Home Academy I Am Madison: School Shakeup Led to Racial Tensions at West

I Am Madison: School Shakeup Led to Racial Tensions at West


Madison West High has a peculiar hallway that appears to look completely different compared to the rest of the school. Many West High alumni can agree that the yellow tiled hallway parallel to Van Hise Avenue looks entirely different compared to the rest of the white and vibrant blue colored hallways in the school. James Earle Espeseth, a West High alumnus class of 1971, explained how Madison’s school system worked back in his youth days.

Espeseth said that elementary school used to be called “grammar school,” where children would attend until 6th grade, then be promoted to “junior high” where grades 7, 8, and 9 would attend. After junior high, the students would then go to “senior high,” where students between the grades 10, 11, and 12, prepared for college.

At what is now West High school were both a junior and senior high. The Van Hise hallway was the junior high, while the rest of the school was the senior high. Around that time, the West junior and senior high service area extended to Breese Terrace, and from Breese Terrace to Division Street was served by a school that is no longer there, Central High.

Today the arch of Central High remains there on 208 Wisconsin Ave, down the street from the Capitol and was known as the oldest public high school in Madison. After demolishing Central High to make space for a parking lot for Madison College, the school’s stone arch was preserved as a monument of the city’s first high school.

The Central High arch

While Espeseth attended high school, the students who attended Central High were primarily from the Isthmus. Being a small school, it was only able to take in a thousand students at the most. When Espeseth attended West, he said it was a predominantly white school, until some changes were made in both West High and Madison.

“I think the biggest change when I was there is that they closed Central high” in 1969, said Espeseth. “They integrated … kids in Central High into West High school at that point. And that created a lot of racial tension.”

Many of the students who came from West, and who went to East and LaFollette, after Central closed were students of color, with parents who were blue-collar workers, while West High was a predominantly white school. The integration of Central High into West High created an even greater social difference among the students, but social difference was not the only reason for the tension among the students. West was a large school, but it was not big enough to house all the students from two different schools within it. Boundaries were redrawn, sending some West students to the new Memorial High School, which had been built in 1966.

Jim Espeseth, left, around 1976

“(Memorial) was a nice school,” Espeseth said. “They had a great gymnasium, and a great plan. You know. And more importantly, it was where the money was. So you know, the kids over there, in many ways they had more advantages. Cause West picked up all the Central districts’ stuff. My parents were more blue collared. But out there, they were more white-collar workers. Executives and corporations. That sorta stuff. A lot of the people who lived down here were more like service workers and my dad was a real estate broker.”

Many of the students that had to transfer to Memorial must have had been friends with some of the students that had to remain at West, causing some of the West students to blame Central High students for being the reason their friends had to transfer to Memorial. Though some of the students had to transfer, this was not the only reason as to what has caused the tension between the students.

“When we integrated the Central at West, you had gangs, essentially, that were rival gangs that had to be shoved into the same building. A real clash, and it was largely racial,” said Espeseth.

The tension between the students at West was not something that suddenly formed overnight, though. Before Central High had been closed down and integrated into West, there had already been tension between West students.

“It wasn’t all racial, it also had to do with neighborhood. You had groups of people who get together with their cars, and they would intimidate people sometimes around the school. Threaten to beat someone up after school,” said Espeseth.

West High had many students who were apart of gangs and because of that, not only was race the reason for their tension, but the turf wars between the students at West High and Central high were also to blame. Espeseth also believed that many gangs would intimidate others as a way to control other people. He believes that control of people and their behaviors was fundamentally what gangs wanted, as a way of business.

Jim Espeseth

“There would be fights Friday nights and that sort of stuff after school, to some degree. Sometimes they would be personal too, people just taking it out on each other,” said Espeseth, “It happened once in a while. Think of it as a ‘dust up.’ Somebody would get pissed off about something someone had done. Then there would be four or five on each side and they would do their thing.”

With how high the tension was at West High school, the students took everything a step further and got physically violent with each other. The fighting did not only happen between the gangs, but also between other peers who were not apart of any gang.

“It was pretty damn violent when I was in school,” said Espeseth. “I mean I fought my way through high school. Boys were a lot more aggressive back then. You had a lot of people picking on you, always jockeying for position. It was a big school. They’d come and just whack you every time they saw you, like in the locker room.”

Other students also suffered and faced aggression and bullying from peers. They had all fought and bullied others as a way to attain positions as top dogs around the school.

It might seem like schools are getting more and more violent today, but Espeseth says, not so.

“It wasn’t so peaceful back then as people think it was either,” he honestly admits.

I Am Madison is funded by Madison Community Foundation as part of its Year of Giving.

This article has been corrected to accurately reflect when Memorial High School was opened and to clarify the distribution of Central High students after 1969.