Believe it or not, there was a time when the role of the Oak Park Community Relations Commission was valued and supported by the village board and staff. However, it was a long time ago … try the early 1970s.

In those days, this volunteer commission had 15 members (not the current nine). Those serving came from many areas of expertise — a medical doctor, an OPRF dean, an executive of a national real estate organization, the owner of a local real estate company, a lawyer or two, and a few of us who were part of the Chicago civil rights struggle.

Our job was to advise the board on matters related to implementing the May 1968 Fair Housing Ordinance. And so it did. The commission was staffed by the creative and courageous Kris Ronnow and Sherlynn Reid. Training of local real estate agents and lending institutions began on how to stop red-lining practices of limiting African Americans and whites from living together. The Leadership Council of Metropolitan Chicago was brought in by the village to train commission members and staff on testing real estate agents in surrounding suburbs on “steering” African-American families or racially mixed couples to Oak Park, while saying they had little, if any, housing available. The commission also worked with the Leadership Council to get the Illinois General Assembly to strengthen real estate laws throughout the state.

To address white fears of African Americans moving into all-white areas, in 1974 an ordinance was proposed by the village board. It was called “The Oak Park Ordinance Establishing Procedures for Achieving Stable Integrated Housing Patterns.” To quote the Jan. 9, 1974 Oak Leaves: “This ordinance established a quota system, limiting the black population of the east central portion of the village to 30 percent and prohibiting owners and landlords on any block or in any building with a 30 percent black population from renting or selling to blacks. Those who ignored the ordinance would face a maximum fine of $1,000.” 

This set off a firestorm of controversy. The village board sent this very hot potato to the Human Relations Commission for our recommendation. We discussed and argued the merits of the proposed ordinance, both very pro and very con. By this time, the ordinance had the interest of the national press. The final vote was taken at Stevenson Park Field House under TV lights.

The Human Relations Commission’s final vote was 8 against the proposal and 7 for its passage. Our vote was passed on to the village board.

To quote the Oak Leaves again: “Eventually, village trustees voted to postpone taking any action on the proposed quota ordinance. Alternative proposals, including development of a master plan and implementation of an equity assurance program, were considered instead.”

Yes, there was a time when commissions were viewed as a valuable asset to village government. With the recent resignations of six Human Relations commissioners, time seems to have eroded such confidence. To answer my friend Janet Haisman’s question in a recent Wednesday Journal, “Why would anyone in his/her right mind want to give of his/her time to not even be consulted on something they had been studying?”

Excellent question, Janet. My answer is “never.” I have been there when commissioners’ input was valued and respected. But that was 46 years ago!

 is a longtime Oak Park resident.

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