The fatal police shooting of a black teenager and subsequent protests earlier this month in Ferguson, Mo., have made the St. Louis suburb a household name across the country.
News outlets have reported imbalances in racial diversity in the majority black community of about 21,000, with much of the focus aimed at the Ferguson Police Department, which is comprised of nearly all white officers.
But 20 years ago, the battle in Ferguson was against white flight, and community leaders turned to Oak Park in an effort to foster racial diversity.
In 1994, the city of Ferguson hosted the 18th annual meeting of the Oak Park Exchange Congress, an organization established in 1977 that held forums in communities across the nation to share strategies for integration.
Former village clerk Sandra Sokol, who attended the Exchange Congress meeting in Ferguson, said the forum was supported by the Ferguson city council, school officials, churches and other community leaders.
She said part of the purpose of the Exchange Congress was to “tell the good story” about integration success in Oak Park. She said the forum, which was funded by the Village of Oak Park, was held in roughly a dozen municipalities over the years in addition to the forums held in Oak Park. Other cities which hosted the congress include: Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights, Ohio; Bloomfield, Conn.; Southfield and Oak Park, Mich.; Starret City, New York; and Teaneck and Willingboro, New Jersey; among others.
Sokol said it was difficult to recall the specific issues facing the city of Ferguson during the 1994 Exchange Congress, but added that it is “shocking and sad” to see what is happening there today. She said she was surprised by the roughly two-thirds minority population in Ferguson and that the police department there is not more integrated.
News reports have shown that the Ferguson police department is almost entirely white, despite race demographics of residents. The city’s elected council is all white.
“I remember that there were all kinds of people of good faith (in 1994) working in the community … I’m sure there are still lots of people of good faith who want to live and work together in harmony, including the police department,” Sokol said.
Bobbie Raymond, former vice president of the Exchange Congress and the founder of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, also traveled to Ferguson for the 1994 forum. She also had difficulty recalling the details of the event, but noted that every community that participated in the Exchange Congress faced the issue of white flight.
Raymond said the clashes between police and residents in Ferguson “reopens a raw wound” over the question of whether police treat blacks differently than they do whites.
“And if they do, and they themselves may be black or white, then why do they do that?” Raymond asked.
While the forums addressed issues of education, housing and economic development as three key elements to battle resegregation, Raymond said the three aspects must work together for the strategy to be successful. She said public entities such as police departments also play a critical role, not just in their interactions with the public, but also in the information they provide residents.
“If somebody is looking for housing and the police say don’t live here because of crime, then people take that as the most important source of information,” Raymond said. “That could be the decisive factor in where you move.”
Rob Breymaier, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, which advocates for housing integration, said his organization consults with some 3,500 families searching for housing in Oak Park every year.
“Everybody comes to Oak Park with a preconceived notion of what are the good parts and the bad parts of Oak Park, and race is the number one component of that preconceived notion,” he said.
Breymaier said he educates clients on a daily basis that crime is not that different from one part of the village to the other. He said white applicants are frequently concerned about living in areas of the village with more black residents and black applicants are often concerned about discrimination in predominantly white areas.
He said that integration, however, is just one part of the process in aiming to achieve racial harmony.
“After you have integration as a foundation for equity in your community you then have to use it by getting people to talk to one another and make sure that you are providing services that are equitable,” he said.
Breymaier joined the OPRHC in 2006, so could not give anecdotal information about the 1994 Exchange Congress forums, but said the community of Ferguson somehow did not embrace these principles wholeheartedly.
“If you want to promote diversity, then you have to have public officials that are reflective of the population; that’s the opposite of the case there,” he said, noting that the although roughly two-thirds of Ferguson’s population is black, the majority of city council members, school board members and the police department are white.
“That’s a huge problem,” Breymaier said. “That’s an indication that they weren’t taking seriously diversity and integration in the community and certainly not any kind of inclusiveness.”