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Kids need to know why Owens matters

Updated: October 10, 2013 6:12AM

It’s bad enough that some Chicago neighborhoods have become nationally known ‘‘food deserts.’’ Now our schools are turning into ‘‘culture deserts.’’

That sentiment came last week from a reader in response to my column on a burgeoning controversy over the elimination of the name ‘‘Jesse Owens’’ from an elementary school on the city’s far South Side.

My concerned correspondents have taken to email, Facebook and Twitter to protest the decision. It’s nice to know that in the face of pending military action in Syria, bloodshed on the streets of Chicago, and endemic political corruption, people still care about little things with big consequences.

Last month the Jesse Owens Community Academy became a victim of the city’s massive school closings when it was ‘‘consolidated’’ into the nearby Gompers Elementary School. The name Owens was banished, and most of Owens’ former students now attend Gompers.

Jesse Owens stunned the world by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The athletic prowess of this African-American son of a sharecropper eviscerated the Nazi view that “Aryan” people were a superior race.

Illinois law dictates that local school councils alone have “the authority to make recommendations around naming rights of their school,’’ according to Chicago Public Schools spokesperson Becky Carroll. Councils make recommendations to the Chicago Board of Education, which can approve or deny a name change.

Whoever is responsible, the Owens name should be saved, many are pleading. In this crazy world, children need to know and remember heroes, more than ever.

Chicago’s schools have become “culture deserts,’’ wrote Ted Manuel, and the media is ‘‘failing to perpetuate a sense of history, from which flows a sense of pride and inspiration.’’ And, Manuel adds, “maybe we’d have less of the gang influence and gratuitous gunfire that makes some black neighborhood war zones.’’

Others note that Owens is an icon not just for blacks alone. His victories vanquished the acolytes of Adolf Hitler, who created another kind of horrific history and through racial genocide, one that we should never forget.

‘‘Totally outrageous!’’ wrote Bill Dal Cerro. ‘‘As a high school teacher (formerly in Chicago, now in the suburbs), I can attest to how important it is to keep reminding students about the importance of people like Owens in American history — in his case, even world history.’’

Owens’ daughters and a posse of Chicago’s leading civic types are demanding the name be restored.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has invited the Owens daughters, the chair of the Gompers Local School Council and Gompers’ principal to a meeting Monday, Carroll said.

Her office issued a statement. ‘‘While CEO Byrd-Bennett personally supports efforts to preserve and honor the Jesse Owens legacy as part of the new school community, this process must be driven and led by the community.’’

Let’s hope Owens’ advocates don’t let this cause become a bureaucratic, never-ending ‘‘process.’’

Sept. 12 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jesse Owens. Restoring his name would be a perfect gift — to all of us.


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