From a speech delivered to the VMA on March 30, 2008 by John Gearen, son of former village trustee and president Jack Gearen, an instrumental figure in the passage of Oak Park’s Fair Housing Ordinance, 50 years ago this month.
I did some research at the library to confirm the facts about what Oak Park was going through in the period prior to the passage of the Fair Housing Ordinance on May 6, 1968, looking at Bobby Raymond’s master’s thesis and Carol Goodwin’s interesting book about the strategy of Oak Park. Here is what I found:
There was a Community Relations Commission formed in 1963, composed of 15 members, to handle fair housing complaints. However, integration proceeded very slowly. Despite two village-sponsored open house tours for African Americans in February and May of 1967, according to Bobby Raymond, there were only 11 black families in Oak Park at the end of that year, including the families of Harriet Robinette and Dr. Percy Julian.
As Oak Park began to consider a Fair Housing Ordinance, there were 10 Chicago area communities with ordinances, and 16 others where an ordinance was under consideration, but none of them was in the direct path of resegregation as Oak Park was.
The Oak Leaves is the main source for current news in Oak Park in 1968 and I scanned its editions from January to May. I was struck by the contrast between its courtly, elegant style and the harsh tone of the exchanges about race and the ordinance. A letter to the editor about the straw purchases which some white buyers executed on behalf of black buyers began, “If one is out for a cause, one does not sneak one race in to buy and sneak it over to another. One comes out in the open. Why do our officials stand for these sneak tactics? This is the sort of deal that causes hatred.”
There were three open hearings held on behalf of the village board about the proposed Fair Housing Ordinance. The first was in February, held in the auditorium of Oak Park and River Forest High School: 500 people met, 78 spoke, with only 16 opposed to the proposed ordinance, but the Oak Park realtors were united in opposition to the ordinance and many other factions also opposed it.
In March, the Oak Park referendum group contended it had obtained 10,156 signatures (from among the 36,660 registered voters), requesting that the ordinance be put to a referendum in the Oak Park election scheduled to take place in June.
After the village board conducted the second open hearing about the ordinance, the Federal Open Housing Law passed on April 11, 1968. The federal statute exempted from the Law individual owners selling their own homes. This caused a change in behavior among the Oak Park realtors, who were evidently concerned that they would lose business because many owners would sell their homes without a realtor in order to be exempt from the law. As a result, at the third open hearing about the ordinance held by the village board on April 22, the realtors proposed their own ordinance, which extended beyond the provisions of the federal law by eliminating the exemption for a single-family owner selling his or her own home.
In the meantime, judging from the Oak Leaves, the strident rhetoric continued to escalate on both sides. In the April 24 Oak Leaves, a lawyer’s letter to the editor in support of the ordinance said, “The opposition bases its arguments on communist paranoia, opinions of expatriates of nations which failed to solve their own problems but are now experts on Americanism, fear, thinly veiled prejudice, and the realtor who supports racism with discredited legalisms.” He concluded, “When human rights are relegated to second place, the property rights and self-interest ostensibly protected become physically and morally worthless.”
The Monday, May 6, 1968 meeting of the village board at which the ordinance was passed also took place in the auditorium of OPRF High School. John Donaker was president, and the six trustees included Hazel Hanson, George Vician, Rupert Wenzel, Mark H. Brooks and I.M. (“Iz”) Fixman, as well as dad. The Fair Housing Ordinance was a relatively strong statute, with provisions prohibiting panic selling and prohibiting for sale and for rent signs to be placed in the front yards of owners. The ordinance, as it finally passed, did not contain an exemption for individual owners. As a result, the Oak Park Board of Realtors in the end supported its passage.
The board as part of its proceedings ruled against putting the ordinance to a village referendum. The ordinance passed by a vote of 5 to 2. Mark Brooks and Iz Fixman voted against it, saying they wanted owners exempted and they supported the referendum. In the Oak Leaves, dad was quoted as saying that the ordinance did not exempt owners because it would be unfair to place the burden solely on the real estate brokers.
