While gathering items for our own Top Ten list of African-American history events, it immediately became clear how many were shameful incidents in which Oak Park came off looking badly. Yet despite the ugliness, these embarrassing episodes provided periodic “wake up calls” to the community that much needed to be done here, and in most cases they mobilized residents to do the right thing.
1) The Founding of Mt. Carmel Colored Baptist Church, 1905
Oak Park’s African-American roots go deep. In the post-Civil War period, as railroads began to have a dramatic impact upon the growth of the village, a number of blacks began to settle here. The area surrounding the Marion Street “Oak Park Depot,” then the business hub of the community, was adjacent to a small but tidy neighborhood where most of the early black villagers lived.
At a time when 90 percent of African Americans were still living in the rural south, Oak Park offered lots of “colored jobs” either on the railroad as porters and cooks or with the many well-to-do white families who needed maids, “baby nurses,” laundresses, stable hands and coachmen.
In 1904, a number of black Baptists who met for prayer services in one of the local schools had saved enough money to purchase a lot for the construction of their own small house of worship in the new Chicago Avenue subdivision just west of Cuyler Avenue. “Concerned” white homeowners from that neighborhood, however, strongly opposed the erection of a black church in their vicinity. After granting a building permit for the proposed structure, the Oak Park village board acted under community pressure and rescinded the paperwork. Whites agreed to buy out the Baptists, though they balked at their initial $2,000 asking price. The two groups then reached a compromise of $1,500, which was considerably more than the $600 the black congregation had paid for the lot.
Shortly after this episode, an African-American maid who’d long worked for Oak Park businessman Elijah Hoard was left a small plot of land just south of Lake Street when the old gentleman died. The woman subsequently turned the lot over to her congregation. There was little the village could do to stop her.
On June 18, 1905, the cornerstone of Mt. Carmel Colored Baptist Church was dedicated. During the next 25 years, the brick house of worship, located at what’s now 1138 Westgate, served as the social, political, and spiritual center of Oak Park’s early African-American community.
Mt. Carmel was a busy, active congregation. Potluck suppers and musicales were held on Thursday evenings because that was when cooks, servants and coachmen had their one night a week off.
In the late 1920s boom period, as Oak Park’s downtown business district was being established, Mt. Carmel and the adjacent “colored neighborhood” were clearly in the path of economic development. After several mysterious fires, the church was sold and razed. The clapboard cottages and rooming houses were bulldozed. Many of the church members moved over to Maywood; some settled in the city.
During 1930 the area where Mt. Carmel stood was developed as an “Old English” shopping district (Westgate). There is no trace of the early African-American community that stood there first.
2) The Lew Pope Incident, 1937
Few African Americans studied at Oak Park High in the 1930s. One of them, Lewis Pope (1920-1998), played quarterback and was nicknamed “The Ebony Streak” because of his speed.
The 1937 Oak Park football team, one of the top-rated high school squads in the nation, was invited to play Miami High over Christmas break in the Orange Bowl. But Florida officials were quick to clarify that, due to the rigid segregation in the South, the Huskies could not bring Lew Pope, their only black player, with them.
“The Ebony Streak” was left waving to his teammates as their bus pulled out of the parking lot. Dr. Percy Julian, then living in Maywood, wrote a letter decrying the injustice of the school’s choice of action. Other members of the community also voiced their disappointment that the high school administration had sent the team to Miami without Pope.
On Christmas Day, 1937, when the big game was played, Pope received a standing ovation when he came onstage in the school’s auditorium. Lew sat downstage wearing a radio head-set so he could relay results from the “direct wire” hook-up being broadcast from Miami. A “packed house” came to show their support for Pope. The game ended in a tie, 6 to 6. Many audience members left saying Oak Park could have easily scored a victory had “The Ebony Streak” been allowed to play in the game.
Some villagers challenged their own community, pointing out that blacks were also discriminated against here. “How many club functions or dances given by Oak Park people would welcome this young man to their bridge or dinner table or on a dance floor?” asked one letter to the editor.
Lew Pope returned to Oak Park in 1996, visited his former high school, and was videotaped for Oak Park Library’s “Legends of Our Time” oral history project.
3) Julian Firebombings, 1950-1951
Dr. Percy Julian (1899-1975) was a giant in the field of chemistry who created medicinal uses for soybeans. His research resulted in the mass-production of soya steroids, female and male hormones, used in correcting deficiencies in males and to prevent miscarriages in females. He achieved a low-cost synthesis of cortisone for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. There are over 100 patents registered to his name.
In 1950, 51-year-old Dr. Percy Julian purchased a home at 515 N. East Avenue for $34,000, a hefty price at the time. Forty-four years later Dr. Anna Julian remembered: “Right after our arrival there were three different firebomb incidents. Someone threw the first bomb through our front window on Thanksgiving Eve, 1950. We were deeply shocked by the ugliness of this act. This was especially upsetting because Percy Jr., and my daughter Faith, were children at the time.
“But we didn’t run or move out because we knew these ugly acts of hatred did not speak for the whole community. There was clearly a strong core of fine people of good will in Oak Park.”
