Jean Birkenstein Washington
(1926 — 2003)

As remembered by Robin Washington

Jean Birkenstein Washington's passing in 2003 received attention in newspapers and other media around the world (see Web link) due to her unusual request to be buried in a pet cemetery. Yet her deep passion for animals was an extension of her humanitarianism that showed itself most prominently in Chicago civil rights activities in the 1950s and '60s when she was an officer of CORE and the NAACP, leading numerous marches and sit-ins for open housing and against de facto segregation in Chicago Public Schools. Regarding the latter, she co-authored with Faith Rich (entry to be added) a report published in the NAACP's "Crisis" magazine in 1957. Her efforts led to a redrawing of school districts and, a decade later, a denial of funding to the Chicago Board of Education by the U.S. Department of Education on the grounds the system had deliberately segregated its schools.

Mrs. Washington was also a founder of Teachers for Integrated Schools and its national magazine, Integrated Education, both headquartered in her home, and also the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, an umbrella group of civil rights organizations that culminated in the Rev. Martin Luther King's Chicago campaign.

While a teacher at Marshall High School on the city's west side, she became an "ambassador" to the schools for two street gangs, the Cobras and the Vice Lords - the latter signing her on as card-carrying member. She turned her home into a community center for the gangs, an activity noted in a 1961 Jet magazine feature article about her that was illustrated with her paintings of African American and Native American slaves.

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