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Olympic hero Jesse Owens’ name to go back on a CPS school

 A file picture taken August 1936 shows US champi'Jesse' (James Cleveland) Owens during Olympic Games Berlwhere he captured 4

A file picture taken on August 1936 shows US champion "Jesse" (James Cleveland) Owens during Olympic Games in Berlin, where he captured 4 gold medals, AFP PHOTOCORR/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: -

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Updated: November 4, 2013 12:17PM

The name of Olympic legend Jesse Owens will return to a Chicago public school, as a West Pullman local school council voted Wednesday to change its name to honor one of Chicago’s most decorated citizens.

Amid much protest, the original Jesse Owens Community Academy was closed in June, its children consolidated into nearby Gompers Elementary School as part of CPS’ record school closings.

Wednesday afternoon, the Gompers Local School Council approved renaming the school after Owens.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who recommended last spring that the West Pullman school originally built in Owens’ honor be consolidated for lack of students into Gompers Elementary School, said Wednesday she would take the LSC’s recommendation with her support to the Board of Education for final approval.

“Jesse Owens remains a powerful figure in our country’s history, and this school’s name will serve as a moving tribute to his legacy as well as a reminder for students for years to come how one person can influence the course of history,” she said in a statement.

Owens, 12450 S. State, was closed into Gompers, 12302 S. State, and not the other way around, because Gompers — named for Samuel Gompers, the English-born labor leader — was higher performing academically, according to CPS criteria. The new Gompers was given a new STEM program and had labs built and upgraded. Gompers’ principal took over both buildings about a block apart to form a single school serving pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

That didn’t deter Owens’ three daughters, who joined the fight against the original closure and then for the renaming of Samuel Gompers to honor their dad.

Two community meetings have been held recently soliciting feedback on the proposed name change.

And at an April school closing hearing, Owens’ eldest told CPS that their father considered all children champions.

“He called everyone champ, to him every child was a champ, all they needed was the opportunity to be one,” Gloria Owens Hemphill, said at the final hearing for the school.

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was the most decorated athlete of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning four gold medals in track and field. He spoke out against racism during the games held during Adolf Hitler’s reign, and in the United States, too.

In 1949, Owens moved to Chicago and raised his family here. He was given the Congressional Gold Medal and the Medal of Freedom, too.

The school was built in 1980 and named for Owens after he died of lung cancer that year and was buried at Oakwoods Cemetery, 1035 E. 67th St.

Owens represented hard work and perseverance, Hemphill said last spring, flanked by her two younger sisters, Beverly Rankin and Marlene Owens Rankin.

“We are very upset that the Jesse Owens School is even being thought of not to be here anymore,” Hemphill said at the time. “I think we can give him the honor of having the Jesse Owens School in Chicago, Illinois.”

Contacted Wednesday night, Hemphill said she was elated the Owens school would live on.

“Our children need to know about African-American history, and he is a great part of it,” Hemphill said. “I know, as a former teacher myself, they need to know they can achieve their dreams. They need to know that Jesse Owens, my dad, that’s what he was all about, and that he was much like them at one time.”


Twitter: @bylaurenfitz

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