Oak Park’s village board took on a reflective tone during its Feb. 22 meeting responding to the equity-focused community group Walk the Walk and its presentation on the village’s history with Black residents and reparation opportunities to account for past wrongs.
“We want to have the conversation and we want to have it in a collective way, in a formalized way, where we can start to understand what some of those past transgressions are and move forward,” said Chris Thomas, of Walk the Walk.
Thomas asked the board to participate in the discussion with an “open heart.”
“Part of acknowledging all of the work that has been done is not only seeing how far we’ve come,” said Thomas. “It’s important to see really where we are trying to go.”
The idea of using thoughtful consideration of historical wrongdoings to shape the future of Oak Park acted as a core theme and guiding principle during Walk the Walk’s time before the village board.
“What is our long-term vision and how do we make our community as equitable as possible?” he asked.
Thomas said he did not believe the current village board has done anything to adversely affect Black residents.
“There has been wrongdoings in the past though,” said Thomas. “Someone has to take responsibility for it at some point and I would love for this to be the era where some of us on this call can step up and do that.”
Thomas then asked the board to consider whether they believe wrong was done to Black people in Oak Park and do they believe something should be done to repair that trauma.
The presentation began in earnest when Walk the Walk’s Christian Harris, using information acquired through the Oak Park River Forest Museum, recounted the history of Black people in Oak Park – from their beginnings as small business owners to such ugly truths as having their homes and workspace firebombed by white supremacists.
Harris pointed out that Oak Parkers have been taught to believe that groundbreaking chemist Percy Julian was the first Black person to live in the village – a total, but common misconception. He informed the board that Oak Park had a Ku Klux Klan chapter, with its own women’s group.
“The Klan’s women’s group was very strong here,” said Harris.
The members of the women’s group, according to Harris, took just as much issue with Catholic and Jewish people as they did with Black people.
Harris also reminded the board of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, and asked them to think about the potential economic development that could have happened for Black people in Oak Park had the village not caved into racist backlash and granted the Black congregants a permit to build the house of worship.
When the church finally had a building of its own on what is now Westgate Street, the structure was besieged by mysterious fires and the congregation fell apart. But Harris also reminded the board that the village has always had residents who stood up against such inequitable treatment.
“This is our history, and we should be proud of it on one hand,” said Harris. “Naturally there are parts of this history that are shameful. But we do not need to linger in that shame.”
Walk the Walk’s Danielle Morales Klima said the forms reparations could take in the modern world and how those reparations vary from a federal to a hyperlocal level.
Such local reparations, Morales Klima said, could take the form of a plaque to mark locations significant to the history of Black Oak Parkers, such as where Mount Carmel once stood.
“When you shut down a church, you shut down a community,” said Morales Klima.
Reparations could include the founding of a citizen committee or a public apology, as well as low-interest real estate loans. Morales Klima stated that reparations do not have to be punitive, just constructive.
Walk the Walk made clear that they only sought to promote positive discourse among the board and that their suggestions were not concrete demands.
When the presentation ended, Trustee Simone Boutet formally apologized for the village’s past transgressions.
“On my behalf, I would like to say I’m sorry for this terrible part of our past,” said Boutet.
She recommended the board pass a proclamation as a means of atonement, as well as commemorate Oak Park’s Black history with a plaque.
Trustee Susan Buchanan said she felt “honored” to participate in the meeting because she felt the topic of reparations is crucial and “potentially pivotal for our society.”
“Reparations is an issue of this moment,” said Buchanan.
Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla stated she absolutely agrees harm has been done to Black people in Oak Park’s history.
“I think sometimes the wrong is still being done,” she said.
She said some policies enacted in the larger world to help people have actually excluded Black people, including the programs created to assist military U.S. veterans, from which she has benefited from as a veteran.
“Reparations should not be a divisive issue because it is about harm reduction,” she said.
While the village “has a lot to apologize for,” Trustee Jim Taglia felt effective reparations could only come from the top.
“Only the federal government has the wherewithal to do something really substantive,” said Taglia, believing local reparations would be “patchwork” and lead to an “uneven outcome.”
Citing her equity training, Boutet felt reparations should take the form of programs already in place that increase empowerment, not dependence.
“I don’t think any program that says there’s a class of people that is responsible for giving and a class below it that’s a receiving class, benefits race relations or is good public policy,” said Boutet.
Trustee Dan Moroney felt that many of Oak Park’s programs were reparations of a “different name,” such as the village’s fair housing ordinance.
The financial reality of reparations, according to Moroney, are “daunting” to the municipality.
“A frustration of mine is a lot of things are beyond the purview of what this municipal government has,” said Moroney.
Trustee Deno Andrews felt any money for reparations would have to come from property taxes, inadvertently harming residents. He stated a desire for greater insight into what the financial burden should be and who should be paying into it. A formal apology, he felt, necessary.
“I agree with Trustee Boutet that an official order is absolutely in order,” said Andrews.
Walker-Peddakotla thought an apology proclamation was low-hanging fruit.
“Nothing has really happened to repair the harm that was done,” she said. “It’s just us saying, ‘We messed up, sorry; here’s a plaque.”
Moroney asked that Walker-Peddakotla acknowledge the good that Oak Park has done through equity-focused programs.
“Can you give a little credit to what Oak Park has done in the past?” Moroney asked.
Walker-Peddakotla said she worried that the reparation discourse would end after the formal proclamation passed.
The bigger piece is what’s done after the apology,” said Thomas.
Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who grew up on the Gaza Strip, told the board he understood and empathized with Black people.
“My father lived to be 92 years old, never a free man in his whole life – under occupation, under the rules of others. He never voted,” said Abu-Taleb.
He continued, saying he wanted Black people to have equal opportunities as everyone else.
“If anyone on this board understands the sins this country has committed against Black people, I do,” said Abu-Taleb, before directing staff to create a proclamation.
Reparations, the mayor believes, should come from the federal government.
“I’ll go to Washington D.C. I’ll walk with you. I’ll advocate for you.”