On May 6, 1968, one month and two days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the Oak Park Board of Trustees passed a landmark Fair Housing Ordinance, beating the federal legislation by a few months. That’s a story of political courage and doing the right thing in the face of vehement, even violent, opposition. For the next three weeks, as we approach the 40th anniversary, we will tell the story of what led up to that milestone-because some have never heard it, some need to be reminded, and because it’s a pretty inspiring story.
Our first installment is a condensation of stories we first ran on Jan. 17, 2001 [“A Symphony of fairness”] and Feb. 5, 2003 [“Whatever became of Carol Anderson?”]
Strangely enough, Oak Park’s integration story started with the Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest. Not exactly where you’d expect Oak Park’s integration experiment to begin, but that’s what happened on Feb. 17, 1963 when diversity struck the symphony-and the rest of Oak Park-like a thunderbolt.
Once upon a very different time …
In November 1962, Milton Preves, musical director of the Oak Park Symphony, invited an African-American musician named Carol Anderson to rehearse with his orchestra for the upcoming Feb. 17, 1963 concert. Preves had been director of the organization for eight years and had brought in a number of new players, often by way of his other orchestra-the North Side Symphony of Chicago. Anderson, in fact, had been playing with North Side Symphony, so she was a proven performer.
And she had the resume to back it up. She’d been playing violin since she was four years old and graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music.
Preves was no slouch himself. Principal violist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he didn’t feel any particular need to notify the board-then known as the Oak Park-River Forest Symphony Association-when he wanted to bring in a new performer.
This reportedly rankled the board, but they didn’t make an issue of it until Anderson showed up. Curiously, the chairman of the board, Marie Dock Palmer, was also the principal cellist of the Oak Park Symphony. After the rehearsal where Anderson first made her appearance, Mrs. Gustave Palmer, as she was frequently identified in press reports from that more formal era, called Anderson and told her that her services would no longer be needed.
In fact, here’s how Anderson related the conversation: “Mrs. Palmer told me she was sorry, of course, and that she was sure I was a nice girl, but that if I stayed it would mean that the community would withdraw its support of the orchestra. She said that I would understand that, as a Negro, I would not be acceptable as a member of the orchestra in this community.”
This was Mrs. Palmer’s first season as board chairman, and it seems safe to say she was in over her head. In fact, as reporters of the Chicago daily newspapers quickly discovered, no doubt to their unending delight, Marie Dock Palmer was the motherlode of politically incorrect quotes.
“We didn’t know if anyone would object to the orchestra being integrated,” she told Donal Henahan of the Chicago Daily News, who broke the story, “but we weren’t about to find out on our own. We’re not a band of crusaders.”
Once the story got out, of course-although the Oak Leaves studiously avoided mentioning the controversy-Chicago reporters had a field day with the quotable Mrs. Palmer.
“Nothing is integrated in Oak Park as yet,” she said. “And we felt that we were only abiding with what already existed in town. If [Preves] wants something like this, let him start it in his own community. As long as things are so quiet and peaceful, there’s no sense in bringing it up.”
When a reporter pointed out that African-American scientist Dr. Percy Julian lived in Oak Park, she responded: “Yes, but he is not very active in Oak Park. And he doesn’t try to promote his own race. He hasn’t tried to bring other Negroes in.” She admitted the board “didn’t actually know if anyone would object to the orchestra being integrated. We might have been able to take 10 of those people in. But we weren’t about to find out on our own.”
Mrs. Palmer crawled even further out on the limb, observing, “You know, once we had a Semitic problem out here. Now that seems to be conquered. Some people have asked us, for instance, ‘Why do you have a Jewish conductor?’ Some have asked, ‘Why couldn’t he be grateful for that?'”
When a reporter asked if Mrs. Palmer could ever imagine a Negro soloist performing with the orchestra, she allowed that “a person like [opera performer] Marian Anderson would be very well received. Of course, we couldn’t afford her.”