In a move that was to assume landmark significance in the history of local race relations, 350 shocked citizens took immediate action to provide round-the-clock moral and physical support for the distinguished scientist and his family.
“It was a dirty thing to do to those fine people,” Elsie Jacobsen said four decades later. “And it was a rotten thing to do to this town. We received such ugly national publicity. But that incident did awaken us to the horrible reality that no matter how pure and noble we thought we were, there was racism here.”
4) The Symphony Incident, 1963
It all began when Milton Preves (1909-2000), the musical director of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, hired the talented African-American violinist Carol Anderson without first getting the board’s approval. It didn’t matter that Preves had never had to obtain their approval before.
Mrs. Marie Dock Palmer (1894-1967), president of the Symphony’s board of directors, promptly dismissed Anderson before her first public appearance, telling her in no uncertain terms that “a colored musician would not be acceptable” to this community, that Oak Park just “isn’t ready for Negroes.” Palmer’s snub of Anderson because of her skin color greatly shocked and embarrassed this community in 1963.
Mrs. Palmer informed Preves, who played first viola in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for five decades, that if the black violinist were retained over her objections, the entire community would withdraw its support from the orchestra.
Milton Preves and 25 other musicians immediately quit the orchestra in protest. Then outraged residents, village officials and clergy denounced Palmer’s action. In a widely distributed letter, scores of Oak Park residents went on record supporting Milton Preves “in his refusal to practice racial discrimination.”
Ultimately, after making a lot of ill-considered remarks to the Chicago press, Palmer was forced to apologize to Preves and Anderson. Both musicians returned to Oak Park for a single concert but never performed with the orchestra again.
Because of Palmer’s action, Oak Parkers mobilized to form the Human Relations Commission. Palmer motivated people of good will to organize and face a changing world. The incident fueled growing civil rights action in the village.
5) The Open Housing Protest, 1966
During the ’60s, as the adjacent Austin community was undergoing rapid racial change, some demographers predicted it was just a matter of time before Oak Park would “go,” block-by-block, just like the West Side. Some feared that each additional black resident potentially would push Oak Park closer to a “tipping point,” leading to both white flight and plummeting property values.
Realtors refused to serve African Americans in Oak Park. The few blacks able to purchase homes here did so surreptitiously with the help of white friends functioning as “fronts” or “straw-buyers.” Black families who moved into Oak Park often did so under cover of night or on a weekday so as to not attract a potentially hostile crowd.
In the spring of 1966, civil rights marches began in Oak Park. For 25 consecutive weekends, peaceful open housing demonstrations were directed at the largest Realtor in the area, Baird & Warner, 101 S. Marion St. The protesters, generally 95-percent white, gathered at Stevenson Park, Lake Street and Taylor Avenue, each Saturday morning, rain or shine. The marchers sometimes numbered over 300 people, moving peacefully west on Lake Street to the downtown district, carrying banners and picket signs bearing slogans like “REALTORS MUST SERVE ALL PEOPLE.”
Some angry citizens jeered at the demonstrators. A few participants subsequently received death threats in the mail. But the protesters were protected enroute by police under the direction of Chief Fremont Nestor.
Flyers distributed along Lake Street during the holiday season in December 1966 featured a black madonna and child with the caption: “There Is No Room At the Inn in Oak Park.”
Over three decades later Harriette Robinet remembered: “During that time, Oak Park moved from complacency to creative protest, then toward ‘equal housing,’ using its own nonviolent civil rights movement.”
Today, Dorothy Reid, daughter of Sherlynn and the late Henry Reid, one of the first black couples to buy a house in Oak Park, now works as a Realtor for Baird & Warner.
6) Fair Housing Ordinance, 1968
The movement towards local open housing legislation began with the formation of the Oak Park and River Forest Citizens Committee for Human Rights in 1964. This group circulated a petition titled “The Right of All People to Live Where They Choose.” The document, bearing 1,000 signatures, ran in the Chicago newspapers as a full-page ad. It affirmed a belief in “the essential oneness of humankind” and expressed an unequivocal commitment to “equal opportunity for all.” The petition helped provide the rationale and focus for Oak Park’s comprehensive Fair Housing Ordinance, which was passed in 1968.
For the first time ever, it was illegal to deny anyone housing on the grounds of race. Oak Park’s tough, groundbreaking policy was adopted before the federal government passed similar national legislation.
Dr. Rupert Wenzel, a village trustee during the turbulent ’60s, reflected years later: “It was a long, bruising process. But in the end we prevailed. It was even worth undergoing some serious death threats.”
When the ordinance passed, 11 black families lived here. Realtors predicted property values would plunge. By 1970, 132 of Oak Park’s 62,506 residents were African-American. But home values soared.
Oak Park chose to face the “integration issue” head-on. For Sale signs were voluntarily banned to prevent white insecurity. In 1971 Bobbie Raymond made her landmark Housing Center proposal. During the ’70s Oak Park began its deliberate and controversial policy of dispersing blacks throughout the village to “manage change” and thus foster greater diversity.
