At high noon on Saturday, Feb. 18, local residents can ride into local history. The Oak Park Convention and Visitors Bureau with a little help from the West Town Museum of Cultural History launch the first but hardly the last “Suburban Black Bus Tour.” The tour begins at Percy Julian Middle School where riders can park free from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
In 1985, the school changed its name from Hawthorne to Percy Julian Middle School. Since Dr. Percy Julian, the famous research chemist, is a virtually a one-man nexus of the historic black communities in Oak Park, River Forest and Maywood, organizers said it was only appropriate that the first Suburban Black Bus Tour of the western suburbs should begin at the middle school named after Dr. Julian. Attendees are encouraged to RSVP in advance (524-7800) since the 45-person bus is expected to fill up with local celebrities, politicians and citizens interested in experiencing the rich African-American heritage of these communities.
From Julian Middle School, the bus travels to his family home at Chicago and East avenues. From the site of Dr. Julian’s 15-room mansion?#34;which was firebombed twice in 1950 in one of the better-documented hate crimes in this seemingly tolerant area, we travel to Scoville Park near the intersection of Oak Park and Lake where a Percy Julian bust sits at the top of the hill. From Scoville Park, we travel to the other middle school named after an African-American, Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School. Brooks, a prize-winning poet, was the poet laureate of Illinois.
The next stop is Fellowship Christian Church on Madison near Harlem, which was the first black local church here with a primarily Oak Park congregation.
Just south of Lake near Harlem, tour organizers plan to commemorate a historic black district on what is now Westgate (then William Street) since this was the area where many black citizens lived, worked and worshiped 100 years ago. It’s also where the legendary Mt. Carmel Baptist Church was burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. Documents indicate another black church, Canaan A.M.E., now located in Maywood, was also once in the same area, where the offices of the Oak Park Convention and Visitors Bureau are located.
From here we travel west along Lake Street?#34;a route historians say was a link along the Underground Railroad?#34;to a memorial honoring the now-demolished “safe house” that once reportedly existed on Lake Street and the Des Plaines River, the site today of a McDonald’s restaurant. The memorial was designed by a Maywood architect named Michael Rogers, who was a Proviso Township trustee at the time it was erected in December, 2000.
After that, we travel half a mile north to Chicago Avenue and Thatcher to a rarely used fieldhouse, built by a 238-member all-black CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) crew called Company 2603 in the mid-1930s. Hilliard Ellis, formerly an OPRF High School student, was one of the crew. It was called “Camp Melrose.” I hope this structure will someday become a museum honoring the Underground Railroad, early black citizens of this area, and the Potawatomi and Fox nations on whose ancestral grounds the Cook County-owned building now sits.
Next, we travel along Wallace Sykes Avenue in Maywood to Second Baptist Church, presided over by the Rev. Sykes at 436 S. 13th Ave. This was one of the places of worship where blacks went after the demise of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in the early ’30s. A photo of Rev. Sykes by photojournalist Yohey Seno, a Columbia College student who once lived in Oak Park and River Forest, won an Illinois Press Association photography award (seehttp://www.siu.edu/~journal/IPPASPOY2001/spoy3YS/spoy3.html).
The final stop is the West Town Museum of Cultural History in Maywood on 5th Avenue near Lake Street. Here, riders will be warmly greeted by curator Geri Stenson and board member Northica Stone. A reception follows.
This tour was inspired by local white historians like Bobbie Raymond, Doug Deuchler, Lee Brooke and Jean Guarino, and local African-American oral historians like Sidney Hurst Jr., Vergie Peerman, Harriette Gillem Robinet, Delores Register, Sherlynn Reid, Yves Hughes Jr. and Stenson and Stone. The tour was also inspired by black bus tours in Evanston, sponsored by Shorefront, and in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, sponsored by the Bronzeville Historical Society. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been asked to be the tour guide, partly for comic relief and also for the seven years Yves Hughes Jr. and I (along with the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest) have devoted to researching and writing the history of blacks and biracials in the western suburbs.