A School’s Unacknowledged Past

Winter 2021

By Daniel B. Frank

independent-schools_v3.jpgIn June 2019, I watched congressional hearings about reparations owed to the descendants of enslaved Africans, human beings who, more than 400 years ago, were unloaded as capitalized cargo on American shores by European captors. I was reminded then as I watched those hearings, and, again this past summer as I read the Black@ Instagram posts by people I know in my own school community, of a historical lesson my eighth grade U.S. history teacher, Mrs. Schein, taught me in 1969. 
 
Mrs. Schein explained that America’s past is composed of a more complete story than what historians choose or are able to reconstruct, and America’s story would not have the integrity of being complete until there was a fuller, more direct, and bold accounting of our nation’s racist past. She offered us a paradigm, a distinction to guide our own developing understanding of the world around us: The past is what happened; history is what the historians selectively record about the past, often conveying a narrative that serves the interests of the dominant political power. The past, she showed us, is bigger and more inclusive than history and contains all kinds of stories—those of the hidden, the suppressed, the ignored, the unacknowledged. In essence, she told us: Don’t confuse history with the past.
 
Mrs. Schein’s influence when I was a student at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, a progressive school where I have been the principal for nearly 20 of the more than 30 years I have been a Parker educator, helped shape my thinking, worldviews, and career.  She showed me how to listen to an account of the past and to wonder if there are experiences, points of view, details, or themes that are absent and need to be included to get a deeper, more complex understanding of what happened and what that story means today.
 
Independent schools today must look at the gap between our stated ideals and marketing profiles and the truths named by our current and former students of color. And as Americans continue to push back against our national denial of slavery’s lasting trauma, independent schools can meet this moment with forthright clarity, consistent with our schools’ missions, and change our own institutional policies and practices so that they are aligned with the call for racial justice and to be explicitly anti-racist organizations.

Knowing the Unthought Known

We live in America, and America lives in us. This is true for individuals and institutions. We have within us both the best and worst of what exists in our nation. Our openness to insight and change, however, is guarded by the fear of losing meaning and power. In independent schools—especially progressive schools—we pride ourselves on being open, inclusive communities committed to equity and racial justice. Yet we have been rightly challenged to be as enlightened and progressive as we say we are by our own students and alumni of color and their white allies and to include their stories in our portrayal of who we are as educational communities. This call for us to repair what is broken in our schools and in our relationships with one another can be threatening to our personal and institutional self-images. But we must not allow these challenges to prevent us from facing hard realities rooted in our institutional pasts, both recent and distant. Only by engaging in a reparative, healing process of rendering a more complete story can we grow beyond the bounds of where we are now, for our students, ourselves, and our nation.
 
As individuals, we can experience a vague awareness of something without ever really bringing it to greater conscious awareness or scrutinizing it. Psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas gave this experience an awkward but insightful phrase in 1987: “the unthought known.” This same phenomenon is true for institutions like independent schools, which have lived in the privileged fog of the unthought known for too long, maintaining distance from fuller awareness of how racism and other forms of oppression exist in our schools and in the broader social and economic systems of which our schools are a part. Giving up the psychological protection of not really knowing how systemic racism persists on our campuses can threaten the place and power of those who have the privilege to choose to ignore what is at the edge of their everyday awareness and vividly present in the lives of all who are hurt daily by racism. But bringing the past into our history is essential for our schools to engage in the vulnerable process of reparative healing so that our institutions can live with the integrity of a more genuine present and complete future.
 
Mrs. Schein knew my class was growing up in a powerful time in our city and nation’s history. She also knew that she was teaching us during a pivotal moment in our own coming of age that could shape our identities and sense of moral purpose in the world. In the content she taught, and in the warm but intense manner in which she related to us and discussed the public issues of our day, she inspired us to learn about ourselves and our nation in order to become citizens who would fight to uphold our country’s greatest ideals in the face of chronic brutal realities. Along with my parents, Mrs. Schein opened my eyes even wider to the world and to myself. Together, they fostered within me a sense of responsibility to use my education, and the privilege my parents frequently reminded me that I had, to do what I could to heal the world’s pain and do the right thing. And half a century later, educators have a similar opportunity to engage today’s young people to use their own growing awareness of their relationship to the broader intersectionality of social issues—race, class, gender, sexual orientation, climate justice, and more—to make a difference in the world. In my emerging sense of identity at that age, maybe I also listened even closer to my teacher because I had done the historical math: I was born only a decade after the liberation of Auschwitz and the World War II defeat of fascist Nazi white supremacy. 

