Former students explore Wendell Phillips Academy's new $17 million annex. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

GRAND BOULEVARD — The city’s oldest predominately Black high schools has a major upgrade: a multimillion-dollar athletic annex.

On Wednesday, elected officials, students, staff and alumni poured into Wendell Phillips’s new gymnasium, 244 E. Pershing Road, for a ribbon-cutting of the school’s two-story, $17 million, 21,260-square-foot athletic annex.

It features upgraded locker rooms, offices, training rooms, storage, a concession stand and a Hall of Fame highlighting student-athletes from the school’s past.

The facility is also LEED-certified and has a roof with reflective coating to reduce the greenhouse effect caused by materials holding onto the heat from the sun, which helps with energy costs, officials said.

The ceiling of the new athletic annex at Wendell Phillips Academy displays the school’s team name. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

State Sen. Mattie Hunter and Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) helped secure the funding to build the annex, which is attached to the main school building. About $2.5 million came from tax increment financing dollars approved by City Council in April 2021.

“I cannot put in words what this will do for the students of Wendell Phillips. In a predominately Black school that has been historically underfunded, this investment is monumental,” Hunter said in a statement. “It is inspiring and will reinvigorate the learning environment. This project will show students and staff that the work they do is valued, and they are not being overlooked.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot praised Hunter and Dowell for helping bring the project to fruition and said the addition will motivate students.

“The Hall of Fame is such an integral part of this annex. One of the most effective ways for us to encourage the next generation to chase after their dreams is by reminding them of those who paved the way for their success,” Lightfoot told the crowd.

While now a predominately Black school, Wendell Phillips opened at 36th and Wabash in 1904 as a mostly white school, according to its website. The school was later moved to 39th and Prairie.

By 1921, about 40 percent of students were Black, owing mostly to the Great Migration. It later became the first all-Black high school in the city.

Luminaries such as John H. Johnson and Timuel Black are among the alumni, but the school long has struggled with overcrowding and underfunding. After decades of low performance and neglect, it was rescued from the Chicago Public Schools closure list when the Academy for Urban School Leadership took it over in 2010.

Wendell Phillips Academy High School, 244 E. Pershing Road in Bronzeville. Credit: Provided

The old gym where alumni hosted their annual sock hop fundraisers was in bad condition, its poor lighting and well-worn flooring signs of a space past its prime, Dowell said. She was moved to act, teaming up with Hunter to persuade the city and state to dig into their coffers, she said.

Construction on the space started in spring 2021, officials said.

Hunter surprised alumni with a special championship jacket to commemorate Phillips’ football team, which won the state championship in 2015 and 2017. The jacket will hang on the wall, along with jerseys from star athletes.

As the ceremony with students and alumni decked out in blue and white, many speakers noted Phillips’s impact on the world, from Nat King Cole and Gwendolyn Brooks to a group of basketball players who would become the Harlem Globetrotters. While the school has weathered its fair share of negative criticism, they called on students and staff to soar in spite of it all.

“This is the time and the opportunity to look toward the future for what our students need and deserve,” said Principal Rashad Talley, who took over the role this year.

Talley’s own connection to the school spans decades; his father was part of the class of ’68, and he grew up surrounded by relatives who were former students.

Saint Anthony Clements stands in front of his photo in Wendell Phillips Academy’s Hall of Fame Wednesday. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

Alumnus Saint Anthony Clements said he was in awe of the space.

Clements, a basketball team standout who graduated in 1984, recalled the teachers and classmates who made his four years at Phillips memorable. While he still keeps in touch with them on Facebook, seeing them in person after so many years made him feel like he was at home.

The retired social worker made the trip from Hawaii to see the annex and the wall where the younger version of himself is immortalized.

“It’s unbelievable. I’m honored to be on the walls with the other players here, and it was such a great honor to go to the school,” Clements said. “I’m glad they’re keeping the tradition going after all these years.”

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