DuSable High School a landmark with jazz as catalyst

The school's towering chimney to this day stands as a beacon in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood, visible from vast distances.

Here was "the first high school in Chicago built to serve an exclusively African-American student population," the Landmark Designation Reports observes, and it was state-of the-art.

Yet it was what happened inside that edifice that mattered most.

Because this was "an all-black school, we did not experience prejudice there," says Wanda Bridgeforth, class of 1939 — the first to complete four years at DuSable.

"When the black kids went to the white schools, we were not permitted or invited to participate in their activities," adds Bridgeforth, 91. "At DuSable, we did everything.

"When we came along, education was a big thing. That was the goal of almost every kid, of every parent. I know my mother and father always said to me, 'I want you to do better than I did.' …

"My mother said, 'I don't want you to have to do house work. I want you to have a career."

Bridgeforth did — as an audiometrist and bookkeeper — and she credits DuSable with helping to make that possible.

"After school, everything was offered," she recalls. "We had print shop, auto shop, wood shop, electrical. We had art, music. It was just an experience."

Above all, jazz put DuSable on the world's cultural map, and there was a reason for this: Capt. Walter Dyett, the ferociously disciplined band master who taught these kids about the rigors of music and the responsibilities of life.

"In that band of 100, Capt. Dyett could hear a single wrong note and cuss you out for it," author Travis told me in 1998. "That man could hear a fly spit on cotton, and he punched it to you."

It was Dyett who set an exalted musical standard for these students and drove them to meet it. The "Hi-Jinks" student talent shows that electrified DuSable were performed at virtually a professional level, according to those who witnessed them, and the proof lay in the fact that no less than Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Lunceford and others routinely visited DuSable to recruit talent.

But by the 1960s, part of the neighborhood was flattened to make room for the Robert Taylor Homes public housing across State Street from DuSable. This "urban renewal," which its victims often called "Negro removal," drove residents away and drained the commercial life from the area, in the process diminishing what so many had worked so hard to build at DuSable.

The school's alumni have labored ever since to restore the place to its former glory, but they say they didn't start getting real traction on guaranteeing the future of the building until Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, recently took up the cause.

"From them I was inspired to proceed with the landmark designation (process)," says Dowell, who insists the alums did all the heavy lifting.

"They did most of the research to help make the case. My role was the role of a public elected official, to advocate on their behalf.

"The largest stumbling block was getting the Chicago Public Schools to agree to the landmarking, because they don't typically like to landmark public schools.

"I met with the CPS brass to try to convince them."

Why did Dowell join the quest?

"Because there had been very significant contributions by African Americans who graduated from DuSable High School to the city of Chicago, to the country and to the world," she says. "And I just felt that history should not be lost or forgotten."