Friends and colleagues warned William J.J. Turner about running for the Oak Park Village Board of Trustees back in the late 1990s.

Turner, 67, considered running in 1998, and already had an extensive record of public service in Oak Park. He ran previously for state representative in 1992 and was also the first black elected to the District 200 Board of Education in 1981, serving two 4-year terms.

Prior to his campaign for village trustee, Turner was told by some Oak Park blacks that African Americans had a hard time on the board. Those people, he recalled, cited one particular black trustee years before who faced difficulty on the board, but he couldn’t recall the name. Turner wasn’t dissuaded.

“People told me, ‘Every time we’d run, someone would come up and knock out our candidate.’ Blacks thought I was going to get me feelings hurt, but I said, ‘Either they want me or they don’t.'”

Voters evidently did, electing Turner as trustee that year, along with Carolyn Hodge-West, another African American.

With the recent resignation of trustee Ernest Moore in early July, and subsequent appointment of former Village Plan Commission Chair Collette Lueck as his replacement, there are no African Americans on the village board.

When he stepped down on July 8 to take a teaching and administrative post at the University of North Texas, Moore spoke to Wednesday Journal about the need for diversity on the board.

But the village board is having a hard time finding people to run regardless of race, said Moore on Monday. He and other former African-American members noted the time commitment as a deterrent. The village board meets every Monday, along with various committee meetings and extra sessions throughout the year-except during its August recess. A regular board meeting can last up to five hours.

Robert Tucker, chair of the Village Manager Association Selection Committee, agreed time is a main issue for potential candidates, but added that the VMA has not had trouble finding minority candidates to run.

The VMA endorsed a slate in the 2005 election featuring two African Americans and one Asian. All three, however, lost to candidates slated by the New Leadership Party, including Martha Brock, an African American. She resigned from the board in January 2007 citing health problems. Moore was appointed as her replacement.

Tucker said the VMA has 10-12 names of minorities they’re looking to recruit for the next election.

“It’s such a diverse community, we would be doing a disservice to ourselves and Oak Park if we didn’t try to get the best quality candidates to run.”

Moore said he wasn’t mistreated while on the board, and never viewed his seat as the “black position,” though he did address issues related to African Americans and the village.

Turner recalled he never felt racism, but did cite elitism on the board and around the village.

“There was this attitude that some were privileged and some were not. Decisions were sometimes made on where people lived and what status they had,” he said.

Turner would still like to see more blacks run for the village board. During his tenure, Moore talked with African-American business leaders and clergy about running but received a lukewarm response. Time was the overriding concern, he said.

The high school board has three African-American members: Board President Jacques Conway, attorney John Allen, and Ralph Lee, a former Oak Park and River Forest High School teacher. Peter Barber and Michelle Harton, who also serves as president, sit on the Dist. 97 school board.

Conway said he would definitely be open to running for trustee in Oak Park if he still lived in the village. He currently resides in River Forest.

“I would consider it because it’s such an important position. I do think there needs to be diversity on that board,” Conway said. “It’s always good to have a different voice at the table.”

Conway also encouraged prospects to go the route of committees first. But VMA Chair Tucker noted some people already involved in other public service groups aren’t looking to serve on another.

“Those who are involved in Oak Park are very involved. They’re involved in other committees, community groups, the plan commission and, in general, are activists. It’s hard to get anyone to step forward and run.”

Lee Pulliam, an African American Oak Park resident and former Oak Park Township trustee, however, doesn’t buy that view. Pulliam served as township clerk and was appointed a township trustee in 2002. He lost his re-election bid in 2005. The outspoken Pulliam said he’s thought about running for Oak Park village trustee and was disappointed that an African American wasn’t selected to replace Moore.

“When an opportunity presents itself, there should be a concerted effort to find a person of color and that didn’t happen on the village board,” said Pulliam, adding that as far as blacks not running, that can’t be blamed on anyone else.

“We can’t lay this on the step of the white community. Blacks have to be willing to step up to the plate and accept these challenges,” he said. “This is about our legacy, our sacrifice and to honor those who came before us.”

Pulliam surmised that some blacks in the village are in a comfort zone.

“People get to Oak Park and think things are on auto-pilot,” he said. “I tell people that we have obligations to fulfill.”

Moore, though, pointed out that not every black who runs eventually wins, citing the VMA’s ’05 slate, for example. Carolyn Hodge-West, he noted, tried to run again as an independent but was unsuccessful. Moore suggested that might raise a question in some blacks’ minds: Is Oak Park a hospitable environment for African Americans to run in? Moore thinks so, but noted it’s going to take a village to convince others.

“Somebody’s got to get out there and scour the landscape to find individuals who can run and win,” he said. “And if that doesn’t work, you’ve got to find a way to get people on those other committees and commissions.”

African Americans on the village board

  • Percy Slaughter 1981-1985 (First black village trustee)
  • Robert Sherrell 1989-1993
  • Gary Cole 1991-1995
  • William Fillmore 1993-1997
  • Carolyn Hodge-West 1999-2003
  • William J.J. Turner 1999-2003
  • Martha Brock 2005-2007 (Resigned in January 2007)
  • Ernest Moore 2007-2008 (Appointed to replace Brock; resigned in July)

Courtesy Oak Park Village Clerk’s office

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