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By Ken Trainor
This is a story that needs to be told — and retold — periodically. It last ran on April 30, 2008. We're reprinting it to coincide with the Oak Park Public Library's series "Created Equal: America's Civil Rights Struggle," a series of films and panel discussions, funded in part by an NEH grant.
On Aug. 2, 1963, Oak Park Village Manager Harris Stevens sent a memo to the newly established Community Relations Commission titled, "Subject: TENSION POINTS."
"On July 30," Stevens wrote, "Mrs. Davison received a call, 'If niggers use your house, we'll burn it down.'"
Such memos kept Stevens plenty busy for the next five years as Oak Park waded into the turbulent waters of open housing, the period that retired librarian and local historian Lee Brooke calls "our uncivil war."
But you could also call it Oak Park's finest hour — or more accurately, Oak Park's finest decade.
Sounding the first note
In the early 1960s, civil rights was an even hotter topic in this country than Vietnam. And one of the main focuses of the Civil Rights Movement was open housing — otherwise known as "fair housing" or "equal housing."
Opponents called it "forced housing."
Before 1963, ecumenical groups like the National Conference of Christians and Jews, as well as social action committees from a number of Catholic and Protestant churches, worked on fair housing. Oddly enough, it took the Oak Park-River Forest Symphony to bring those groups together.
In February of 1963, longtime symphony conductor Milton Preves agreed to have African-American violinist Carol Anderson sit in on a rehearsal. That didn't sit well with some, including principal cellist and Symphony Association chair Marie Dock Palmer, who was quoted in the press saying that the Oak Park Symphony just wasn't ready for integration.
Longtime symphony supporter Don Rehkopf, during that period, kept a diary, which contains a few pertinent references. On Feb. 10 he wrote, "Preves quitting?" On Feb. 11 he added, "Bravo for the ministers of Oak Park!" And on Feb. 17: "Concert was played, nobly integrated."
According to Brooke's records, a letter to the editor appeared, presumably in the Chicago papers (it did not appear in the local press, where there was no mention of the controversy) on Feb. 10, signed by 32 Oak Park residents, stating:
"The Oak Park-River Forest Symphony Orchestra is a community project which depends on community support. Reports that the Orchestra is engaged in the practice of racial discrimination are therefore a community concern. As Oak Park-River Forest residents who are members and friends of the Catholic Interracial Council, we wish to go on record in support of the action taken by Mr. Milton Preves in his refusal to practice racial discrimination in the selection of musicians for the Orchestra. We encourage other villagers to support this action."
A public response
In the wake of the symphony incident, the Village of Oak Park established a Citizens Committee for Human Rights to address integration issues, something that a number of community activists had already been pushing for. In January of 1964, local residents attended a series of three public forums on race issues at First Congregational Church (now First United Church of Oak Park, 848 Lake St.).
At the end of the third session, the late Al Belanger recalled, people were asking, "What do we do now?" A core group met and decided to put an ad in the local press. The late June Heinrich was drafted to write the text, which appeared in the Oak Leaves and the Village Economist on April 16, 1964 under the heading, "The Right of All People to Live Where They Choose."
The text read:
"We, the undersigned residents of Oak Park and River Forest, believing in the essential oneness of humankind, and seeking to foster such unity in our communities, do hereby declare:
"That we want residence in our Villages to be open to anyone interested in sharing our benefits and responsibilities, regardless of race, color, creed, or national origin;
"That we believe in equal opportunity for all in the fields of education, business, and the professions, in harmony with constitutional guarantees of equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;
"That mutual understanding between people of diverse ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds can best be attained by an attitude of reciprocal good will and increased association;
"That all citizens, in a spirit of justice, dignity and kindness, should give serious consideration to the challenge that now faces all Americans in the achievement of brotherhood under God."
The wording in the ad serves as the basis of Oak Park's "Diversity Statement."
Such a statement might easily have been dismissed by that era's more conservative mainstream except for one thing: The ad, which took up most of a two-page spread, was signed — and paid for — by more than 1,000 residents from both villages.
The ad's appearance was newsworthy enough to warrant an article in the following day's edition of the Chicago Sun-Times.
All the signatures had been collected by volunteers — door to door and through the schools and churches. Each individual or couple who signed, paid a dollar to help fund the ad, which cost $620. They raised $629.
