical drawing rooms, 2 assembly halls, library, boys and girls gymnasiums, swimming pool, chorus room and rehearsal room.

The building, at 4934 S. Wabash Ave., was fashioned "in a visually subdued variation on the Art Deco architectural style that historians have labeled 'PWA Moderne,'" says the Landmark Designation Report. "The building is modestly decorated, with limestone used to provide visually simple detailing such as vertical and horizontal banding delineating building piers and connecting rows of windows. Building entrances are ornamented with stylized Art Deco-style geometric and foliate ornament carved from gray limestone. Small medieval-influenced towers (showing the continued influence of the earlier Collegiate Gothic architectural style on school buildings such as DuSable) rise above building entrances and are visually enhanced with modernistic carved-limestone eagles, a decorative motif popular in the 1930s for public buildings."