By Ken Trainor
My pride in this village is more than mindless booster-ism. It's based on something. We haven't done everything right, but we did some big things right.
And one of the things we did right happened 50 years ago this month, May 6, 1968 in fact, when our Village Board of Trustees passed the first local Fair Housing Ordinance in the nation, the culmination of a movement that started in 1963 and led to weekly "open housing marches," putting pressure on local realtors to stop the real estate fearmongering that caused the entire West Side of Chicago to re-segregate. Many predicted it would sweep through Oak Park as well.
The more familiar term for re-segregation is "white flight." But village leaders and the mostly white — and mostly Republican-voting — population stood their ground against unreasonable fear and against an existential threat to their community.
Opponents said it wasn't "fair" housing or "open" housing. They called it "forced housing," and they took out full-page ads in local papers warning against it. Public meetings on the subject were full of sound and fury.
In an April 22, 1968 public forum on the proposed ordinance, for instance, opponent George Phelan said: As we will all agree practically without exception, our village is a fine place in which to live. … However, we have recently encountered a serious problem, which has split our village into two opposing camps — a fearful majority on one side, and a dedicated, organized, liberal minority on the other side. The people of Oak Park, whom you represent, have heard many predictions from this organized minority — none of which they can guarantee to the majority. Many of us are rightly suspicious and fearful of these predictions. In fact, we have witnessed just the opposite, time after time — the ultimate fall of community after community.
During that same forum, one overwrought woman in the audience demonstrated her opposition by charging the dais where the village board was seated and started choking Trustee Hazel Hanson.
At a five-hour public hearing that February, 73 people delivered five-minute statements, 53 in favor of the ordinance, 20 against. One of those in favor, McLouis Robinet (the Robinets were one of the first black couples to move into Oak Park in the 1960s) said, "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." Mac and Harriette Robinet are Oak Park residents to this day.
The vote came a month and two days after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and exactly a month after Congress passed the national Fair Housing Act.
Opponents tried to get a referendum on the ballot but were unsuccessful. So the local elections the following spring served as a referendum. The real estate community put up a slate of candidates, but Village President John Gearan and the rest of the VMA slate easily prevailed, proving that Oak Parkers were firmly committed to the course of integration.
But Oak Parkers demonstrated their commitment to open housing long before that. They showed it in the open housing marches down Lake Street each Saturday morning. They showed it by volunteering to document the unfair practices of real estate firms who refused to give information to black couples, then provided plenty to white volunteers who posed as couples looking for the same homes. (To their credit, the local real estate community eventually got on board and have remained on board ever since.)
Oak Parkers also showed their resolve on April 16, 1964 when a full-page ad appeared in the Village Economist newspaper under the headline, "The right of all people to live where they choose," signed by hundreds of Oak Park and River Forest residents, many of them Republicans (back when that actually meant something). When we reprinted the list on April 30, 2008, the names filled two full pages across 12 columns.
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 Village 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.
Some white homeowners fled, but many were more afraid than bigoted and stayed in spite of their fears. Call it a "non-leap of faith."
Heady stuff, heroic really. And it did not go unnoticed. In last Sunday's On Being interview, in fact, Krista Tippett rebroadcast her 2015 conversation with John Powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who held up Oak Park as an example:
Tippett: You told one story about Oak Park, near Chicago. You talked about this very practical measure that was taken so that the housing values didn't change.
Powell: Chicago is one of the most segregated areas in the country. Cook County has the largest black population of any county in the United States, and a lot of studying of segregation takes place in Chicago. So here you have Oak Park, this precious little community. And there were liberal whites there. And blacks started moving in. They were saying, "Look, we actually don't mind blacks moving in, but we're concerned that we're going to lose the value of our home. That's the only wealth we have. And if we don't sell now, we're going to lose."
[Village government] basically said: If that's the real concern, what if we were to ensure that you would not lose the value of your home? We'll literally create an insurance policy that we will compensate you if the value of your home goes down.
They put [the Equity Assurance Program] in place, and they haven't had to pay one policy. Whites didn't run and that's a stable community. It's been that way for 50 years.
The story isn't just that Oak Park passed a Fair Housing Ordinance in 1968 and everything was hunky-dory ever after. The struggle to intentionally manage and maintain "stable diversity" (aka integration) goes on — at the village government level and at the village resident level, and everywhere in between (especially public education). We put in place a raft of policies and institutions — from the Equity Assurance Program (which Powell mentioned above) to the Oak Park Regional Housing Center (which Rob Breymaier wrote about in Viewpoints last week and Dan Haley the week before in his column), to the realtors agreeing not to post "for sale" signs (to this day) and much more, it has been a comprehensive effort.
It takes a village, and we're all part of this ongoing heroic journey.
Oak Parkers are a modest, self-critical group. "Oak Park isn't as great as we think we are," I often hear. What they likely mean is "Oak Park isn't as great as we want it to be." We grouse about parking. We complain bitterly about taxes. But talk to any Oak Parker who has been here for 20 years or more, to those who are still here even after their kids are out of school, to black and white citizens who live next door to each other in every part of the village — from Austin Boulevard to Harlem Avenue, North Avenue to Roosevelt Road — and who don't have immediate plans to leave, and you're looking at genuine heroes even though they would deny it, people who have made diversity work in this small village like it has worked nowhere else in this country.
When you get right down to the fundamentals, isn't every community pretty much as great as it aspires to be?
White Oak Parkers didn't cut and run when fear raised its hoary head. Black Oak Parkers didn't just move in. They became part of the community fabric.
And the Fair Housing Ordinance, 50 years old this month, made a lot of this possible.
So it's worth celebrating.
We may not be perfect and we may have a long way to go, but when I tell people "I'm from Oak Park," I say it with pride.
If you're interested in learning more, check out the Oak Park Public Library's "Legends of our Time" oral history project, a series of 23 DVDs that can be checked out, several of which deal with the early days of integration. Jay Ruby's multimedia ethnographic study, "Oak Park Stories," can also be found at the library. And the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest has a wealth of information in the new Oak Park River Forest Museum, 129 Lake St., which, once upon a time, was the starting point of the Open Housing marches in the mid-1960s. The museum is hosting a 50th anniversary celebration of the Fair House Ordinance on Thursday, May 31 from 7 to 9 p.m. For more, visit the website, oprfmuseum.org, or call 708-848-6755.
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