The late Doris Hoigard, a social worker, fair housing advocate and Heinrich's sister, recollected in a 1996 video interview with Lee Brooke that those who signed thought about it good and hard and often had second thoughts. Some called back and asked to be removed from the list. But most were willing to take a stand.
The names were then used to form a membership list for the newly formed Citizens Committee for Human Rights. Hoigard said they deliberately chose "Human Rights" instead of "Civil Rights" in order to be as inclusive as possible and to avoid being so easily pigeon-holed by opponents.
The signatures on the ad included names like John Gibson, the late Joseph Woods (former Cook County sheriff and a Republican) and the late Dr. Gregory White (co-founder of La Leche League), none of whom would ever have been mistaken for liberals. The list also contained well-established names like Dwight Follett and respected clergy like Msgr. John D. Fitzgerald, pastor of Ascension Church, and Rev. Oliver Powell of First Congregational Church.
Everyone knew what they were signing because the Oak Park Board of Realtors had been conducting a leafletting campaign in opposition to this burgeoning movement. The board placed a competing ad in the same issue of the Village Economist which said, "Let the voice of the people decide the issue of forced housing by referendum."
Coming out in favor of equal housing was not an easy stand to take 35 years ago. The opposition was intense and often ugly. Fortunately, fair housing proponents had two remarkable allies — Village Manager Harris Stevens and Police Chief Fremont Nester.
Fair housing activists set up an informal network, said Brooke, and informed one or both of these authorities whenever a black family was about to move into a neighborhood. Nester would post a squad car in front and in back of the house as a show of force. And wherever trouble was suspected, the two men, complemented by Msgr. Fitzgerald and other teams of volunteers, would visit the homes of upset neighbors and "talk them down," even if it took — as it sometimes did — until 3 a.m.
Nester's knowledge of the town, built over four decades of service with the police force, proved invaluable. Brooke recalls a meeting during which Nester gave him the phone book and asked him to point to any name. The chief then proceeded to rattle off from memory everyone else who lived on that block along with what they did for a living.
Nester also provided police protection during the fair housing marches and the picketing of Realtors, which took place in Oak Park during the next few years as the movement gained momentum in pursuit of its goal: passing a fair housing ordinance that would outlaw the "redlining" practices of banks and Realtors that had led to white flight and resegregation of the entire West Side of Chicago.
Brooke noted that Nester and Stevens didn't lead the fight, "but we couldn't have done it without them. We needed their moral persuasion and the physical power they represented — someone to say, 'You can't burn that house down.'" Other municipalities did not enjoy such cooperation from local authorities.
In the 1996 interview, Hoigard said Oak Park was successful because it started so early.
"We didn't have a choice," she recalled. "The line was moving west."
She described that era as "the most exciting time of my life. We were all raised in segregated communities. We were all afraid, afraid for our property values, etc. We didn't know how to integrate, but we all came together and found a way to do it. I was born a social worker because I've always wanted to change the world. We didn't change the world, but we changed our world and who we are. [Integration] was the important issue in this country," she said, "and it still is. It hasn't been resolved."
She was proud, too, of her fellow Oak Parkers — all of them. "It wasn't just the Citizens Committee on Human Rights. It was also the people who stayed even though they didn't agree with us."
Putting Oak Park to the test
Not everyone who opposed open housing in Oak Park in the mid-to-late 1960s was a bigot. Many residents felt extremely ambivalent and caught in the middle. They urged caution.
But a growing group of fair housing proponents felt that Oak Park's only chance to avoid the fate that befell the entire West Side of Chicago — inexorable resegregation, block by block — was to accelerate the process of integration.
They decided to "test" the practices of local Realtors in order to document and expose injustices.
A white couple would enter a local real estate office under the pretense of buying a house in a particular section of Oak Park and were met with a welcoming attitude and plenty of information. Shortly after, a black couple would come in and invariably be told that, alas, nothing was available in that area and that price range.
In order to circumvent the Realtors' reluctance to sell to black couples, white couples often acted as "fronts," allowing blacks to purchase their home under someone else's name.
When Harriette and McLouis Robinet tried to buy a home in Oak Park in 1965, they ran into such stonewalling. They couldn't even get into available houses to look at them. Local architect Bob Bell would attend various open houses and actually drew the floor plans for the Robinets to pore over later.
