Black History Month 2019
Pioneering perspective: Fenwick’s first black graduate reflects on the segregated life of his youth. “Mine is a difficult story to tell,” he says, offering a history lesson in the process.
Interview by Mark Vruno
School records dating back 64 years confirm that alumnus Richard Cochrane ’59 blazed a trail as Fenwick’s very first African-American student and graduate. Originally from Maywood, IL, Mr. Cochrane now lives in the sunny Southwest. In high school, he was active in student government (class treasurer and secretary) and played football and basketball (captain).
Last February, one-time Fenwick student turned educator Marlon Hall, PhD. shared his freshman-year experience of the early 1970s, when he endured verbal abuse and physical bullying – all racially inspired. In one of several replies to Dr. Hall’s guest blog, Cochrane pointed out that his memories of Fenwick were quite different and much more positive 17 years earlier:
“Dr. Hall, I appreciate your sharing your Fenwick experiences and the strength they gave you. In context, in 1950 the world-renowned chemist Percy Julian became the first African-American to take up residence in Oak Park. His home was fire-bombed on Thanksgiving Day of that year and again in 1951. In May of 1954 the Supreme Court rendered the ‘Brown vs. Board of Education’ ruling. In September of 1955 I walked into Fenwick as a freshman, two years before the ‘Little Rock Nine,’ and I am black. There were no other black students and there would only be one more in the next four years.
“Many of my experiences were similar to yours but the negatives were overwhelmed by the support of the majority of the student body, and the faculty support cannot go without mention. There were whispers and some name-calling and even a fight or two, but the Dominican family pushed, nudged and refused to let me think of anything but finishing. I was also aware of the financial burden that I was placing on my family. In return, I received an excellent education both academically and socially….”
Cochrane’s heartfelt response prompted our Alumni Relations Team to reach out. We learned that Rich is “happily retired” and soaking up sunshine in New Mexico. Our questions and his answers:
Richard, where did you attend college? Please tell us about your professional background and STEM-related career.
RC: After graduating Fenwick in 1959, I attended St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, where I majored in chemistry. While there I played freshman basketball and varsity football for two years until my knee gave out. I got a job in the coatings and ink industry and, eventually, spent 35 years with Sun Chemical Corporation. I held positions in lab synthesis, tech service, lab management, operation management and national accounts. I retired from Sun in 2003.
What was it like being the only black student at the Fenwick?
RC: In 1955, I believe my freshman class enrolled about 354 students and the school enrollment was about 1,236. As I’ve said, I found the faculty very supportive and the student body mostly treating me like any other student, with a smaller group either curious or distant. Only one of the other three students from my parish in Maywood [St. James, which closed in 2006] was close to me at Fenwick.
On the first day of school, when I went to the office to pick up my class schedule, the staff called back one of the students I was with to ask if I was really going to attend school there. A notable few of the upper-classmen were kind enough to offer short words of encouragement. If I missed the Madison St. bus, I would walk west until the next bus came and would often find the Oak Park Police close behind to make sure I reached Harlem Ave. The single greatest factor was the Dominican community. I got the feeling that they would not let me fail (or even consider quitting).
Did you have a sense that you were making “history” at Fenwick?
RC: I had no sense of making history but there was a constant feeling of not being totally “at home.” Remember, at that time Oak Park had a population of 62,000 [there are 10,000 fewer residents today] and had only one black family — and their home had twice been bombed.
Learning How to Learn
How did Fenwick prepare you for college and your future in the chemistry field?
RC: I sometimes recall the benefits of my Fenwick education and try to evaluate what factors were most influential in preparing me for my career and my life. More and more I come back to not “what I learned” but “how I learned to learn.” Fenwick taught me to think critically, logically, analytically and creatively. It would be difficult to imagine a life in the world of today without those strengths to analyze the current environment in which we work and live.
I always recall Father Conway’s algebra classes; he would give us little metaphorical sayings that would stick in my mind and served to remind me of significant mathematical relations. He also seemed able to write equations with his right hand while simultaneously erasing them with his left, so you also had to learn quickly. Father Robinson’s physics classes were always a reasoning challenge, and he also exposed us to amateur radio. (To this day, I still maintain an FCC Technician license). These classes more than prepared me for the next level of study, but again I think learning ‘how to think’ is a key part of the learning process.
We’ve heard the village of Maywood, where you grew up in Proviso Township, was a “nice” neighborhood in the 1950s. What was it like there?
RC: Maywood in the 1950s was a very pleasant town of about 25,000 people. The black community was confined to a space of about 32 square blocks and numbered about 2,500 (currently Maywood is probably 80+% minority). There was a dedicated grade school and city park for the black community. Relations were generally tolerant and peaceful between the races at that time. The closest swimming pool that would accept African-Americans was in unincorporated Cook County near Harlem and Ogden Avenues. That was three bus rides away. All these things were generally accepted as normal, and it would be some years before they were challenged.
Society changed so much in the 10 to 15 years after you left Fenwick. How were things different in late-1960s and ’70s’ America and in Chicago during that time?
RC: The modern civil rights movement can trace its beginnings to two seminal events:
- The slaying and funeral of Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager, in August of 1955.
- The refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat on a bus in December of 1955.
Emmett Till’s mutilated body was displayed in an open casket at the insistence of his mother and the front page of every Chicago paper was filled with that charged news. Richard J. Daley was elected mayor of Chicago in 1955, and that was the climate when I walked into Fenwick in September of 1955.
In 1955 I could not go swimming in the village of Bellwood; 20 years later its population was 50% African-American.
In 1955 there was effectively a “ghetto” in Maywood; 20 years later the police chief was black.
I rode the bus through Forest Park to get to school when it was an all-white suburb; 20 years later it had a significant minority population.
Black students would ride the bus past Fenwick to St. Mel or past St. Mel to St. Philip to get a Catholic education, and 20 years later they go to Fenwick or go west to Nazareth or St. Joe or Montini.
The current observer would not know Richard J. Daley or know about Emmett Till or the assassination of Fred Hampton or the bombing of Percy Julian’s home. There is a school in Oak Park named after him and a street also bears his name. I believe his family still resides in Oak Park, but I would venture not one of Fenwick minority students knows his impact on the community where they attend school.
It would be difficult to describe Maywood as an upper middle class suburb with a 90% white population to a person familiar with the present situation [there]. Imagine 1954 and Brown v. the Board of Education; 1955 Rosa Parks; Little Rock Central High School integration in 1957, leading to James Meredith going to Ole Miss at the point of a bayonet.
How would you communicate this environment to a person who lives with Iraq, Iran and Russia, cell phones, modern China and a fairly progressive U.S. social culture?
Editor’s note: Cochrane maintains close contact with boyhood buddy and fellow Friars’ classmate Christian Henning ’59 (St. Eulalia, Maywood), whom he visits when on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The two long-time friends, among 32 students from Maywood who attended Fenwick in 1958-59, will celebrate their 60th Reunion this coming autumn.