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Manford Byrd Jr., former CPS superintendent, dies at 92

“He instilled in us a fantastic work ethic. You work hard and you will be noticed. It’s not always on your time, but it is on time,” his son Carl Byrd said.

Manford Byrd, Jr. pictured in 1985, during his first year as Chicago Public Schools Superintendent.
Manford Byrd, Jr. in 1985, his first year as Chicago Public Schools superintendent.
John H. White/Sun-Times file

Mr. Manford Byrd Jr. is remembered by family and friends for his passion for education and focus on community engagement.

A lifelong educator, Mr. Byrd went from teacher to general superintendent of the third-largest public school system in the country within about 30 years — but not without a fight. After being passed over for the role several times, he served as head of Chicago Public Schools for five years.

He died Jan. 17 at the age of 92.

“He instilled in us a fantastic work ethic,” Carl Byrd, one of his sons, said. “You work hard and you will be noticed. It’s not always on your time, but it is on time.”

The Brewton, Alabama native graduated from Iowa Central College in 1949 with a bachelor’s in mathematics. He later earned his master’s in education from Atlanta University in 1954 and a doctorate in education from Northwestern University in 1978.

“He had humble beginnings,” Carl Byrd said of his father, “and he was always looking to reach back in and help others come up.”

“What’s the word, Manford Byrd!”

Mr. Byrd began his teaching career in Quincy, Ill. working there from 1949 to 1954, when he accepted a teaching position in Chicago, according to his family. He quickly moved through the ranks within CPS — teacher, assistant principal, elementary school and high school principal, and eventually assistant to the superintendent.

He was appointed deputy superintendent and chief operating officer of CPS in 1968. According to his family, that made him among the highest-ranking Black public officials. After serving for several years in the 1970s as deputy, he was passed over for the vacant position of superintendent, despite strong Black community support.

While many believed he was not selected for the post because of his race, his family said he was told it was because he did not hold a Ph.D.

So, he went back to school and earned one.

Even so, he missed out on the superintendent’s post again in 1981 — despite another push by Chicago’s Black community which included a march on City Hall, with protesters chanting, “What’s the word? Manford Byrd!” according to news reports from the time.

Mr. Byrd finally was named superintendent in 1985 by Mayor Harold Washington, holding the post until 1990.

Despite all the roadblocks during his career, Mr. Byrd’s family said his resolve never frayed. One of his favorite quotes was from Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

Manford Byrd, Jr. speaks at a Sept. 1, 1985 press conference.
Manford Byrd, Jr. speaks at a Sept. 1, 1985 press conference about talks with the teachers union.
Sun-Times file

An “unwavering faith”

Manford and Cheribelle Byrd bought a home on the South Side about 60 years ago, near 95th Street and Parnell Avenue in Washington Heights, Carl Byrd said. At the time, there were nothing but prairie fields on that side of town, and only a handful of neighbors on the block. As the neighborhood grew, Carl Byrd said they began meeting in basements, discussing how and where to build their church home.

The result? Trinity United Church of Christ, 400 W. 95th St.

Carl Byrd said his family has been active in the church ever since.

Natasha Robinson was a member of Trinity Chicago for about 30 years. Her first memory of Trinity was from her childhood: a sign outside the church that read, “Free South Africa.” At only 6 or 7, she learned about divestment and apartheid at church, which she said became the framework for her childhood.

Mr. Byrd, she said, emphasized applying what one had learned, and also remembering the legacy of the community’s African descendants, she said.

“Bringing that information to Trinity in a way that was not intrusive, but encompassing, was intentional,” Robinson said. “You were surrounded by excellence in education.”

Since 1982, Trinity has awarded the Dr. Manford Byrd Jr. Scholarship each year to a church member. The award is anchored in the Black Value System, a set of ethics adopted by the church and written by a recognition committee named after Mr. Byrd.

Cheryl Watkins, a CPS teacher during Mr. Byrd’s tenure as superintendent, chaired Trinity’s Scholarship and Education Committee for several years. She said she got to know Mr. Byrd as the church developed the Black Value System. It focuses, among other things, on a commitment to God, to family and to the pursuit of education.

“When you see people who put up signs for their block clubs, supporting each other — that kind of support for your community is something that Dr. Byrd espoused,” Watkins said.

Mr. Byrd is survived by his wife of 64 years, Cheribelle Byrd; sons Carl, Bradley and Donald; eight grandchildren; one great-grandson.