"You wanted to be honest," recalled Bell, "but this was a situation where you had to tell lies to help the Robinets, and it was worth it."
When their efforts continued to be frustrated, Don and Joyce Beisswenger took matters into their own hands, and bought the house on Elmwood Avenue that the Robinets still live in almost 50 years later.
They did it without even telling them, Harriette recalled.
That was the good news.
"The bad news is you have to move in tomorrow," they were told.
"You had to move in mid-day, mid-week in order to reduce the possibility of violence," Harriette said in a 1996 video interview, part of the Oak Park Public Library's "Legends of Our Time" oral history project.
"Those were the rules," she recalled.
Police Chief Nester wasn't happy about the suddenness of the move — the Robinets didn't yet have insurance on the house, for instance — but he posted plainclothes officers on the block to head off any trouble.
Harriette Robinet, "a struggling writer" at the time, wrote an article detailing their move-in experiences for Redbook Magazine's "Young Mothers" series, which appeared in the February 1968 issue, titled, "I'm a Mother — Not a Pioneer."
Many of their neighbors were supportive; a few definitely were not. And some paid a visit "to find out what we were all about." They wanted to know why the Robinets chose to live in a place "where they weren't wanted." But Harriette welcomed them because her philosophy, and the philosophy of the Open Communities Movement to which the Robinets belonged, was: "We don't want to win over them; we want to win them over."
Two months after the article appeared, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Harriette was distraught and looked for a way to respond. She went out on the porch and put up her American flag. Some time later when she looked outside, every house on the block was flying its flag as well. She knew then they had found a home.
Marching toward fair housing
But it took three years to get there. The Robinets and plenty of other Oak Parkers — along with black families from Chicago who were recruited to move to the village — began a series of Saturday marches in 1965, starting at Stevenson Park near Austin, heading west along Lake Street to their final destination: the Baird & Warner Real Estate office on Marion Street near North Boulevard.
Although the local press refused to publicize their efforts, the Chicago newspapers and TV stations gave the marches considerable coverage.
It took awhile, but village government followed their lead and by 1968 the momentum was building toward passage of a local fair housing ordinance. The public hearings were tense and contentious. Virginia Cassin, former village clerk, recalls that at the April 22, 1968 hearing at OPRF High School, one woman actually charged the stage where the village board was sitting and started choking Trustee Hazel Hanson.
At a five-hour public hearing, held in February of 1968 at the old Lowell School auditorium (now 100 Forest Place), no less than 73 people delivered five-minute statements — 53 in favor of a fair housing law and 20 against. McLouis Robinet stated, "It is unreal to pretend that we as a village can survive un-integrated. We cannot afford to play a wait-and-see game with fair housing ... Yesterday was already late."
Despite the fears of some of the trustees, the village board passed a landmark Fair Housing Ordinance, the first in the nation, at its May 6, 1968 board meeting. The federal government's fair housing law followed shortly after.
Opponents tried to mount a referendum on the issue and when that failed, they threatened to get revenge in the following year's village election. Cassin recalls that the campaign was clearly framed as a referendum on the 16-year-old Village Manager Association. But the VMA slate, led by President John Gearen, handily defeated a slate put up by local Realtors, proving that Oak Parkers were firmly committed to the course of integration.
Many Oak Parkers, black and white, stuck their necks out in the 1960s and '70s to help make the village the model of managed integration that it is today — far more people than can be mentioned in this article. And there is much more to the story than we have related here.
But a statement by Mac Robinet, 34 years after he took a risk and moved into Oak Park, may provide the best measure of Oak Park's success:
"Growing up in Louisiana," he said in his 1996 video interview, "I never had a sense of community. Oak Park is home for me. I feel a part of it. I have a real sense of what a community is like, and I'm grateful for that."
The Robinets still get together once a month for lunch at Winberie's with some of the neighbors who lived on the 200 block of South Elmwood during our finest decade.
Those who want to learn more about the Oak Park integration story can consult the Oak Park Public Library's "Legends of Our Time" project, a series of 23 oral history videocassettes. In addition, anthropologist Jay Ruby's multimedia ethnographic study, "Oak Park Stories"— the Oak Park Regional Housing Center and Taylor Family Portrait in particular — can also be found at the library.
Information on the era can also be found at the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, located on the second floor of Pleasant Home. Contact Frank Lipo, executive director, at 848-6755 or email email@example.com.