A Young Mother’s Story 89th of a series written by Redbook readers
“I know that when my son goes to school in our white neighborhood, sooner or later someone will call him ‘nigger.’ This is heartbreaking for me.
On a hazy, uncertain afternoon in October, 1965, our family of four drove up to a spacious old house in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. We had lived in a small Chicago apartment for five years, and the house looked like heaven. An avenue of elms and maples formed an arch of brilliant red and gold leaves. The fenced back yard would be a safe place for our boys to play in; large bay windows promised light and air; there was a real fireplace. And I could still plant some tulips before the first frost.
The house was only seven miles from the campus of the medical center at the University of Illinois, where McLouis, my husband, teaches physics. Many of my husband’s colleagues and students live in Oak Park, a community with good schools and nice shopping areas. With its mellow atmosphere, its highly individual, well-kept old houses and its huge trees, Oak Park spelled h-o-m-e to us. And today was the day we’d move in.
But this wasn’t an ordinary moving day. We are Negroes. When a Negro family moves into an all-white suburb, it’s officially called a “move-in.”
A “move-in” involves many precautions. The Illinois Commission on Human Relations suggests that neighbors not see the Negro family near the house before the actual moving day. I hadn’t even been inside our new home yet. The moving must be fast and professional, done in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week-no weekend idlers nearby. And the white neighbors must be completely informed before the move-in takes place.
Two hours before we arrived, everyone on the block received a mimeographed notice from the village manager, explaining that a Negro family was buying a house on the street from a Presbyterian minister and his wife. Then, to dispel rumors about us, the notice described our family and our background briefly but thoroughly.
The Presbyterian couple mentioned in the notice were dear white friends of ours. For two years they had suffered with us through our attempts to buy a house. We had tried seven different times, and each time had failed. Real estate firms refused to serve us. One real estate agent bought a house himself-a house stipulated for nondiscriminatory sale-rather than sell it to us; two months later it was back on the market. And homeowners were too frightened to carry through a sale on their own. During that time, when I read to our son, I used to weep when I came to “And this little piggy cried, ‘Wee, wee, wee,’ all the way home!”
We finally had given up hope when our friends, the minister and his wife, who lived in Oak Park, bought another house there without our knowledge. Once they were sure the sale was final, they sold the place to us. And that is how we were able to buy our house.
But that October day as I stood in front of the home I had so wanted, I had doubts. White and Negro friends had asked us what we were trying to prove. I wondered if the good things my husband wanted to provide, could afford to provide, worked hard to provide, would be worth it. McLouis and I had lived with the ugliness of prejudice, but must our children learn, so young, that some people hated them? Maybe we should have waited for a house on the fringe of a crowded ghetto in a “changing block” to open up to Negroes. Maybe we should have paid the so-called “color tax” for a more expensive home in a deteriorating neighborhood where schools and public services were poor and where, in the large food chains, you would find mold hidden under the extra label on the cheese.
Well, I thought, all that was past now. This was the house we had bought-and we were moving in.
I felt apprehensive, and a chill shook my body. We walked to the door, my husband carrying 2-year-old Stephen over his shoulder while I cuddled our baby, 2-month-old Philip.
As we fumbled with the unfamiliar keys, the street became alive with people. Under the watchful eyes of plain-clothes policemen, neighbors were arriving.
An architect and his wife brought us dinner for moving day-a tuna casserole, salad, rolls and dessert. A young minister lent us a set of fire irons and then made our first cheery fire in the fireplace we had always yearned for. Boys in football uniforms came, carrying a potted green plant with a written note of welcome attached. A doctor’s wife brought a package of apples, bananas and rolls for nibbling. The procession gave us heart.
The moving men were rapid workers, and they soon had barrels and corrugated boxes placed in the right rooms throughout the house. While they were unloading the van, three children walked up and recited a formal little greeting. Then they stared with curiosity at our faces. One of them, a little freckled lad, asked, “When your little boy’s face is that color, you don’t have to wash it often, do you?” I looked at his recently scrubbed red face and I detected envy.
Four teen-aged girls invited us to their church, and left their names and telephone numbers for future baby-sitting jobs. The following evening a woman who lived across the street gave us a sheet of paper with names and hilarious descriptions of the other families on the block. She had sensed the embarrassing sting of our knowing no one when everyone knew about us because of the village manager’s notice.
For over a month we had daily visitors. Our electric coffeepot was constantly perking. By day mothers and toddlers came bearing gifts–a German chocolate cake, a bouquet of fall roses, oatmeal cookies, homemade rolls, honey-spice cake, brownies, frozen spaghetti sauce with a box of spaghetti.
Many of our visitors were shy. Many were curious. Some were unsure of themselves. Others seemed genuinely delighted to have us in Oak Park. All of them seemed compelled to express something, and our hearts were gratefully listening.
One 7-year-old girl with strawberry-blond hair pulled her mother’s sleeve and asked, “If I touch her little boy, will I be brown too? All over? Just my hand?”
At night our visitors were either men or families. They usually stayed to share our abundance of desserts and have a cup of steaming coffee.
At first we were a little suspicious of this drawn-out, overwhelming welcome, and recently I discussed it with a close friend. She explained that initially there had been such a furor on the block over our moving in that some sympathetic neighbors decided to try to make us feel better. (We had never sensed the controversy; this is a sophisticated community where people don’t throw rotten eggs.) When our “good guy” visitors told the others about our coffee and conversation, the more hesitant ones felt free to come and meet us.
