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Segregation Snapshot: One Saturday Afternoon On The South Side

Let me put this in context.

My first job out of journalism school at the University of Iowa was at Hollister Newspapers (later Pioneer Press) covering primarily high school sports on the North Shore. While I no longer go to many games, I've always enjoyed prep sports for their unpredictability, excitement, and a freshness and innocence not usually integral at the college or pro level.

Lake Forest, the Scouts, qualified for the state 6A playoffs by rallying to win its final two games for a 5-4 season record. They drew Wendell Phillips High of Bronzeville, the defending 5A state champions, as a first-round opponent Saturday at Gately Stadium on 103rd Street.

I know an junior interior lineman on Lake Forest - his dad is my nephew from a previous marriage. I saw the kid play once as a freshman and an earlier game this season.

And I've been curious to see Phillips play ever since their coach Troy McAllister turned them into a powerhouse of the Public League and eventually into state champions. I frequently drive past the school on Pershing Road (39th Street) on my way to be with some wonderful young people who meet on South State Street in a program called Camp of Dreams. I'm president of the board.

I've met a couple of Phillips alums and know that the school has an illustrious history beginning in 1904. Nat King Cole went there. So did Gwendolyn Brooks, Herbie Hancock, Dinah Washington, Sam Cooke and a number of athletes who went on to play professionally. Originally the school's demographic was overwhelmingly white, and Wendell Phillips himself was a white person who was a champion of abolition at the time of the Civil War.

The Great Migration attracted African Americans to Bronzeville, which became a cultural center for black people, and Phillips morphed into a school serving primarily black families. It also fell on hard times, and in 2010 became what is known as a "turnaround" school, meaning CPS basically cleaned house by firing the principal and all the teachers, who then could re-apply with the new administration. Say what you will about this re-do, but the fact of the matter is that Phillips today remains very much in business - as opposed to many schools on the South Side which are shuttered forever.

Suffice it to say that Lake Forest High has never been a "turnaround" school, nor can anyone envision such a scenario.

Which brings us to Saturday.

Admission was $5, and my nephew's other uncle and I presented our tickets at the gate on the west side of the stadium.

"You're from Lake Forest," said the young African-American woman at the gate taking tickets. It was a statement, not a question.

"How can you tell?" I asked. She broke into a wide grin as did I, and she directed us to the east gate where the Lake Forest fans were being directed. After presenting our tickets, a security guard ran his wand over each spectator before waving him or her to the stands. My guess is that this is not protocol for Lake Forest home games.

So the snapshot looked like this: Black people sitting on one side, predominately white folks on the other. The teams on the field mirrored the demographics in the stands, though Lake Forest does have a few black players including the son of former Bear star Big Cat Williams.

It was a sensational game. Well-played. Competitive. Good sportsmanship. Close and exciting. Phillips scored with 35 seconds remaining to rescue a 30-24 outcome despite the fact that few people, very likely including the Lake Forest players, figured that the Scouts had even a remote chance to stick with the Wildcats.

Maybe I just should leave it at that: A lovely way to spend an autumn Saturday watching high school kids play their hearts out in a memorable game.

For better or worse, that's not who I am. I understand the history behind having fans from the two teams sit on opposite sides of the field at a city stadium that in the past has occasionally been the scene of fights between the opposing sides. The mentality is to expect the worst in order to keep the peace.

Of course, this was a different dynamic, and the optic was one where blacks and whites by design were separated by fifty yards of turf. Wasn't this an opportunity to let people sit where they wanted? We don't designate seating at a Cubs, Sox, Bulls or Bears games by race, and that surely wasn't the intent of the people who managed the game last Saturday. However, if an uninformed person with no knowledge of the past happened to stop by, it sure looked that way.

The coming together of two schools - one from a traditionally affluent suburb and the other from the heart of the city - occurs frequently in match-ups for state competition and holiday tournaments. They represent one opportunity where people from very different backgrounds, experiences and skin color wind up in proximity to one another. The distressing aspect is that, if left to their own devices, the fans last Saturday still very well might have self-separated. But at least that would have been their choice.

In one instance, a Lake Forest player pushed a Phillips ball-carrier at the out-of-bounds marker, sending the kid into the cyclone fence near the sideline. The refs might have called Lake Forest for a late hit, a possibility I pointed out, at which juncture a Lake Forest partisan turned to me and suggested, "Why don't you go sit on the other side?"

Any other day that might have been an option, but not Saturday.


Comments welcome.

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