Like many industrial centers, Rockford, Illinois experienced its immigration boom in the late 1800s. Swedes established Swedetown, the third ward became “the Patch” for the Irish and the Italians settled in the southern part of town or along Madison Street.
Blacks came seeking those same opportunities. Allowed to work in the city but having to settle outside city limits, Blacks escaped the repression of ‘separate but equal’ only to experience racism Northern-style.
Chris Jaffe, in his thesis, The Race Line in Rockford from 1930 notes, “Using devices such as informal agreements between members of the city’s real estate community, Rockford’s whites limited black housing choices almost exclusively to the southwest section of town and at the city’s edges.”
Though Rockford’s official housing record “contains no information explaining the peculiar black housing arrangements,” evidence shows that blacks were systematically driven across the Rock River into the southwest quadrant of the city.
The enmity created by residential segregation can still be felt. Although grievances are addressed and funding is raised to reconstruct and bring services to impoverished areas, inequities never are fully remedied. Sensitivities continue to fester.
At the center of contention lies Rockford School District 205.
After decades of divisiveness, civil rights activists attempted to exorcise Rockford’s segregationist demons by busing children across the Rock River to Walker and White Swan Elementary. Though their corrective plans were well-intended, students failed to fully comply.
Forced into shared classroom spaces, playgrounds and lunchrooms reflected a schism of the familiar. Bused children, feeling unwelcome and foreign, retreated to groups that mirrored their own. Rockford could not have been more racially divided.
Parents, unwilling to participate in the city’s social experiment, soon fled to surrounding school districts. White flight further drained property tax revenues from the fledgling District 205 leaving lawmakers seeking alternative remedies for disparities in test scores and graduation rates.
A series of sanctioned fairness measures passed downstate. The Common School Fund (CSF), Controlled Choice and REACH (Rockford Educating All Children) all came and went. State lottery revenues, over $600 million annually, allocated to equalize educational resources, proved futile in enhancing test scores in under-performing districts.
This past May another effort to legislate equality passed the Illinois Senate: the School Funding Reform Act of 2014. Lawmakers extrapolated a new formula to redistribute pooled property tax revenues to struggling schools based upon poverty levels. Monies from thriving school districts would be awarded to underperforming ones under the pretext of fairness.
“Will there be winners and losers under a new funding formula? Absolutely,” Sen. John Sullivan, a Democrat from Rushville, said. “But those winners and losers will be based on need and not what their ZIP code is.”
Thus far no measure of money or downstate formula has been able to erase the deep-rooted enmity between black and white let alone yield better test scores. Rockford District 205 continues to fall below state standards. Crime statistics rival those of neighboring Chicago.
Court-ordered diversity and integration measures whose focus is restricted in scope to quotas and tallies are no match for the extra-curricular.
Integration and equality is achieved when they are not called by such names. Unlike in classrooms where seeds of racial enmity are sown through lectures and films on racial injustice and white privilege, actual integration is achieved on baseball fields and at pack meetings. Integration and equality is found in the pursuit of happiness – pursuits in which children gain acceptance by individual performance in the broader context of team.
The objective is not integration or coexistence, rather it is to play ball and enjoy the outdoors. Families get to know families. Kids learn life lessons, build character and work hard while parents enjoy the hilarity of watching little ones run from home to third for no other purpose beyond a love of the game.
Running the bases and bonding over s’mores has done more to advance unity than any corrective writ. “Sport is now a major frontier of social change, and some of the nation’s most vexing issues… are being played out in our stadiums, grandstands and locker rooms.”*
Unfortunately many black kids are not able to participate in these after school activities. Mike Walton, retired Lieutenant Colonel USAR and former Non Commissioned Officer for the Boy Scouts of America says, “The basic reason is the same reason for the dearth of blacks in other areas of American life: many black men are in jails or have chosen to ‘drop out’ of American life; many black women are too busy performing their roles as homemaker and family supporter AND now as primary breadwinner.”
If it were simply a matter of funding, perhaps a case could be made to funnel money into afterschool baseball and Scouting programs. Still, subsidizing extra-curricular activities does nothing to solve the lack of parent involvement to run such programs.
In the case of Rockford, where the state of Illinois seems bent on injecting itself as the arbiter of past wrongs through the school system, true unity can be found at the Sportscore complex and Camp Winnebago.
Those who look to the school board or Springfield to distribute fairness will continue to fall short while parents who sacrifice their time to be den leaders and baseball coaches do the heavy lifting; unifying children through play.
* Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. New York: Harper Collins , 1976. Print.