By Marlon R. Hall, Sr., EdD., Guest Blogger
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” ― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
My journey to Fenwick High School began as a student in 1972. I was one of 11 African-American males that year who entered as freshmen. At the time, there were only two African-American males in the entire school. The most memorable episode of African-American student integration of schools in the history of our nation occurred 15 years earlier when nine students entered Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. They were called the “Little Rock Nine.” I am calling us, “The Fenwick 11.”
The route to Fenwick began at my grammar school, Our Lady of Sorrows, on the West Side of Chicago. During our eighth grade year, high school representatives traveled to our school to speak about the advantages of attending Gordon Tech, Providence-St. Mel, Hales Franciscan, Holy Trinity, St. Ignatius, Loyola Academy and Fenwick.
The Fenwick representative was a man by the name of Mr. Kennedy. At the time, he was the Dean of Students/Vice Principal. His presentation really fascinated me. He spoke about the famous alumni, the class schedule and the opportunity to be enrolled in a Physical Education course for four years. The athletic prowess in me loved the idea of time in the gym for four years. Previously, I had the privilege of attending a basketball game in the old Lawless Gym in 1965. My cousin, Darnell, was playing for the St. Phillips High Lightweight basketball team in the Annual Fenwick Junior Basketball Holiday Tournament, so I was aware of the school, the township of Oak Park, and the ‘el’ ride from the West Side of Chicago.
I decided that Fenwick was the place for me after Mr. Kennedy’s presentation. I arranged a campus visit with Mr. Kennedy, and he introduced me to Greg Stephans, an African-American student at Fenwick who took me on a tour of the campus. After the tour, I took the entrance exam with five of my classmates. After the testing was completed, one of my classmates was fully accepted, one was rejected, and the rest of us were told that we needed summer enrichment in math, English or reading. For four weeks in the summer, I took a math course with Mr. Finnell and a reading course with Mr. Kucienski (self-appointed ‘Sir’). During those few weeks, I became acquainted with the Fenwick community, travelling to Oak Park, and met new people like Don Howard, Henry Tolbert, George Kas, Kevin Galvin and Kevin Prendergast. They became freshman classmates of mine at Fenwick. I finished the courses sufficiently and I was fully accepted into Fenwick High School.
The ‘N’ word and other slurs
What happened during the next year was unexpected! I guess I was naïve coming from the West Side of Chicago. After the summer school experience, I thought that I would be able to successfully integrate into the Fenwick community. But I was called nigger, bourgie, burrhead, “boy” (by the Disciplinarian), and one upperclassman one day decided to take it out on me and slapped me across the head and said, “Nigger, why did you come to this school!” This was not part of the program.
I was spit upon. Pennies were thrown at me, and my classmates threw rocks at us as we walked to the bus stop or the el stop. I can look through my Blackfriars 1973 Annual and remember every Fenwick student who communicated some type of racial slur or comment at me during my brief tenure at the school. The insults hurt but made me stronger. I decided to leave Fenwick after my freshman year. I transferred to Hales Franciscan, where I completed my high school education. Out of the 11 freshman, only three remained to graduate in 1976. They were Donald Howard, Henry Clarke and Wilbur Parker.
Since leaving Fenwick in 1973, I realized that I should have remained and completed my education there. I have voiced that opinion to other members of the Fenwick 11 whom I remain in contact with. They agree. But, why did nearly all of us leave? Fenwick is one of the greatest educational experiences any student could have, especially a “ghetto” kid from Chicago’s West Side. The ridicules, the snickers, the violence afflicted, the racial slurs that I suffered made me a stronger individual.
At the present time, I serve as the President of the Lassen Community College in Susanville, California. This is my sixth year as the College President. Since leaving Fenwick, I have earned six college degrees: an associate’s degree, two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership with an emphasis on Community College Administration.
Teachers like Mr. Arellano, Father Hren, Mr. Finnell, Mr. Kucienski, Father Ostdiek, Mr. Ludwick (who expressed to my mother that I should have remained at Fenwick) and Father Poulsen are the reason for my success today. I thank Mr. Arellano for calling my mother during that year at Fenwick and showing his concern for my education. His exact words were, “This school is very expensive and he should be making a better effort.” None of those individuals ever gave up on me. I should have sought the support and guidance of my teachers, counselor (Father Bernacki), and the administration.
Looking back, with regret
As Vince Tinto (author of Leaving College) wrote, students will leave an institution if they do not feel a part of the campus community. I should have made an effort to do that.
As for my classmates from Fenwick, I am still in contact with several of them. It amazes me that I only spent a year on Washington Boulevard and Scoville and they still remember me. I sincerely thank individuals like John Quinn, Leo Latz, John O’Toole, Neil Bresnahan, Ed Trauth and Dominic Lombardo for reaching out to me on social media. All of these individuals are Caucasian. I really want to thank Sean St. Clair for attending the viewing of my grandmother’s body at the Wallace Funeral Home in Broadview. That really touched me.
The lessons I learned were to always be prepared, come on time, wear your uniform (to this day I always wear a shirt and tie to work), take advantage of opportunities, ask questions, lead, achieve and serve.
Finally, the Fenwick 11 paved the way for other students of color to attend Fenwick. Our pain, suffering and success led to opening doors for others to follow. One of my cousins, Vincent Humphrey, Sr., sent his son, Vincent, Jr., to Fenwick where he was a success in the classroom and on the basketball court. [Vince Humphrey, a member of the FHS Class of 2004, went on to study and play basketball at Valparaiso University.]
Recently, I was in Chicago for the funeral of my stepfather. I traveled to Fenwick and met with Mr. Arellano (my former English teacher) and John Quinn (a current faculty member and former classmate). As I walked through those halls I could hear the words of the Fenwick fight song: “March for our colors, Black and White, and for Fenwick and Victory!”
To the members of the “Fenwick 11” ― Paul Hester, Sidney Thomas, Charles Williams, Joe Lenoir, Mike Jones, Henry Tolbert, Don Howard, Wilbert Parker, Leonard Franklin and Henry Clarke): Our cause speeds on.
Editor’s note: When Dr. Hall enrolled at Fenwick as a freshman nearly 46 years ago, black students represented fewer than 1.0% of the school’s then all-male student body. In 2018, 72 of Fenwick’s 1,204 students (6.0%) are of African-American ethnicity; 202 students (16.8%) are Hispanic-American; another 25 (2.1%) are Asian-American; and 40 (3.3%) are multi-racial.
FENWICK HIGH SCHOOL’S INCLUSION STATEMENT
With Saint Dominic as their guide, Dominican friars, sisters, nuns and laity have valued and promoted the diversity found in the one human family, while acknowledging that all people are called to the same eternal destiny in the Kingdom of God. As a Dominican institution, Fenwick High School continues the great Dominican tradition of inclusion and welcome for the common good. This process is rooted in interaction with those of different backgrounds, cultures and ways of life. Experiencing racial, gender, ethnic, religious and socio-economic diversity enriches everyone involved in the educational enterprise. Fenwick commits itself to welcoming every student who would flourish by embracing our Dominican, Catholic, college preparatory curriculum. Fenwick pledges that no one will face discrimination based on race, gender, religion, culture, ethnicity or sexual orientation. A Fenwick education will be marked by respect and inclusion.