In the May 8 edition of the Oak Leaves, the main editorial attempted to be reassuring about Oak Park’s racial and economic future and asked citizens to turn the page on the issue. But the letters to the editor continued in their strident tone of opposition. One woman wrote, “It is still and always will be my belief that a forced-housing law is indeed just the beginning of a dictatorship; it takes away one’s right to his own property.” On May 15, another woman wrote, “Today basic rights have been taken from the people of Oak Park. Your rights as property owners and citizens of what I thought was a great place to live have been denied you. Obviously, the few people who sit at the head of our village board feel they can tell us what we can or cannot do with our homes or property.”
On May 20, the supporters of the referendum filed suit to cause the ordinance to be placed on the ballot as a referendum for the June election, but the village board and others opposed the lawsuit and the petition filed was denied prior to the June election.
The VMA nominated a new slate with dad as president and Hal Herman, Cyril Farwell Jr., Ted Krasnow, Cliff Osborne, Tom Sturr and Ben Thomas as trustees, and in April of 1969, the VMA won the election over two opposing parties each headed by an Oak Park broker, with a 55 percent majority. I remember working as a precinct captain for the election and remember the tension in the village. After that election, there were many later challenges, but the immediate crisis had passed.
Let me add a few personal notes for the Gearen family. A number of us attended with our mother the hearings at the OPRF auditorium; the speakers were very contentious and involved physical threats to the board members. In addition, there was at least one demonstration in front of our house with about 60 non-neighbors, all white, with our neighbor friends running over to support our family. The demonstrators engaged in a lot of yelling and cat-calling. Dad came to the front steps and listened. My brother Paul remembers that Dad was pensive, his eyes darting around to take it all in, but calm and collected. One person stepped forward as a representative and came as far as the common sidewalk, speaking loud enough for everyone to hear. Jack, with Virginia following, came about halfway to the walk and listened from there. Jack refused to respond to the race baiting and essentially said thanks very much for your concern, we will take it under advisement. The crowd dissipated with threats that this was just the beginning and that they would return in greater numbers.
Of course, all of these events had an impact on our family. I think that when my dad was nominated as trustee in 1960, he was one of the first candidates nominated by the VMA who was not a Protestant, and of course with a Catholic family of nine from the 800 block of South Kenilworth Avenue, he was a perfect balance for the north Oak Park Protestant ticket.
Our family’s understanding was that he had proposed the ordinance and insisted on moving it forward despite concern on the part of others on the board, even those who supported the ordinance, that there was division not only in the electorate but on the board itself. (I remember that one of the board members had been opposed from the start, but that dad was surprised and disappointed to learn that a second one would also be opposing it.)
Finally, we understood that his arrangement with our mom was that he would end his service to the village board after eight years as trustee so that he could help her with the work of raising the nine of us, but when the VMA asked him to run again as president on the grounds that the ordinance might otherwise be reversed, with full encouragement from Virginia, he said he would.
All of his children are intensely proud of Dad, as you might imagine. I remember seeing a powerful older man years after the ordinance had passed, who introduced himself by saying that I looked as though I must be Jack’s son and that he completely disagreed with dad about the ordinance and moved out of Oak Park because of its passage, but always admired the way Dad conducted himself. Good friends of our family like Joe Scully have said that Oak Park would not have become what it is without Dad.
On a personal level, I would say that Dad was remarkable even to his children. I have observed with at least one of my siblings that most of us have a little too much of Virginia’s fire and spirit to have done things in exactly the way that he did. He was invariably calm and reasonable, especially under pressure, and always did the right thing with little fanfare. In the context of the high-tension environment of early 1968 in Oak Park, he could not have been better suited to provide his great service to the village.
The Oak Park River Forest Museum, 129 Lake St., which, once upon a time, was the starting point of the Open Housing marches in the mid-1960s, is hosting a 50th anniversary celebration of the Fair House Ordinance on Thursday, May 31 from 7 to 9 p.m. For more, visit the website, oprfmuseum.org, or call 708-848-6755.