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My Willis Willies

Don Rose 28 July 2009 3 Comments

So Chicago’s Sears Tower—the tallest actual building in North America—is now officially the Willis Tower, having fallen into the hands of a corporation named Willis. I’m pained by the name, not because I’m a sentimentalist, but because back in the ‘60s a man named Benjamin C. Willis was the hated personification of racism and segregation in Chicago (though adored by many).

When Marshall Fields became Macy’s I shrugged while others shed crocodile tears. It was abominable to name a ballpark U.S. Cellular, but we always called the old place Sox Park and continue to do so. My beloved saloon was called Riccardo’s for 60-some years, and though its new owner, Phil Stefani, calls it 437 Rush, we of the derriere guard still call it Ric’s.

But I might rant if they screw around with Wrigley Field when the Cubs change hands. Wrigley is the only place I have attended longer than Ric’s, having first watched the Cubs lose there in 1938, then waited until 1950 to swill an underage glass of wine at Riccardo’s.

Back to Willis.

He was appointed superintendent of the public school system in 1953, a couple of years before Daley the First assumed the throne, just around the time Chicago’s African American population—or “Negroes” as we said then—began to expand, largely because of a massive in-migration from the south.

Daley and his allies in the Downtown business and financial community saw this as a big problem. Neighborhoods were changing rapidly on the south and west sides and white folks began running from the city.

Many municipal instrumentalities were utilized to slow the expansion—chief among them the creation of massive public housing projects within the existing “boundaries” of black Chicago, which set in concrete the housing pattern that would make Chicago the world’s most segregated city outside of Africa.

Schools were the next most important focus. Nothing would change a neighborhood quicker than an influx of black kids into a white school. It became Willis’s job to keep the school system segregated—and he proved to be ingenious.   He embarked on a vast school construction program—gaining the nickname “Big Ben the Builder.” The new schools were built primarily in white areas, far from existing color lines—or well within the boundaries of what came to be known as the ghetto. (Mayor Daley famously opined, however, “There are no ghettoes in Chicago.”)

Willis also juggled the boundaries of neighborhood schools in order to hem in the block-by-block growth of the black population that was forced by the real estate industry. Back then, in order to keep your license as a realtor you could not sell or rent to a Negro family outside of a two-block radius of the expanding ghetto.

Willis’s quick fix in some areas was to fill the black schools grounds with portable classrooms to prevent “overflow” into white schools. As protests against segregation grew in the early 1960s they became known as “Willis Wagons.” Eventually there were 625 wagons in black schoolyards.

The black schools were underserved in many ways—fewest experienced teachers, fewest ancillary health and social services and so forth. Separate was really unequal.

While sit-ins, freedom rides and other demonstrations were shocking the American South, civil rights organizations in Chicago—and other big cities—began protesting the “de facto” segregation of the north.

Willis became the target of the movement around 1962, which led eventually to two massive school boycotts—literally emptying all the black schools late in 1963 and early ’64. It was not until the first boycott that Willis even acknowledged he kept racial headcounts. Many were shocked to learn that half the school population was black.

A year after passage of the 1963 Civil Rights Act, activists filed a federal complaint against Willis and his segregated system. U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel deemed the charges to be valid and cut off funding to Chicago schools. But Daley screamed to President Lyndon Johnson, who quickly reversed Keppel’s order.

Protests and marches on City Hall continued, fronted by chants of “Hey hey, ho ho, Ben Willis must go!”  Willis became the northern equivalent of Bull Connor, Orval Faubus and other symbols of southern intransigence. He quit in 1966, after Martin Luther King came to Chicago, but his job was well done—an irreversible pattern was set. School integration was impossible—despite court orders. Today the system is less than 10 percent white.

So now we have a Willis Tower—unrelated to the past.

What’s in a name?

Ben Willis died in 1988—in a place called Plantation, Florida.

Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

image Old Sears Tower on Chicago’s West Side from 1905


  • Dan Kelley said:

    The illustration depicts the former Sears headquarters in the Lawndale neighborhood. It was once a prosperous district that offered numerous employment opportunities to its residents. Interestingly enough, Sears had such a large staff of security guards to patrol its expansive warehouse property that it would have been equivalent to the fifth largest police department in Illinois.

    The grandfather and father of one of my friends were career Sears employees and the elder man worked at the building shown in the postcard illustration.

  • Monica said:

    I think a lot of people believe that Benjamin Willis, of Chicago is the same Willis that the building is being named after. There was a big debate on a radio station here. Thanks for clearing it up.

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