They could, however, afford Carol Anderson, and Preves said that if the symphony refused her services, they could do without his as well. “I do not wish to be associated with and particularly known as head of an organization which practices the discrimination of excluding any person because of color,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
That was fine with the Symphony Association, which had just about had it with Preves’ unilateral decision-making. Robert C. Ransom, whose son still practices law in Oak Park and who was then executive secretary of the board, told Preves in a letter that “you have no authority delegated to you by the board to say who shall be a playing member in the orchestra.” Ransom’s son, Robert M., says the protocol issue was probably the main thing for his father, who was himself from Mississippi originally and often had as many black clients as white. And in fact, Ransom Sr. described the controversy to a Chicago reporter as “a minor thing and definitely not a racial incident.”
No one else was buying that, but it’s pretty clear from Mrs. Palmer’s vocal distaste for Preves that it wasn’t entirely a racial incident.
“Milton Preves is at the bottom of this,” she was quoted in a Chicago paper. “He is using this incident in order to wreck [sic] vengeance on us.” She called him “money-minded and vindictive,” accusing him of pouting after the November concert because he wasn’t consulted about the hiring of a soloist, which meant he “could not get his cut of the fee.”
“I just can’t understand,” she added, “why a person would come in this town and gladly take the money we offer and bring us his problem.”
Preves retorted, “There are about 35 community orchestras in this area, and the competition for good musicians is fierce. When I am in trouble, I sometimes have to call up a teacher and say, ‘Send me a violinist in a hurry.’ I can’t stop to find out what color he is or to wait to have a board clear it.”
Mrs. Palmer insisted, “There is no prejudice against Miss Anderson. She is a fine person and a fine musician.” It was the principle of the thing, she said.
“We just thought we were not the organization to crusade and pioneer a controversial subject in the community.” The orchestra would not be integrated, she maintained, “until I can see that a consensus of the community is in favor of that.”
Though Mrs. Palmer couldn’t see it, consensus in the community was already building-in the orchestra, too, where 25 of the 83 musicians threatened to quit in response to the incident.
Residents wrote letters to the Chicago papers decrying the symphony board’s discriminatory action. “Is Oak Park in Mississippi?” asked OPRF High School teacher Jack Rossetter. “I should judge from your article that the Oak Park you refer to would not even permit colored television!”
Another wrote: “What Mrs. Palmer fails to realize is that all persons of good will, and especially those in positions of influence and authority, have crucial roles to play in the continuing fight for racial justice. To wait for ‘community opinion’ is to relinquish the right to make one’s own moral decisions, and act upon them.”
The Oak Park establishment responded quickly. Elsie Jacobsen, then president of the OPRF school board, went public and threatened to evict the orchestra from high school facilities if they continued to practice discrimination. “We are in charge of renting [the auditorium], and we would not want discrimination in our school,” she stated.
Local clergy took it a step further. Twenty members of the Oak Park-River Forest Council of Churches, led by Rev. Charles Jarvis of First Methodist Church and Rev. Oliver Powell of First Congregational (now First United Church of Oak Park), signed a declaration condemning the decision and arranged a meeting with several members of the symphony association at the Oak Park YMCA.
The board had planned to cancel the concert because of the controversy, but the ministers convinced them to go through with it-and to reverse their position on Carol Anderson.
That same evening, the Oak Park village board adopted a “statement of concern” about the incident.
The ministers, along with plenty of media, attended the final orchestra rehearsal before the concert. Appropriately, it took place on Lincoln’s Birthday. Also in attendance was percussionist John Staunton, who secretly taped the proceedings and captured most of Milton Preves’ address to his musicians. It wasn’t easy surreptitiously taping with a reel-to-reel recorder, and the quality shows it, but the tape nonetheless reveals an impassioned Preves talking about how he was attempting “to build this orchestra” by bringing in good musicians, not using it to “force an issue.” He read several quotes attributed to Mrs. Palmer (who, wisely, did not attend the rehearsal and never played for the symphony again), and demanded the statements be retracted or he would not conduct the concert that coming Sunday.
