Posted on November 18, 2004

Parents See Remnants Of Racism At School

Maudlyne Ihejirika, Chicago Tribune, Nov. 14

Racism is in the eye of the beholder at Thornton Fractional South High School.

An old battle has reignited at this south suburban school over the Confederate flag — Thornton South’s logo for 35 years until it was banned by the District 215 School Board in June 1993.

Those who defended it then argued the flag and its “Rebels” mascot were harmless, adopted when the school was established in 1958 with an all-white enrollment, to symbolize its “secession” from Thornton North in Calumet City.

But the two black parents who ignited the 1993 debate and civil rights leaders argued the symbol honors the battle of the Old South to continue enslaving blacks.

“The flag became a huge issue. The Board of Ed struggled with this issue and made the decision to dump the Confederate flag. There are no longer any Confederate flags in the building,” says District 215 Supt. Robert Wilhite.

But just as in 1993, a handful of black parents have taken up arms against the status quo.

Part of their battle is over a seemingly small, pre-1993 remnant — a vest sewn from a Confederate flag — once worn by a Thornton principal on “school pride” days and still inside a display case at the school’s front entrance.

“I just don’t like what it stands for. It should be removed,” said one black parent, the Rev. Dorothy Burton.

And the parents have challenged a larger sleeping tiger, a 30-foot wall mural with a Confederate flag background outside the gymnasium.

Black students say it should have been altered to remove the flag backdrop long ago.

In 1994, the flag was retired from flying outside school, from T-shirts and jackets sold inside and from the uniform of mascot Richie the Rebel.

School officials say other depictions on cafeteria and gym walls were painted over.

‘Should have changed mural’

But, said black student Latisha Calhoun, “You can’t have ‘a little’ racism. They should have changed the mural, too.”

“My parents have complained. These are Confederate flags, any way you look at it,” student Jeremy Corney said.

A decade ago, when black parents first objected to the Confederate flag as a symbol of the school, blacks made up 9 percent of the student population. Today, blacks represent 28 percent.

“I don’t think it’s a racial thing. I think some parents are overreacting,” said Hispanic student Giovanni Yarber.

White student Nicole Fuscaldo disagreed: “I can understand why black students want a symbol of slavery gone.”

Thornton South’s enrollment area spans ethnically diverse Burnham, Calumet City, Lansing and Lynwood.

Officials thought the flag issue was long buried, and they are befuddled by black parents’ perception of the vest and mural. “The display case does not contain a flag,” Wilhite said. “This was a vest the principal wore. . . He wore it all through the building to show school pride. I’m sorry they feel hurt by that.”

‘Racist and offensive’

“There is no Confederate flag in that mural,” said John Hallberg, principal of Thornton’s 1,600 students.

“It’s racist and offensive. But look at the race of our staff,” said a black teacher, who declined to be identified.

About 94 percent of District 215’s 184 teachers are white; 3.8 percent are black, and 1.6 percent are Hispanic.

“I wish someone had said something to us about the vest and mural. We thought it wasn’t an issue,” Hallberg said.

“If a group of parents come to me, we’d take it under consideration. I want all the kids to be proud of their high school,” he said.

“I was among a group of parents who spoke to Principal Hallberg about the flag issue at the beginning of the year . . .” said black parent Tamara Calhoun. “Will they remove it? I don’t think so.”