Hillcrest educator teaches IL teachers

Hillcrest educator to teach Illinois teachers about Chicago Race Riots of 1919

When Kristen Kaczmarek graduated in 2006 from North Central College with a degree in social science history, she was looking forward to a career as a history teacher.

The Oak Lawn native and Richards High School graduate couldn’t wait for her first job interview. She was ready to knock ‘em dead.

“I was so excited — I had a brand-new suit and everything,” she said.

But Kaczmarek and her brand-new suit clashed with some old-fashioned ideas in her first interview.

“They were like, ‘History? Go back to school because you are never going to be a history teacher,’” she said. “They told me I would never be a history teacher because I was a woman. They said history teachers are coaches.”

Two years later, she was teaching history at Parker Junior High School in Flossmoor and eventually landed at Hillcrest High School in Country Club Hills, where she has been for the past decade. Not only is she teaching students history, on Wednesday she will be teaching teachers how to teach a part of history, specifically a part of Chicago history.

Kaczmarek is a part of the 22nd Annual Conference on Illinois History, which was supposed to take place in Springfield but now is a video conference because of coronavirus concerns. She is hosting a teacher workshop titled “Forgotten Chicago History: The 1919 Race Riots.”

She will offer her wisdom on techniques to incorporate that topic into classroom instruction using photos, data and newspaper articles.

Not bad for someone who was told she would never make it in this business.

“I am glad to be able to show students that if they are determined and if you put their mind to it, they can do anything they want,” she said. “I was so proud when I was able to teach history and I was happy I could make my parents (Rick and Kim) proud because they were a big reason I was able to reach my dream and they were a part of it.”

One thing she was not proud of was finding out only recently about the race riots of 1919.

Many who study history think about the Black Sox scandal when they think of Chicago and the year 1919. But 101 years ago in the late summer, Blacks and whites fought and when the smoke cleared, 23 Blacks and 15 whites were dead according to a report by noted writer Carl Sandburg courtesy of the Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago.

“I never heard about it and it really made me mad,” Kaczmarek said. “I am working on my third master’s and I’ve been through all this education in my life and I never was taught this. That was extremely disheartening.”

She was not disheartened long. Once she dove into the subject, thanks to a big boost from the book “A Few Red Drops” by Claire Hartfield, it became a passion.

Last year, District 228 introduced Chicago history as an elective class.

“I sent ‘A Few Red Drops’ to the teachers,” said Colin Milton, the district social studies supervisor. “She went through the book and bought a copy of the book and had it autographed.”

Kaczmarek said she fell in love with the book and subject matter and after learning more about it, she couldn’t wait to get back to her classroom in Country Club Hills to share it.

“I was enthralled with the subject and I had to bring it to my students,” she said. “In teaching the Chicago race riots to the class, you could hear a pin drop.”

According to Kaczmarek’s research, racial tensions in 1919 Chicago were already high, but an incident on a beach escalated things.

“What broke the camel’s back was on July 27, it was hot and people were advised to go to the beaches to cool off,” she said. “There were two beaches — one for Blacks and one for whites. Eugene Williams, a young Black, built a raft and crossed the invisible line and whites threw rocks at him, One hit Williams smack dab in the forehead and he drowned.”

She said that Black police were not allowed to arrest whites and a white police officer claimed it didn’t happen and mobs went at each other, starting a week of violence.

Kaczmarek was reluctant to draw comparisons between the riots of 1919 and unrest of spring and summer 2020, finding the circumstances to be “like tomatoes and oranges.”

The Hillcrest teacher picked up another honor when she was also asked to sit on the Teacher Advisory Board for the Chicago History Museum.

Milton, the department supervisor, said Chicago History is among the more popular courses when it comes to electives. He added that Kaczmarek adds a special touch to her teaching.

“She takes time to get to know the kids,” he said. “She conveys to kids that they are cared about. She takes time to connect with them whether it’s in the hallway or before the start of class. She lets them know she cares about them beyond paying attention to the lesson and that’s why she is a successful teacher at Hillcrest High School.”
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