This first ran on April 4, 2012. It has been slightly updated:
Fifty years ago today, Harriette Robinet, like most mothers of that era, was home with the kids. Her husband, McLouis, better known as Mac, was teaching at UIC. No different, really, from most other days.
Except April 4, 1968 was no ordinary day. Several hundred miles to the south in Memphis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been murdered.
The shocking news had a special impact on Harriette because the Robinets were one of about a dozen African American families who had recently moved to Oak Park, a largely white, moderately Republican suburb immediately west of Chicago.
Until the day the Robinets moved into their house on the 200 block of South Elmwood Avenue in October of 1965, Harriette had never set eyes on it. The house had been purchased by a “straw buyer” — a white Presbyterian minister and his wife — because real estate firms at that time wouldn’t help black couples find a house and most white homeowners wouldn’t sell to them. The minister and his wife, Don and Joyce Beisswenger, were among a growing number of Oak Parkers who embraced a notion called “Open Housing.” After purchasing the house, they immediately sold it, sight unseen, to the Robinets, who at the time were living in an apartment in Chicago.
In those days, when a black family took possession of a house in Oak Park, it was called a “move-in,” which required preparation and strategy. Police Chief Fremont Nestor and Village Manager Harris Stevens took the lead in communicating with neighbors in advance. Move-ins always took place mid-week, mid-day, when fewer people were around. Patrol cars were stationed on the block for some time afterward, just to be on the safe side.
The Robinets moved in without incident and, though a little awkward, most of the neighbors were welcoming. But not everyone. The atmosphere remained tense for some time.
Harriette documented their experience in a Redbook Magazine article titled, “I’m a Mother — Not a Pioneer,” part of the publication’s ongoing “Young Mothers” series. It was published in February 1968. Two months later, Dr. King was assassinated.
Home alone with three kids, the only black family on the block, one of the first and few in the village, Harriette couldn’t help feeling vulnerable as the world around her erupted in violence.
I can attest to that. Attending high school in downtown Chicago, I got a ride home the following afternoon from a concerned parent. Plumes of black smoke rose on each side of the Eisenhower Expressway because a good part of the West Side was on fire. As we passed under the bridge at Pulaski, we narrowly missed being hit by a shopping cart full of bottles, dropped from above. Other classmates took the Green Line home and were instructed to lie on the floor of the train for fear of snipers. My parents were tense and worried that night. One can only imagine what it was like for newly arrived black families.
Here’s what it was like: Harriette felt helpless and wanted to do something, so she took their American flag and put it up outside. Then she got busy around the house. A few hours later when she glanced out the window, almost every house on the block was flying the stars and stripes.
Growing up here, I always thought of Oak Park as special. Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright and all that. But it wasn’t until Harriette told me this story that I knew for sure. Now whenever I tell her story, I conclude with, “That’s Oak Park.”
But that’s not the end of the story.
A month after King’s death, on May 6, 1968, the Oak Park Board of Trustees approved the nation’s first Fair Housing Ordinance. In the ensuing half century, thanks to intentional efforts and a lot of firm resolve on the part of many people, Oak Park became a national model for sustained, stable diversity — and remains so to this day.
But that’s not the end of the story either.
The Robinets still live on the 200 block of South Elmwood. They’re the old guard now. The anchors. Mac is retired after a distinguished career as a scientist at Argonne Labs. Harriette became an award-winning author of historical fiction for young people with numerous novels to her credit. Most mornings, you can find the couple walking to and from St. Edmund Church where they attend Mass.
And on one Thursday each month, they still get together for lunch with some of those who flew the flag so they wouldn’t feel so alone. If you walk by Winberie’s, you might see them through the front window, laughing and swapping stories.
Fifty years after they helped make Oak Park a better, more tolerant place, the Robinets are still here.
And they’re still here partly because of that day 50 years ago when her neighbors demonstrated, in the clearest terms, that Oak Parkers were capable of rising above their biases and fears to become one people.
Or as Harriette puts it, “That’s when I knew I was home.”