Mexicans and African Americans in the Struggles for Better Schooling at Harrison High School

Rafael Valencia Publicado 2017-08-12 01:43:54

The 1960’s was a decade of many social movements in this country. Among them, the student movements that erupted throughout the country, including in the high schools of Chicago. One of the most important high school movements in Chicago occurred at Harrison High School in Little Village, involving African Americans and Latinos, primarily Mexicans. This article seeks, first, to highlight the alliance between Latino and African students and, second, to show how racial tensions among both groups prevented them from fulfilling the goal of a improving the quality of education for both communities.

In 1968 the majority of the African American students at Harrison High School walked out in protest against the poor quality of education they were receiving. This event has been largely regarded as a movement of African American students for better education. Only recently has the the role of Mexican students in the Harrison protest gained historical attention. The reason for the unbalanced narrative of the Harrison student protest movement is related to the complexity of this event and the relationship between these two demographic groups. Although Mexican and African Americans have a history of coming together to form alliances for common goals, these alliances should not assume that both communities are conflict free. Conflict between both communities has also divide them.

This complex relationship of alliances and conflict was manifested in the Harrison High School walkouts. This movement began when African American students walked out of school in protest over the poor quality of education. Soon after, Latino students, mainly Mexican, joined the protest. Although Latino and African American students and community members were united in their overall goal of a better education, each group had a separate set of demands that diverted them into their own directions. In the case of Latinos, they waged their own long and independent battle to create their own high school in Pilsen (latter known as Benito Juarez High School).

While Latinos and African Americans often unite, the tensions among both communities are historically grounded. In the case of Chicago, the roots of the tensions are partly explained by the history of segregation that came about in the city in the post-World War II era. The end of the war led to a long period of economic prosperity in the U.S. The U.S. government rewarded returning soldiers with the GI Bill, a set of benefits that included housing financing programs that facilitated the purchasing of homes. Aimed at all veterans, these benefits, especially in the area of housing, should had also benefited minority veterans. That was not the case of minority veterans due to the’ history of banks discriminating against minority homeowners buyers. In the case of Chicago, realtors and banks mapped the city, color coding neighborhoods based on race: red was used to code African American neighborhoods, green for white communities, and yellow for mixed communities. The rule of red meant that banks would not provide mortgage and home improvement loans. This coding is what became known as redlining. Redlining was a powerful tool used to divide people along racial lines and also to make money. When a African American family moved into a white neighborhood, realtors used scare tactics to get white homeowners into selling their home for cheap. They scared them by telling them that the value of their homes would greatly depreciate with the arrival of African Americans and that, with more of them, they would not get much for their property. In turn the banks would then sell the same houses for more than what they were really worth. Moreover, the value of housing in emerging African American neighborhoods dwindled but this was not due to their presence but to the departure of thousands of whites who left for the suburbs. This became known as white flight.

The white flight changed the demographics of many of Chicago’s neighborhoods, as well as the arrival of thousands of African Americans from the South and Latino immigrants and migrants. Many neighborhoods became African American majority and redlining practices encouraged segregation and the evolution of poorer communities. Moreover, many factories closed leaving many without good paying employment. In the case of the Harrison High School, most of the African came from the North Lawndale neighborhood, a former white community that turned 90% African American in a period of 10 years. Meanwhile South Lawndale (Little Village), where Harrison High was located, was gradually becoming a Mexican neighborhood.

The effects of that ongoing residential segregation should be taken into major consideration in understanding the student boycotts of the 1960s. In Chicago, and specifically at Harrison High School, African American students manifested their discontent with their inferior education by walking out. They drafted a manifesto in which they listed their grievances and demands. They demanded more Black teachers and classes on African American history and culture. They were united behind those and other demands. Latino students soon joined the protest and walked out of school with African American. Both Mexican and African American students came together against the injustices they experienced, but the two were not simply allies tied to one single cause. Mexican students drafted their own manifesto which was very similar to that of the African American students: they demanded more Latino teachers and staff and classes on Latin American history and culture. If they were united under the common cause of a better education, why then did they draft separate manifestos as opposed to a single one? Dr. Jaime Alanis conducted interviews with several former Mexican students who participated in the Harrison High walkouts. According to the interviews, even though African American and Latino students suffered from discrimination at school, Mexicans were envious of African American students, stressing that African Americans received more resources than Mexican students. For example, Mexican students wanted a school soccer team and felt discriminated against because African Americans participated in school sports such as basketball.

Racism is part and parcel of the history of this country. Race has divided poor people. We need more historical research on social relations between different minorities, including understanding of what unites and divides them. Racial tensions between Latinos and African Americans existed during walkouts at Harrison High School (1968) and in the struggles to create Benito Juarez High School (1975). Despite a common front of a better education for all that brought them together at Harrison High School, in the end Latinos and African Americans went their separate ways. In the case of the movement to build a high school in Pilsen (Juarez High School), Mexican parents and community members made the case of the necessity of a much needed school, one that promoted Mexican culture and pride. They gave reasons for the necessity of a neighborhood school. One of them focused on the gang violence in nearby African American majority schools. Indeed gang violence was a real concern for parents and children, regardless of race. African American gangs not only targeted African American but also Mexican students walking to school. Mexicans and Latinos formed their own gangs to protect themselves and retaliate against the African American gangs. Both the walkouts at Harrison and the creation of Benito Juarez were community struggles to obtain quality education. However, instead of marching together as allies to the same tune, Latino suspicion of African Americans, and vice versa, led each to march separately and to their own tune.   

We need to make connections between the student walkouts at Harrison High School and the movement that led to the building of Benito Juarez High School. Both movements were inspired by the desires of a better education. The Latino manifesto for improving Harrison High was not realized but the core of it found its way into educational rationale for having a new high school in Pilsen. In the end we can look back at the Harrison walkouts and learn how Mexican and African Americans came together to fight for better education, but also we can learn of the many challenges that afflicted the alliance from maintaining itself. Although the high school student movement temporarily united both communities, discrete racial biases weakened the alliance to the point that each community went their independent way in their struggles for better education. While it is important to create schools that highlight cultural pride, as in the case of Juarez, we must remain conscientious that respect of others is always needed and not always had. In order for both groups to truly prosper in fighting against racism they must not seek to place themselves above others but to fight together for equality. After all, we are in the same boat.


Rafael Valencia is the son of Mexican immigrants. Born and raised in Chicago, he received his bachelor’s degree from DePaul University where he majored in history and minored in anthropology and sociology.  



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