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Jean Birkenstein Washington, a Chicago educator, artist, mathematician and civil rights activist who challenged segregation in the city's public schools, died Saturday, June 28, 2003 of respiratory illness. She was 77.

A fourth-generation resident of the city's Near North Side, Mrs. Washington was born in 1926 to George and Lillian (Rosenzweig) Birkenstein. She attended elementary and high school at the Francis Parker School, graduating in 1944, and was among a handful of Jewish students admitted to Vermont's Middlebury College, where she received a bachelors in music in 1948.

She also received a diploma in fine art from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and, in the 1970s, completed coursework for a doctorate in mathematics from Illinois Institute of Technology, though she took no degree.

In 1950 she married Atlee David Washington, the first African American plastics factory owner in Chicago, with whom she had two sons, Glen, 49, of Morton Grove, Ill., and Robin, 46, of Northborough, Mass. The couple divorced in 1958 but remained friends until Mr. Washington's death in 1983.

A high school art teacher for the Chicago Public Schools, Mrs. Washington served as an officer of the Chicago chapters of the Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP in the 1950s and '60s. For the NAACP's "Crisis" magazine in 1957, she co-authored an article, "De Facto Segregation in Chicago Public Schools," that provided an early blueprint for the shift in the civil rights struggle from the south to the urban north. She led numerous marches and sit-ins against housing and school segregation, always taking her young sons with her on the protests she jokingly referred to as "family outtings." 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. Her poetry was published in Negro Digest magazine and she also authored an unpublished science fiction novel.

After leaving the public schools in the 1970s, she turned her attention to mathematics, teaching for the Chicago City Colleges and working as a software engineer. She developed the "Jeanius" program in the 1990s, designed to teach mathematics and computer science to inner city pre-schoolers.

In addition to her sons, Mrs. Washington is survived by her sister, Dorothy Birk de Vidargas, of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a cousin, David Birkenstein of Winnetka, grandson Glen David and granddaughter Gwendolyn of Morton Grove, Ill., granddaughter Erin of Newton, Mass., nephews Federico, Miguel and Ricardo Vidargas, niece Victoria Vidargas, several former foster children with whom she maintained lifelong ties and hundreds of friends and fellow activists in numerous causes.

Jean was interred on Monday, July 7th, at the Aarrowood Pet Cemetery in accordance with her wishes. Rabbi Capers Funnye presided. Aarrowood is at 24090 N. Highway 45, Vernon Hills, Illinois, 1-1/2 mile northwest of the junction of Milwaukee Road & Half Day Road.

A memorial service was held Saturday, July 26th, at the Francis W. Parker School, 330 West Webster Avenue, Chicago.

Contact information: Robin and Julia Washington, 508-393-9892,, and Glen and Yvonne Washington, (847) 470-9767.

Read also: Why we buried our mom in a pet cemetery by Robin Washington (Boston Herald/Chicago Sun Times)
Never argue with your mother, even if she isn't there to answer back... (Read more...)

In Memory of Jean Birkenstein Washington