A vibrant community has always been at the heart of Sutherland School. The school originated as a collection of portable classrooms set up at the corner of 101st and Leavitt streets to serve the growing population of Beverly Hills. Parents led the movement to build a permanent school in 1925 and name it after local educator Elizabeth “Bessie” H. Sutherland.
The first 25 years of Sutherland history are documented in a PTA scrapbook that was discovered in 2013 by French teacher Alan Wax. The scrapbook includes an early account of the school written by its first principal, Lilias Williamson. Mr. Wax shared the scrapbook and other historical artifacts he found in the school basement with the Ridge Historical Society (RHS), which organized an exhibit in the fall of 2013.
RHS researchers were intrigued by Principal Williamson’s description of structural problems with the school building. They found Chicago Tribune articles dating from the late 1920s and early 1930s about poor design, cheap materials, and shoddy workmanship in the construction of more than 30 schools, apparently including Sutherland. Ms. Williamson credited Sutherland parents with saving the new building from ruin. She described “vital interest shown [by fathers] in assuring safe housing for the children, in obtaining from the Board of Education, emergency action, as far as the safety of the school was concerned, and by their unremitting demands until permanent and complete repairs were made in 1929 and 1930. To the fathers on the emergency committee—the school owes its thanks for their prompt service in this very serious emergency.”
Principal Williamson’s records also describe how Sutherland parents stepped up after the Board of Education fell millions of dollars in arrears on payroll during the Great Depression. Parents raised thousands of dollars in 1932 to help teachers make ends meet while they waited for their back pay. Williamson called this service “just another evidence of the spirit invariably shown by the community in its relation to the school.” It wasn’t until 1934 that the teachers received their compensation from the Board of Education and paid off all the loans.
About Elizabeth H. Sutherland
Elizabeth “Bessie” Huntington Sutherland was born in 1851 in Blue Island. She became a teacher after graduating in 1869 from Cook County Normal School, which eventually became Chicago State University. Sutherland taught at several local county schools, then became principal of the Alice L. Barnard School of Chicago in 1883. She was the first female principal of a Cook County school.
Ms. Sutherland was influenced by the Progressive education movement, born in Chicago in the 1880s and led by Francis W. Parker and John Dewey. Progressives wanted to modernize local schools, dumping rote memorization in favor of problem solving, critical thinking, and hands-on learning. They embraced community service and believed in lifelong education. It was this Progressive Era, which lasted into the 1930s, that led to the development of public high schools and to the National Parent Teacher Association.
During her 40 years at Barnard, Bessie Sutherland was responsible for three schools, 19 teachers, and 800 students. She retired in 1923 and died one year later. She is buried in Mt. Greenwood Cemetery. In 1925, Sutherland School was named in her honor.
Sources: Ridge Historical Society, Beverly Review
Read the Beverly Review article about Sutherland School history.