First in a series of essays on educational equity in Oak Park:

White privilege, school and housing segregation, racial profiling, hostile, threatening and violent policing, a grossly inequitable judicial system and other historic racial injustices are indeed still with us in our local government, in our schools, and in our daily living. 

They are America’s enduring obstacles to realizing a society with freedom and equality — a goal many today are calling racial equity. In coming to grips with racial equity today, James Baldwin offers us guidance and purpose for this Wednesday Journal series on race and education in Oak Park: “We don’t begin again as if there is nothing behind us or underneath our feet. We carry that history with us.”


A half century of race and education.

The multiple episodes to follow will examine how, arising out of key developments in the 1970s, Oak Park schools today have come to boldly confront institutional structures, school culture, interpersonal relations, and other practices around race that stand in the way of realizing equity. Like all struggles for social justice, today’s efforts are rooted in past triumphs and failures. Like all histories, this history is selective in examining key individuals, landmark events, and historic documents. It will explore moments, often forgotten or unknown, that provide what good history often does — a better understanding about the roots of our present situation. These stories are at the core of who we are, have been, and still might become. 


Integration, segregation, equity

Early episodes will a focus on how Oak Park came to reconcile historic tensions around segregation and integration. This tension appeared in District 97 soon after the village launched multiple efforts to end racial segregation in housing with what was called “managed integration,” starting in 1968. By the mid-1970s Oak Park had to figure out how to do the same for its schools. In those early years, major migration patterns changed in Oak Park. Whites left Oak Park in large numbers. African Americans and other racial-justice-minded families migrated here. They moved first in small numbers. Then, migration in and out of Oak Park expanded rapidly. In 1970, Oak Park had over 62,000 residents, including 132 African Americans. By 1980, the total population was 54,887 with almost 6,000 African Americans.

In the late ’60s and ’70s, courageous longtime Oak Parkers with new residents, led prominently by leaders of the faith-based community, acted boldly to create an integrated, welcoming community. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was social activists moving here — Black, white, and Asian Americans —who soon raised the bar on race relations and began to question the limitations of managed integration in schools in the late ’70s. 

Many of these newcomers, like the family of Ella Pappademos, the first African-American teacher in D97; Art Hyde, a leading education researcher who worked with the United Farm Workers in California; and Dolores Register, the first director of the Multicultural Education Center in D97, were experienced in civil rights work, labor organizing, the peace movement, and education at all levels. Most importantly, they helped shape a critical race perspective to challenge the way managed integration in education played out in both districts.

For D97 and District 200 (OPRF High School), the similarities were striking. All Oak Park schools faced what education historians call “second generation segregation” — the many intentional and unintentional ways schools continued racially discriminatory practices, even as schools became racially integrated. 

These practices, both intentional and unconscious, were harmful to students and families of color. They included: curriculum that conformed to traditional white cultural standards for teaching and learning, ability grouping and tracking that racially segregated students within schools, the over-assignment of Black children to special education, a paucity of African-American faculty, racially disparate discipline, and, in general, a white faculty and community that despite their best intentions had a limited understanding of Black history and culture.


Evolving struggle for racial equity 

The origins of racial equity in education here are found in D97 in the first generation of school integration. In the late ’70s African-American teachers like Jarvia Thomas, Bette Wilson, and Ella Pappademos formed the Minority Caucus in the Oak Park Teachers Association as a means to advocate for equity and better learning opportunities for children of color. The findings of the Oak Park Racial Diversity Task Force Report in 1984 and later actions by the Oak Park Community Relations Commission were prominent in critiquing the shortcomings of managed integration in D97 and coalesced with early racial equity advocacy. Black teachers with white colleagues at Longfellow School modeled culturally diverse, inclusive, mixed-ability classroom practices that countered in-school re-segregation, resulting from a major curriculum change called “re-scheduling.” Organizations like APPLE, the Oak Park Community Action Organization, and the Concerned Parent Association, along with activist teachers, challenged throughout the ’80s a variety of un-democratic and inequitable practices in the elementary schools, setting the table for similar work in D200.

By the early ’90s explicit equity efforts slowly spread to OPRF High School where APPLE leaders began to publicly raise concerns about how the school was falling short in serving children of color. Later episodes in this series will explore the OPRF equity struggle. More than any community institution, OPRF has studied itself, been scrutinized by others, and documented its intentions, successes, and shortcomings. 


Bending toward justice 

Oak Park schools are in the third generation of racial integration and continue to confront inequities in education that many believed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision would begin to rectify when it declared school segregation unconstitutional. Equity leaders from the first generation of school integration and those who act for racial equity today remain steadfast. As an ally in that work, I continue to take inspiration from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who still counsels us to believe that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This series hopefully can inform and strengthen our quest for racial justice and equity.

John Duffy, an Oak Park resident, founded the Committee for Equity and Excellence.

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