Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Entries : Willis Wagons
Willis Wagons

Willis Wagons

Fight School Segregation, 1963
“Willis Wagons” was the pejorative term for portable school classrooms used by critics of Superintendent of Schools Benjamin C. Willis (1953–1966) when protesting school overcrowding and segregation in black neighborhoods from 1962 to 1966. In December 1961, the Board of Education approved Willis's plan to buy 150 to 200 of the 20 x 36-foot aluminum mobile school units and install them at existing schools and on vacant lots. Besides installing the portable units, officials accommodated swelling ghetto pupil enrollments with double-shift schedules, rented commercial space, and much new school construction. Black parents, neighborhood organizations, and civil rights groups also urged authorities to permit black children to attend white schools with empty seats. Willis and the school board, however, resisted, preferring traditional neighborhood-based schools and refusing to reconfigure boundaries. Blacks countered with sit-ins, boycotts, and marches. The Woodlawn Organization claimed that it coined the “Willis Wagons” label in its one-day boycott of Carnegie School, May 18, 1962. The boycott protested the arrival of six portable units to house students until a new school building opened in late 1963. Personalizing school segregation and overcrowding dramatized these issues and later drove Willis from office. But the portable units and segregation both predated and outlived Willis's administration.

Fish, John Hall. Black Power/White Control: The Struggle of the Woodlawn Organization in Chicago. 1973.
Ralph, James R. Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement. 1993.