The Oak Park story around open housing with both its disappointing and reassuring moments is painfully documented in our history museum’s exhibit “Open House: The legacy of fair housing.” The display takes key developments from the history, Promised Land Suburb,by Stan West, Peggy Tuck Sinko, Frank Lipo, and Evette Hughes. Both presentations tell the interesting and unsettling history of the very small black community in Oak Park from the late 19th century until 1980.
But largely absent in both of these narratives is any detailed picture of what was happening around housing and education in the two bordering African-American communities of Maywood and Chicago. The next two installments of “Race and Education in Oak Park” will look at these two communities where thousands of Blacks lived before Oak Park began to integrate. Both places offer instruction that can expand our understanding of why integration in housing was no guarantee of racially just and equitable schools.
Panic-pedaling and Blockbusting
Central to ideology of white dominance in Oak Park and Chicago 50 years ago was an intense fear of re-segregation as African Americans moved into neighborhoods and whites fled. In this exchange, major losses in home values occurred in a racialized market where rapid turnover fueled profits for realtors and investors.
Attempting to write a different script, Oak Park civic and religious leaders focused on long-established racist and exploitive panic-peddling, blockbusting, and other racially motivated real estate practices. These discriminatory methods were at the core of Chicago’s real estate business as the historic Chicago Black Belt expanded in the years following World War II when a new wave of Black migration left the South seeking opportunity, community, and more freedom.
Black migration from the American South in the ’50s and ’60s far exceeded World War I-era migration. Extreme overcrowding and a range of discriminatory white-controlled business practices, long in place, drained financial resources from Black Chicago and systematically limited African-American access to new neighborhoods.
These racist housing practices preceded and followed African Americans even in the early years of Oak Park’s open housing efforts. They included restrictive covenants where property owners signed documents pledging not to sell to Blacks, Latinx and Jews. Another practice, redlining, still widespread in Chicago, was solidly in place. By actually placing red lines around communities of color, financial institutions, in cooperation with the U.S. Federal Housing Authority, enforced draconian limitations on making mortgages available to Black and Latinx applicant in areas that white-owned banks and federal housing officials deemed unstable and risky.
Redlining forced black buyers into “contract buying,” where housing prices were doubled and tripled over their actual value as real estate speculators drained capital from Black and Brown neighborhoods. Frequently, before a family could complete multi-year contracts, owners of the property would foreclose, wiping out all equity families had realized. From 1934 to 1968, 98 percent of all Federal Housing Authority-insured loans went to white buyers. As the federal government underwrote $120 billion in mortgages, African-American and Latinx buyers were categorically excluded from home ownership support. In the face of these exploitive practices in North Lawndale, as early as the 1930s, leaders of the Jewish community called for a fair and integrated community that welcomed all people — a liberal vision that would not be realized until many years later in Oak Park.
Just as was present in Oak Park in the years before open housing, white violence was used to terrorize new black residents to keep them from integrating areas of Chicago. From the late ’40s through the ’60s on the Southwest and South sides, as well as in Cicero, large white mobs attacked, firebombed and threatened Blacks who moved into or near existing white areas. Dr. Percy Julian, world famous African-American scientist and the Chicago Sun-Times Scientist of the Year in 1950, had his family home firebombed and later dynamited after moving from Maywood to Oak Park.
In Maywood, as African-American residents grew in number with the industrial manufacturing boom in the early 20th century, village trustees designated a large section of the town for Black home purchasing. When the small Black Oak Park community numbering 169 residents sought a similar ordinance with the resurgence of racism in the years following World War I, Oak Park officials refused. By the 1960s, 20 percent of Maywood residents were African Americans. They had churches, participated in civic life as elected officials, and belonged to men’s and women’s social clubs. Black children were almost half of the 575 students attending Washington Elementary School.
Daily life in Maywood was not free of discrimination. Like much of Black America during the 1960s, many young people and adults in Maywood rose up and rebelled against long-ingrained racist practices found in its daily community and school life. When the first African-American students were entering Oak Park schools, black students at Proviso High School from 1967-74 were in the forefront of the first wave of rebellions against ongoing patterns of white dominance in America. Fred Hampton, first chairman of the revolutionary Black Panther Party in Illinois, led the NAACP Youth Group in Maywood and organized youth activism to achieve goals like building a swimming pool for black residents who were barred from existing pools. In December of 1969, Hampton and party secretary Mark Clark were assassinated in the early morning in a raid coordinated with the FBI and carried out by Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, a River Forest resident.
In the wake of the black rebellion in Maywood and Chicago and in alliance with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, Oak Park would craft, despite strong white opposition, a set of housing practices as an alternative to how race and housing had operated in Chicago and Maywood.
The next episode in this series will examine how “managed integration” folded into integrated schooling in ways similar to and different from how black education developed in Maywood and Chicago.
John Duffy is a co-founder of the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education.