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Maywood, Illinois: A small village with a circus of talent

There are two Maywoods in Illinois.

One is a 2.72 square-mile small town nine miles west of downtown Chicago that has produced a circus of raw talent ranging from NBA players to activists, folk singers and Emmy award winners.

The other is a Chicago suburb with a fewer than 25,000 people struggling with crime, blight, housing issues, poverty, changing demographics and identity.

On the south side of town, you have boarded up buildings, burnt-out brick buildings in a slow-state of repair, a quiet little downtown area and a Masonic lodge that serves as a Boys and Girls Club.

The north side boasts an eclectic mix of Chicago architectural styles where Frank Loyd Wright’s students were said to have practiced. You can find 16 homes on the National Register of Historic Places, many tucked away in a quiet little neighborhood just west of the Des Plaines River.

You’re in Pirate Country

Image courtesy of Proviso East High School alumni site)

What the two Maywoods share, besides history and square footage, is a high school called Proviso East, which has proven a fertile ground for more than athletic achievement. The last man to walk on the moon, the inventor of the Sidewinder missile, the founder of BET and an influential member of the Black Panthers all attended the school.

Proviso East High School - formerly the home of the Proviso Township School District until it was split into east and west schools - is a focal point of the small town.  Its colossal brick field house and impeccable blue track make it look more like a small college than a high school.

Rivaling the school’s physical size is its lengthy list of impressive alumni:

  • Folk singer John Prine
  • Black Entertainment Television (BET) co-founder Sheila Johnson
  • Dennis Franz of NYPD Blue
  • Christopher Gardner, the inspiration for the Will Smith film The Pursuit of Happyness
  • Dr. Walter LeBarge, undersecretary of the Air Force
  • Tony and Pulitzer prize winning producer Dennis Grimaldi

At a concert at the school a few years ago, John Prine said: "Boy, I spent a lot of time in this place, I had a lot of was rumored that the Dean of Students had a metal plate in his head, so we would carry magnets in our pockets."

The school’s athletic prowess, especially in basketball, is legendary. Proviso players who made it to the NBA include Reggie Jordan, Steven Hunter (currently with the Denver Nuggets) and most famously Glenn “Doc” Rivers, the NBA All Star who went on to coach the Celtics all the way to an NBA championship in 2008.

Donnie Boyce also played in the NBA.

Boyce was born in Maywood and grew up just down the street from Doc Rivers.  He was one of the so-called “three amigos” (along with Sherell Ford and Michael Finley, both of whom also played in the NBA) on the Proviso team that won the Illinois State Championship in 1991.  Boyce played for the Atlanta Hawks in the late ‘90s.

Two years ago he came back to Proviso, this time to coach.

For an ex-player with offers to coach in Europe, his decision to come home was a big one for himself and the community.

Fred Hampton’s legacy of black activism

Another famous Proviso alumni is Fred Hampton, the charismatic activist who founded the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party (and became chair of the Illinois BPP). Hampton was shot and killed by the Chicago police in 1969.  Hampton earned three varsity letters and graduated from Proviso with honors in 1966. Though he didn’t join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) until he enrolled at Triton Junior College, he seems to have developed his political consciousness and organizing skills at the high school.

While at Proviso, Hampton led student demonstrations and boycotts over a number of issues: disparities between the treatment of black and white athletes, the lack of black teachers and administrators, and even the election of homecoming queen, a contest limited to white females. He won a number of reforms and was head of the school’s Inter-racial Council.

After high school, Hampton continued his activism while rising to lead a Youth Chapter of the NCAAP. He led a campaign to get an integrated public pool in Maywood. Some demonstrations he was involved in apparently became violent, including one against a city board meeting in 1968.

Many associate the term “rainbow coalition” with the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., but it was actually Hampton who coined the phrase to describe the alliance he formed between the BPP, Chicago street gangs, youth organizations and student political groups.

Maywood has remembered Hampton by naming both a street and that very pool he fought for after him. Outside the pool is a bust created by famous Chicago sculptor Preston Jackson. But on Proviso’s wall of famous alumni, Hampton’s name and image is notably absent.

Still, not everyone has forgotten him. Donnie Boyce says Hampton had a big impact on him - in fact he thinks Hampton helped quell racial tensions at Proviso.

Maywood Now

In his 1978 song “Bruised Orange” John Prine described Maywood like this:

“My heart's in the ice house come hill or come valley
Like a long ago Sunday when I walked through the alley
On a cold winter's morning to a church house
just to shovel some snow.

I heard sirens on the train track howl naked gettin' nuder,
An altar boy's been hit by a local commuter
just from walking with his back turned
to the train that was coming so slow.

You can gaze out the window get mad and get madder,
throw your hands in the air, say "What does it matter?"
but it don't do no good to get angry,
so help me I know”

If you talk to residents now, you’ll find that some are mad. They are mad about what they perceive as high property taxes and water rates. They’re mad about murder rates.

Even the mayor of Maywood, Henderson Yarbrough Sr. says that property taxes are high. He’s held an appeal forum with commissioner Larry Rogers Jr. for three years running.

With a murder rate hovering near an average of eight murders per year, and the blight of old buildings boarded up and empty houses, it might be easy take Prine’s approach and gaze at the window and “get mad and get madder.”  But with elections coming up on April 9, citizens have that one quintessentially American way of expressing themselves at their disposal.  

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