Institutional Coming of Age

Parker has shaped much of my life, including my own commitment to ensuring that it continues to be a vital educational resource for our democracy through our approach to teaching and learning. Parker’s why, like many independent schools, is to teach students to value themselves, others, and our democracy enough to integrate into their emerging identities a vision of themselves as citizens and leaders who should use their intellectual, emotional, social, and cultural competency skills; self-confidence; and resourcefulness to engage creatively in the world, standing up for democratic ideals and standing against injustice. Yet, Parker, too, lives with its institutional unthought knowns rooted in systemic racism.
 
For example, I knew Parker was founded in 1901 thanks to the values and financial resources of Anita McCormick Blaine, the daughter of Cyrus McCormick, who is known to have invented the mechanical reaper, an invention that transformed wheat harvesting and other agricultural products during the mid-to-late 19th century. McCormick’s fortune grew from this invention, and, in time, the McCormick family became central civic-minded philanthropists in Chicago and beyond. I knew that the mechanical reaper has its own role in hastening the advance of Manifest Destiny ideology and the violent taking of Native American land, as well as a role in American labor movement history. I had also known that the McCormick family moved to Chicago from Virginia before the Civil War, as Chicago was fast becoming the mercantile port and gateway to the vast reaches of the American West. But it was not until I had a conversation about the historical roots of institutional racism in American education with a young African American educator who had wondered about Parker’s own possible white supremacist past that I inquired further. 
 
Guided by my colleague’s question, and Mrs. Schein’s teaching 50 years ago, I learned that McCormick invented the reaper thanks largely to the help of two men: the prior work done by his father, Robert McCormick, and the important design contributions of a man named Jo Anderson, an enslaved African whom Cyrus owned. Although Cyrus believed he had a close relationship with Anderson, McCormick was also a strong political supporter of slavery. In 1931, Cyrus’s grandson, also named Cyrus, wrote a book, The Century of the Reaper, in which he gave Anderson public credit for having helped invent the reaper.
 
So, here stands Parker, shaped by irony: an urban progressive school, established on the troubled soil of violent contradictions that continue to shape the complex history of American life. Parker was founded on the principles of educating for responsible citizenship in a democratic society by a wealthy politically liberal woman for her time—who herself would remain disenfranchised for another two decades—and by her recruitment of Col. Francis Wayland Parker, the man John Dewey called the father of progressive education. Parker was a Union Civil War veteran, who, like Blaine, dedicated his adult life to championing democratic society against the forces of authoritarianism. This progressive endeavor was funded from Blaine’s inherited financial fortune, which directly links enslaved labor to the invention of the reaper, and which contributed to the aggressive assault of Manifest Destiny across the lands of America’s native peoples. 
 
Since its founding, part of Parker School’s own institutional narrative has been clouded—suspended at a distance from conscious awareness—as an unthought known fragment, a kind of cognitive dissonance, concealing a recognition that Parker’s own founding financial fingerprints has the imprint of the enslaved labor of a Black man and of that tenaciously vicious system of human brutality that continues to harm the quality of life and opportunity for all who live in our nation today.
 
That I had never heard this story, nor inquired enough to learn about it until recently, is an example of how, even in a fine progressive liberal arts institution like Parker, an unthought known can lurk in the shadows as an institutional blind spot. This is where necessary growth can occur—by bringing light to our unacknowledged ambivalence about learning what lies beneath the surface in our lives and institutions, where, simultaneously, we both know and don’t want to know aspects of our own histories.

The Integrity of a More Complete Story

Nationwide, institutions are taking down statues and changing names of buildings featuring people with racist histories. Because it’s time to better align history with the past, institutions should also raise up the names of those previously silenced by systemic racism.
 
