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Dantrell Davis shouldn't be forgotten

It's been 20 years since 7-year-old was shot and killed while walking to school in Cabrini-Green

Mary Schmich

October 12, 2012

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Dantrell Davis.

"Does anybody know that name?"

It was Thursday afternoon, and I was standing in Mathias "Spider" Schergen's classroom at Jenner Academy of the Arts when — only because I'd asked him — he put the question to a group of second- and third-graders.

Most of the kids gave him a puzzled look. One boy fired his hand into the air.

"He got killed," the boy said.

The boy went on.

"A couple of years ago. When I was 5. Yeah. I saw it. It was a dude on the top of the building. He was trying to shoot a Vice Lord, and he shot Dantrell. I heard the gunshots."

This wasn't the first time that Schergen, who has taught art here for almost 20 years, has heard a student's imaginative version of the Dantrell Davis story.

"It has the makings of an urban legend," he said.

Some students think Dantrell was coming home from school the day he died, instead of heading there. Some think he died not so long ago. Or very, very long ago. Some think he was much older than he was.

"They don't realize," Schergen said, "that he was just a boy."

Just a boy.

If you lived in Chicago when Dantrell was killed, 20 years ago this week, you must remember how that boy's death shook the city.

The date was Oct. 13, 1992, in the violent days when rival gangs ruled the crowded Cabrini-Green housing complex on the Near North Side.

Dantrell, who was 7, was walking to Jenner Elementary School, holding his mother's hand, when he was hit in the head by a bullet fired from a Cabrini high-rise.

His name quickly became a symbol of everything that was wrong with Chicago public housing, and soon Cabrini, along with the rest of the city's public housing high-rises, was slated to come down.

Just how potent Dantrell was as a symbol is evident in this letter to the editor that one of his teachers wrote to the Tribune:

"Dantrell has become a cause, a martyr, a tragic symbol. But he was just a little boy. He loved riding a tricycle real fast round and round in circles in the gym. He loved it when it was his turn to write the number on the calendar during calendar time. He loved playing 'Memory,' he loved trucks, he hated art. He loved chocolate milk and pizza."

In the anger, sorrow and righteous indignation, the teacher pleaded, "I ask you all to take a moment with me and remember the child."

"That was a real, real sad incident," the receptionist in Jenner's main office said Thursday when I arrived unannounced, "and not everybody wants to talk about it."

Jenner today is not what it was when Dantrell died. The old school was torn down. The current building, with its wide, clean hallways and bright classrooms, replaced it a dozen years ago.

Most of the teachers who knew Dantrell are gone. So are all of Cabrini's high-rises, and with them, most of Cabrini's residents.

Nice new homes have sprung up in the neighborhood. New, prosperous people have moved in, and those with children are unlikely to send their children to Jenner.

Jenner students come, instead, from the few remaining Cabrini rowhouses, or from the new nearby subsidized housing, though there hasn't been nearly as much of that as promised. Other students, from displaced Cabrini families, are bused in from the West Side. Some ride long distances on the CTA.

Almost all are African-American and low-income, and the school's population dwindles.

Life is more peaceful for Jenner students now than it was in Dantrell's day.

"These grasslands are like meadows," Spider Schergen said, waving a hand toward the vacant lots that surround the school.

Schergen came to Jenner the year after Dantrell's death, when high-rises stood in land that's now empty. He remembers the trauma that permeated the place, how students and teachers would lie on the floor when the gunfire warnings came.

That terror is over, which doesn't mean that the school's struggle is.

Test scores are low. The closing of the nearby Schiller School, which also served Cabrini residents, didn't help.

When Schiller students were channeled to Jenner, gang rivalries erupted — in the bathrooms, in the hallways — though this year, Schergen said, those tensions have eased significantly, and Jenner feels more like family.

All of the coming and going in the neighborhood of the old Cabrini is one reason Dantrell Davis isn't as known as he might be.

"The neighborhood can't contain its stories," Schergen said.

But Dantrell does live on the brown Honorary Dantrell Davis Way sign that marks the block where he was shot.

"Anybody ever notice the street sign?" Schergen asked his students Thursday.

Only the student who had spoken earlier spoke up.

"Me!" he cried.

And when that boy says he heard the gunshot that killed Dantrell Davis, he's not entirely imagining it.

What happened to Dantrell 20 years ago still reverberates in Chicago, in all the neighborhoods where gangs still rule and poverty runs deep and it's still dangerous to be a child.

mschmich@tribune.com