7) The Arts Center Incident, 1987-88
During the summer of 1987, due to its declining membership, the Christian Scientist congregation in the large 1916 Greek Revival style church at 200 N. Oak Park Ave. decided to relocate and place their property on the market. Simultaneously, Unity Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, 211 N. Cicero Avenue, needed a new home because its growing 1,500-member black congregation had outgrown its West Side storefront house of worship. In July the black group made an offer of $500,000 with a bid of $60,000 in earnest money.
At least one Oak Park village board member said the sale would adversely affect the adjacent Avenue Lake Plaza business district because the presence of large numbers of African Americans in the vicinity would scare away white shoppers.
On Dec. 29, 1987, the village board met in closed session with representatives from the Oak Park Development Corporation who wanted the board to endorse its own plan to buy the church. The not-for-profit corporation had previously confined its activities to providing low-interest loans for economic development and serving as a liaison between business and local government. Only once (1974) had they purchased property%uFFFD”the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio to save the landmark from certain destruction. The OPDC offered $505,000 for the Christian Scientist property, maintaining that economic security, not race, was the reason.
But after charges of racism were made both in the local and Chicago press, the village withdrew its support and OPDC withdrew its bid. Moving quickly to protect Oak Park’s image as a national model for racial harmony, the board further issued an apology to anyone who perceived as “racially motivated” its support of the development group’s 11th hour bid.
Subsequently Chatka Ruggiero, a local real estate developer, bid $525,000 and offered full payment. Ruggiero, one of Oak Park’s top property taxpayers who owned at least seven major apartment buildings, appealed to the zoning board to reduce the parking requirements so she could transform the old church into what she called “a community performing arts center.” Today the nearly 90-year-old structure houses the Hemingway Museum and occasionally rents out for various productions and concerts.
8) Miss America 1991
Marjorie Judith Vincent’s parents emigrated from Haiti in the early 1960s. Her father, a doorman at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, and her mother, a seamstress and caterer, always stressed the importance of education. Marjorie, an accomplished pianist, was a music student until she changed to a pre-law program. She was interning with a major law firm when she won the Miss Illinois pageant.
When she became Miss America in 1991, a black publication celebrated the fact that Vincent “carries herself like an African princess, is not fair-skinned, nor does she have long hair and European features.” She looked like a “regular black woman,” wrote another reporter, and “that image is worth its weight in gold.”
After talking to a lot of women in shelters, the 25-year-old chose the prevention of domestic violence as the issue she wanted to focus on in her quest for the Miss America title. The OPRF graduate won the Talent Competition playing a classical piece by Chopin on the piano. “I just want to be myself,” Ms. Vincent said when she won. “I want to be original.”
9) Renaming the Middle Schools, 1985 and 2001
Although the majority of Oak Park schools were named after 19th century white male authors, both of the middle schools were subsequently renamed to honor two famous African-Americans, one of whom lived in our community for 25 years. The other was well known among local school children.
For seven decades the original Hawthorne School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave., was a K-8 neighborhood school, but in 1976 it became one of Oak Park’s two junior highs. The school system was reorganized so that minority students would not be concentrated in a few schools on the east side.
In 1985 the school was renamed to honor Oak Park scientist and humanitarian Dr. Percy Julian.
Emerson School, 916 Washington Blvd., like Hawthorne, was a K-8 school. Also like Hawthorne, this structure would change in 1976 when it was designated as the other junior high.
Both schools were rebuilt and reorganized as middle schools (grades 6-8) in 2000-2001. Emerson was then renamed Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. Brooks (1917-2000) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago writer who was the Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1968 until her death. On many occasions Brooks read her poetry to Oak Park elementary students and had been the keynote speaker at the Young Author’s Conference.
10) Black “Firsts” in Oak Park
Oak Park has many of its own men and women of color who deserve our recognition and celebration. What follows is just a partial list of black “firsts” for our village.
• Percy Slaughter, Oak Park’s first black trustee.
• In 1981, William J.J. Turner became the first District 200 school board member.
• Chester Stewart, first black Dist. 200 president.
• Kathy Lamar, first black District 97 president.
• Sherlynn Reid, first black woman president of the League of Women Voters, not just in Oak Park but in Illinois.
• In 1979 Dr. Elsie Harley at Beye School became Oak Park’s first African-American principal.
• The first black male and female graduates of Oak Park High were Faith Jefferson and Archie Webster, both in the Class of 1923. Jefferson’s father ran the first auto dealership and garage at Lyman Avenue and Roosevelt Road in the ’20s.
• William H. Palmer, in the early 1900s, was the first black entrepreneur, a successful teamster whose many wagons functioned as Oak Park’s first “garbage trucks.”
• Harriette Gillem Robinet was Oak Park’s first African-American author, publishing numerous works of historical fiction for children and young people.
• Football player Leroy Brode was the earliest black athlete at Oak Park High in 1932.
• The first three African-American faculty members at OPRF High School joined the staff the same year in 1972: Al Allen, Randal Bullen, and Norma Raybon.
• Norma Green was the first black Homecoming Queen at the high school in 1988. That same year, Ean Barnard became the first black student council president.
• Rick Tanksley became Oak Park’s first black police chief in 2001.
• And in 2005, Dist. 97 chose Constance Collins as its first African-American supertindent.