I told Jo Anderson’s story to Parker’s faculty, staff, and board at the start of the 2019–2020 school year and suggested that the school honor Mr. Anderson, at the very least, by naming a prominent part of the school after him as a way to publicly acknowledge with gratitude his rightful place as contributing founder of our school and creative inventor in our nation’s history. Although plans to act on this idea and educate our students were delayed because of the pandemic’s disruption to the school year, this past fall the board of trustees authorized such a naming along with a plaque teaching the school community about Mr. Anderson and his important contribution. By integrating our origins—that our school, with all of its noble features and proud legacy, also has a direct link to slavery, where the progressive is directly related to the oppressive—we can grow with integrity. When our institutional identity expands to include all of who we are, the appealing as well as the disavowed, we move from a state of unthought known to a place of acknowledgment and celebration regarding how Anderson’s labor and ingenuity led to the creation of an internationally recognized transformative technology, which created the wealth that was eventually used to establish our school. Embracing this awareness as a long overdue public expression of appreciation owed to Mr. Anderson is a necessary but not sufficient act to bring Parker’s past into our history. Yet, along with other systemic educational and financial changes to the school’s policies and practices (see “Parker’s DEI Work at a Glance” below), the school can sharpen its focus even more to make our school a more equitable educational institution.
 
I think back to Mrs. Schein and how she let her students know that if America’s story is allowed to remain incomplete, it would mean that we, as individual citizens, would also lead incomplete lives tainted with compromised integrity. This would not only affect us, but also future generations whose lives and identities would be harmed by our silence. Our challenge is to help our students and ourselves know our current thoughts, emotions, and pasts and not fear them. As educators, we know that learning is a complicated matter. The desire to learn confronts forces of defense against awareness. Confronting such resistance, which often appears in the form of unthought knowns or other expressions of unconscious bias, allows us to challenge the power and privilege of those who benefit from the status quo. In independent schools, our efforts to integrate social and emotional learning with diversity, equity, and inclusion work can help students and educators alike grow in awareness and resourcefulness, understanding that anti-racist education is as much a psychological experience as it is a social, cultural, and political one.
 
Individuals and institutions have pivotal coming-of-age moments. This part of my own adolescent coming-of-age narrative, and the role of a courageous teacher, is related to my adult efforts to help my school have an expanded, identity-shaping coming-of-age moment by telling a more complete account of its own institutional history, one that can embrace the truth of both its regressive and progressive roots in our nation’s past. In this way, modest as it is, I hope we can contribute to creating a future where history is more like the past. 

 

Parker's DEI Work at a Glance 

In a school with 40% students of color, 33% employees of color, and 36% trustees of color, Francis W. Parker School (IL) educates students to think and act with empathy, courage, and clarity as responsible citizens and leaders in a diverse democratic society and global community. This mission guides Parker’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work as it learns from ongoing community feedback, through student, employee, parent, board, and alumni committee dialogues; climate surveys; and careful attention to this past summer’s Instagram posts. Parker has worked to build a DEI-focused personnel, operational, and financial infrastructure that supports an inclusive school culture, student affinity and ally groups, student discipline and employee accountability, DEI curriculum development, employee professional development, parent education and alumni engagement, and speaker events and conferences. Here’s a look at how Parker is following through on its mission.  
 
Cultural competency education is
  • required for all hiring managers, employees, and board members
  • woven into curriculum for all students
  • offered to parents through DEI workshops and SEED groups
Annual community DEI conference and speaker events: Parker founded and hosts the Administrators of Color in Independent Schools Conference, Cullen J. Davis Young Men of Color Symposium, Robinson Family Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Speaker Series, and is the co-founder of Chicago’s Young Women of Color Symposium.
 
The next major fundraising campaign aims to support Parker’s mission and will grow financial aid funding and support the development of a building adjacent to campus. These additional resources will increase the diversity of the student body to be more reflective of Chicago’s class, race, and ethnic population. 
 
Read more about Parker’s DEI programs at fwparker.org/DEI.
 
Author
Daniel B. Frank

Daniel B. Frank is principal at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, Illinois.