By Tom Holmes
The story of Oak Park's ambivalent relationship with Chicago, its neighbor to the east, began over a hundred years ago. The story of how Oak Park evolved from a red (conservative) village to a blue (liberal) community began in the turbulent 1960s, a time when the action between the two communities and within Oak Park itself was colored in black and white. Bob Sherrell's personal story and the narrative of that community's evolution are intimately intertwined. In many ways, his story is Oak Park's story.
Bob and Kathleen were married in 1971 and moved to Oak Park from Chicago in 1977. He is black. She is white. Oak Park seemed to be one of three communities—along with Evanston and Hyde Park—where a mixed race couple could have a chance of being accepted. A comprehensive Fair Housing Ordinance had just been passed in Oak Park in 1968.
"When the ordinance passed," wrote Doug Deuchler, "11 black families lived here [Oak Park]. Realtors predicted property values would plunge. By 1970, 132 of Oak Park's 62,506 residents were African-American. But home values soared."1 (OakPark.Com, "Civil wrongs. . .and rights", Feb. 22, 2005)
It was the time of white flight in Chicago's Austin Neighborhood just to the east of Oak Park. Unscrupulous tactics by realtors like block busting and red lining had caused property values there to plummet, and it was only because of an intentional strategy spearheaded by Bobbie Raymond that the same thing had not happened in Oak Park.
The Sherrell's moved to Oak Park at a time when the challenge to the village was to find a way for blacks and whites to live together in a demographic balance in which members of both racial groups would be full participants in the life of the community and thereby housing values would be maintained.
Bob Sherrell was living as a child in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood 69 years before tour buses started going there to catch a glimpse of the residence of another and slightly better known African American. Where Bob has been on his life's journey provides a great deal of insight into where Barack Obama is coming from and where Oak Park is now.
The story of Bob's struggle to find a realistic world view, an authentic sense of identity and an effective integration of the two in a world in which racism has been a major factor provides a context for understanding how the Forty-Fourth President of the United States has done business as well the nature of the soul of a liberal village called Oak Park, IL.
Bob was born in 1939, a time when race relations in the United States were improving incrementally. It seemed, in some ways, to be a world in which a black kid growing up on Chicago's South Side could be audacious enough to maintain a world view which included hope.
The year before, the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, had knocked out Max Schmeling in the first round. African Americans migrating to Chicago from the South were getting jobs as the country began to ramp up its industry for World War II. Over 40,000 black students were enrolled in colleges and universities. The African American family was still intact for the most part, and a black middle class was emerging. William Levi Dawson was the black alderman from the second ward and would be elected to Congress for 14 successive terms beginning in 1943.
Nevertheless, what historian John Hope Franklin called "the experience of living in two worlds" because of racial prejudice and discrimination, remained. When Louis fought Schmeling in Berlin in 1936, he could sleep in any German hotel and drink in any brauhaus, but not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. It was a confusing time for young blacks to grow up in.
Bob's Scherrell's life story documents not only his own personal journey from infancy to maturity but also in many ways the struggles of 13% of this country's citizens during the last 70 years.