Some people, he noted, had asked him, “You mean to say you’d let a colored girl cost you this job?” Yes indeed, he replied, and he’d hold his head high about it. He complimented Oak Park for taking a stand against the action and singled out the clergymen who led the way.
One of those clergymen then stood up and negotiated a compromise with Preves on the spot. If Mrs. Palmer and the board issued an apology to Miss Anderson for the hurt and exploitation she had experienced, would Preves agree to conduct? “The community must have the chance to express its repudiation and its approval,” the clergyman reasoned.
Preves consented, and Mrs. Palmer, to her credit, made the call and apologized to Anderson. “We thought it would be the right thing to do,” she said.
A packed auditorium
The controversy was certainly good for attendance. Over 700 people showed up that Sunday, almost twice the normal crowd. Among the attendees was Dr. Leon Anderson of Wilmington, Del., Carol’s father.
When it was over, Preves shook hands with his concertmaster as is customary; then he shook hands with Carol Anderson. The audience gave them a standing ovation.
Afterward, Anderson told the press, “I think much has been accomplished. If another Negro ever plays here again, I don’t believe this incident will be repeated. I’ve received many letters, all supporting me. Everyone has been very nice.”
Although she was invited to stay, Anderson never returned to play for the Oak Park Symphony, and Preves never conducted there again. Anderson said she joined the orchestra because of Preves and if he were leaving, so was she. The ultimate indignity for Oak Park came several months later in June. A headline in a Chicago paper noted that Carol Anderson had joined the Summer Symphony in, of all places, Wheaton. The conductor of that orchestra? Milton Preves, of course.
Preves ended up playing viola for the Chicago Symphony for over 50 years, and he did return to Oak Park in the mid-1980s to play with the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest. He died in 2000 at the age of 92.
While many people viewed the incident as a black eye for Oak Park, many others, including the press, commended the village for its response and what it likely learned from the fiasco.
“The Oak Park incident can serve as a constructive demonstration,” declared a Daily News editorial, “that the pressure of a community, educated to an awareness of the cruelty and immorality of this prejudice, can prevail against the remaining areas of its prejudice. … Perhaps it will serve a good purpose. It demonstrated the volume of support on tap for fighters against discrimination; it provided an example of the rebuke awaiting those who attempt to impose their prejudices upon the rest of the community.”
Rev. Robert Schumm of River Forest Methodist Church saw it in even more elevated terms. “The citadels of isolation and segregation have been broken,” he told his congregation.
Rev. Jarvis, who at the time was serving as president of the Council of Churches, said, “We’ve learned a lot about how to deal with a situation like this. I think in general the Protestant approach–privately making a decision and expressing ourselves as individuals–is not enough. We have to mobilize all community forces for the right.”
John Staunton, who has been with the symphony for 51 years, is the only current orchestra member who played that 1963 concert. Today, percussionist Mike Daniels is the only regular black member. Thanks to Staunton’s diligence in clipping articles (not to mention taping that dramatic rehearsal) an excellent record exists of one of the watershed events in Oak Park history.
As a result of the symphony incident, community forces were indeed mobilized. The following year, a full-page ad appeared in newspapers, paid for and signed by over a thousand Oak Park and River Forest residents, declaring “The right of all people to live where they choose.”
Open housing advocates began marching along Lake Street to protest discriminatory real estate practices and lobbied the village to pass a Fair Housing Ordinance. That happened on May 6, 1968.
Symphony finds its ‘Place’
In January of 2001, the Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest assumed a central role in celebrating that historic ordinance when they played A Symphony of Place, an original composition by James Kimo Williams, commissioned by the American Composers Forum for the Continental Harmony Project, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Several hundred residents packed the high school auditorium for the Jan. 27 event. Emceed by WFMT’s Carl Grapentine, performers included the Oak Park- River Forest Children’s Chorus, Heritage Chorale, the OPRF High School Jazz Band, the Oak Park Area Community Gospel Choir, and dancer Sarita Smith Childs.
And with that performance, the Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest came full circle.
Still to come: An influential ad and walking the talk on Lake Street.