The intersection between Labor and Education is clear to 101-year old activist

Bea Lumpkin joins members of the Graduate Students Union (GSU) as they chant in support of striking teachers and school-support staff in front of Kenwood Academy High School during the CPS strike in October. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff writer

As teachers throughout Hyde Park stood on the picket lines during the 11-day Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike last month, 101-year-old Beatrice “Bea” Lumpkin stood with the teachers at Kenwood Academy.

The long-time Hyde Park labor activist from chanted, danced and offered her support to teachers throughout the strike.

On Oct. 21 — the third day of CTU’s strike — teachers and families from the Kenwood-Hyde Park neighborhood, Graduate Students Alliance at U. of C., National Nurses United from U. of C. Medical Center and Lumpkin all stood in the rain sharing their experiences in Chicago Public Schools.

At one point during the rally, Lumpkin was handed a megaphone.

“I am one of the retiree delegates of [CTU’s] House of Delegates,” she said, “and I send you the support of CPS (Chicago Public Schools)  retirees because you are fighting for us, and I bring you the support of 85,000 members of the Illinois Alliance for Retired Americans. Keep on fighting and I know you will represent us in protecting our pensions.”

In addition to being an activist in the labor movement, Lumpkin was an educator. She started as a Chicago Public Schools math teacher in 1965 and was active in the CTU, according to a Herald article last year. Lumpkin also was a professor at Malcolm X community college on the city’s Near West Side. She retired from Malcolm X College to commit herself to fighting for Wisconsin Steel Mill workers pensions and pay after the mill closed leaving almost 3,000 without a job. She later returned in the 1980s.

“I had the pleasure of teaching one semester of elementary school and found out that wasn’t my best teaching level,” Lumpkin said in a recent interview with the Herald about her time as an educator. “And so primarily I taught in the high schools and at the community college. It was my students at Malcolm X college who turned me on to the multicultural history of mathematics by demanding Black studies. So, it was a great experience.”

During her time teaching, Lumpkin was very involved in a campaign to eliminate racism from the school curriculum across CPS’s districts since it was brought to her attention that contributions to math and science by people of color were erased. She said, “History was rewritten in the 1700s and forward to justify slavery. If you write that people of color laid the whole foundation for modern mathematics, then how can you justify the rape of Africa, China, India, other countries where the first civilizations were established and the whole base for our modern civilizations?”

To combat this erasure, Lumpkin produced books like “Geometry Activities From Around the World” and “Multicultural Math and Science Connections” and created curriculum for schools. She focused on this work during her last five years as a CPS educator but said that the curriculum was thrown out over time.

When asked to compare CTU’s 2012 and 2019 strikes, Lumpkin talked about the attack on labor rights over the years starting with President Ronald Reagan’s firing the thousands of air traffic controllers who were on strike in 1981 to the National Labor Relations Board during President Donald Trump’s administration.

“I would say the issues that the teachers are fighting for at the present time have become aggravated since the 1980s when the attack on labor rights intensified notably,” Lumpkin said. “When President Reagan fired all the air controllers to break their strike and to break their union that was, unfortunately, not an isolated attack on labor. Today, under President Trump, the rights I fought for as a high school student and that we won with the Wagner Act under President Roosevelt have been taken away. That has a big impact on the quality of life across the board for working families and especially in education because with the cut back across the board on human services as public education has suffered deeply.”

When talking about issues that teachers still face, she said, “If I had to guess what was the most serious issue, or I’ll say two issues, it would be underfunded and failure to hear the teacher’s voice because good teaching conditions for us on exactly the thing is good learning conditions for the students.”

While witnessing this year’s CTU strike, she said, “I felt it was even more advanced than 2012 and the concern that it showed for the conditions of the children. From the very first day, the big demands were for smaller class sizes and restoring all the professional services. But if it’s going to take five years to do all of this, it’s only a beginning.”

For Lumpkin, the next steps for labor activists and working people — no matter their occupation —  is to shorten the work day and week without cuts to pay, to regain the right to join a union and to eliminate racism and sexism in the workplace and hiring.

Although the fight to maintain and restore labor rights and improve the condition of public education across the nation is an ongoing struggle, Lumpkin still has hope that things will be alright.

“I have a lot of confidence in what people can do; it’s going to be alright and I have confidence in the young people,” she said.

After the Herald’s recent interview with Lumpkin, CTU voted 81 percent to ratify the new contract with CPS on Nov. 15. The new contract includes mandatory class size caps and enforcement, language forcing CPS to comply with special education laws and regulations, a nurse and social worker in every school and additional funding for librarians and counselors.