Jesse Owens spent much of his post-Olympic life in Chicago.
As Chicago Public Schools endures a PR nightmare over parent protests, “safe passage” violence and budget woes, the district continued its spiral when it erased the name of a long-time Chicagoan — an Olympic hero who humiliated Hitler — from one of its schools.
The daughters of Olympic track and field legend Jesse Owens are fighting to keep their father’s legacy alive on the South Side elementary school that has bore his name since the ’80s.
When school starts back up for CPS students next week, former students of Jesse Owens Community Academy in West Pullman will head to Samuel Gompers Elementary. The district voted to shutter Owens last spring and consolidate it with Gompers, though CPS is keeping the Owens building open under the Gompers name for K-3 students.
“It is just beyond me as to why they would do something like that,” Owens’ youngest daughter, Marlene Owens Rankin, told the Tribune “It is disrespectful.”
“He called everyone champ, to him every child was a champ, all they needed was the opportunity to be one,” added Owens’ eldest daughter, Gloria Owens Hemphill.
Owens, who spent much of his post-Olympics life in Chicago, is buried at Oak Woods Cemetery on the city’s South Side. Owens Elementary was dedicated several years after his death in 1980.
Owens’ daughters, who live in Chicago, passionately fought during April’s public school closure hearings to save the school. They’ve also reached out to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, local aldermen and others for support, but say they’ve heard nothing back.
A CPS official said the naming decisions are left up to the Local School Council, NBC Chicago reports. Gompers’ principal said she won’t stand in the way if the community decides in favor of changing the name to Owens.
“What he did in his lifetime meant a lot — to a lot of people,” Rankin told WGN (embedded above).
The Tribune’s Mary Schmich noted as much in a stirring recent columnunderscoring the value a CPS school’s name holds for its neighborhood and residens.
“Reading the list of schools on Chicago’s chopping block is like taking a tour through the city’s past, witnessing vanished heroes in neighborhoods whose ethnic identities have, in many cases, long since changed.”