Soon we began to settle into the community quite comfortably. The priests at St. Edmund Catholic Church welcomed us, without fanfare, as the first non-white members; we found a good local pediatrician, and we enjoyed the shopping and the services of Oak Park. (Deliverymen ask for the lady of the house and don’t quite believe my reply.)
On our first Valentine’s Day in Oak Park, a handsome walnut Salem rocker, tied with a red bow and decorated with an enormous cardboard heart, was delivered. For years I had yearned for such a chair so I could rock our babies, but our small apartment didn’t provide an inch of extra space. Now my husband could give me the chair. Somehow when I saw it, all I could think of was his years of helplessness, his inability to house his wife and children with dignity-not because of a lack of money but because of other people’s bigotry. And I wept.
As the winter passed and spring approached, I spent more time outside. I began to notice some unhappy neighbors. There was nothing overt, but they looked miserable and turned the other way when we passed. The woman in the house next to ours moved, saying to a neighbor, “Negroes should prove themselves before moving next door.” But three days after the “For Sale” sign went up, a young white couple bought her house.
Sometimes parents jerked their children away when Stephen and Philip went out to play. And they still do. But, hand in hand, the children often steal back.
I really felt established on the block when a new friend who had to go to the hospital asked me to take care of two of her youngsters until she returned. Now if a friend is ill, I take a casserole meal to her family. Or I invite my friends to meet my mother-in-law when she visits. My husband is unofficial adviser for the school science-fair projects. When our son Philip was sick and needed medical tests, my neighbors took care of Stephen and gave me rides to the hospital.
It was at this point–spring and summer of 1966–that a civil rights movement with fair housing as its theme began to develop in Oak Park. We attended meetings, and found ourselves sold on nonviolence as a way to open decent housing to Negroes, as it earlier had opened the doors of public places. Soon our peaceful Oak Park civil rights marches (95 percent white) gave way to participation in open-occupancy marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King in Chicago. Dodging bricks and cherry bombs, we marched through the city streets, while our wide-eyed little boys waited for us at the church center.
But on our street the neighbors are still friendly with us and in our Catholic parish we are still made to feel welcome. Invitations to back-yard barbecues, to dinners and to late coffee-and-dessert sessions continue to be more than we can keep up with. We also are swamped with requests to talk about Negro housing problems to suburban church groups, newly formed human-relations committees and high-school sociology classes. We belong to a couple of interfaith dialogue groups, and we brought friends from Chicago to help “integrate” the Sunday-evening play-reading group when we read A Raisin in the Sun.
Although we were remarkably well received, the friends who sold us the house have suffered. Many people congratulated them on their act, but others said it was deceitful. For several months our friends were harassed by phone calls in the night and BB shots through their windows. Worst of all, some youngsters, instructed by their parents, began to snub our friends’ children. Often the same people who welcomed us criticized them.
Again it’s spring. My pink and yellow tulips are blooming. I think the forsythia sprays look pretty against the green trim my husband painted on the house. From a honey locust tree in the back yard, McLouis hung an automobile tire; the old-fashioned swing is a real attraction for neighborhood boys and girls. We now have a cherub daughter, Rita, who is five months old. We’ve been in Oak Park more than a year and a half and we’re quite at home.
But we know of two other Negro couples who weren’t so lucky. We have friends who lived as move-ins for two and a half years before anyone spoke to them. Other friends in Oak Park had crosses burned on their lawns. Perhaps one day it will happen to us.
There are now about 11 Negro families who live among the 20,000 white families in Oak Park. At least once a month we get a call from Negro families who have been transferred to work near Chicago. The men are architects, engineers, business managers-and they are unable to find homes near their jobs. I usually suggest that they try to find white friends (“nominee buyers”) who will buy a house for them. Although three new Negro families have moved into our neighborhood with no disturbance, Realtors continue to avoid dealing with Negroes. And many private homeowners are still afraid to sell on their own. “I’d be glad to welcome you,” one homeowner told friends of ours, “but I couldn’t do that to my neighbors.” One day, I hope, an open-occupancy law will free all of us.
When Stephen goes to school, I’m sure that sooner or later someone will call him “nigger.” Even now he says, “Some people don’t like us.” This is heartbreaking for me. I’m a mother, not a pioneer.
But I think that Oak Park has provided a cushion of understanding. Stephen knows good white people, so he doesn’t respond to prejudice with bitterness or hate. A child from a Negro ghetto who has never known a white friend will learn to be suspicious and hostile. I came from such a ghetto, and we’ve discovered that many of our neighbors have lived their entire lives in white ghettos. It was only when my husband and I attended college and graduate school that we met sincere white friends.
My children accept racial differences very easily. Our daughter Rita has a very fair complexion, and when we brought her home from the orphanage (we adopted our two younger children), Stephen said, “Well, Mommy, we got one Negro baby [his brother Philip] and one white baby [his sister].” I told him that she is Negro, and that people of any color whose families long ago came from Africa are considered Negro. “A family can be Negro or Irish or Italian,” I tried to explain.
“Oh, no, Mommy,” he said. “The family is American, and we all belong.”
I’m convinced that hope lies in our children. Whether they are black or white, our children need to know each other as neighbors to find out that “the family is American, and we all belong.” n