We got a heads up last week that Sherlynn Reid, one of the brave leaders of Oak Park’s efforts at integration starting in the 1960s, was seriously ill and unlikely to recover.
I asked Ken Trainor, our longtime columnist and editor of our voluminous Viewpoints section, to look back at what we’ve written about Reid over the years so that we had something worthy to post in the event of her death.
It wasn’t more than 24 hours before the emails began arriving from various people who had heard that Sherlynn Reid had died. We confirmed her death with her daughters. And then we posted a tribute Ken had written not that long ago on the occasion of Sherlynn being honored by the Historical Society with its annual Heart of the Village Award.
That wonderful piece runs in print today as Ken’s column on page 72.
It is worth a read as it captures the immediacy and the audacity of the integration pioneers in a moment when Oak Park’s effort to create a racially diverse village was untested and unlikely to succeed. It hadn’t succeeded anywhere else in America.
As we rightly debate equity in Oak Park, it is worth recognizing that it is only through the gauze of history and good public relations that we live with this assumption that Oak Park was born to be diverse. It was touch-and-go for a long while. If we don’t make equity real, the long road to this point won’t carry much meaning.
In recent years, we have lost several of the icons of that time. The Journal has, of course, covered those deaths and offered some historical perspective. There was the death of Bobbie Raymond, founder of the Oak Park Housing Center. The death of Ginie Cassin, longtime village clerk, and fair housing advocate. And now the death of Sherlynn Reid who pretty much invented the concept of community relations in Oak Park. She became director when that department was formally created at village hall. Lost, I think, is that in addition to the bigger initiatives, such as creating the block party culture in town that brought neighbors together in the street each summer for a community-building party, was the quiet work that Reid undertook to intervene in very personal disputes between neighbors who were at odds and weren’t often ready to acknowledge the racial dimension of those disputes.
Notable that the three people I’ve mentioned were women. More notable that Sherlynn Reid was the only Black person in that trio of passings.
Early integration in Oak Park was largely driven by white people. Good for them. Wise to recognize their self-interest in integration as opposed to the rapid racial resegregation that was concurrently remaking the West Side. And always question how welcome Blacks would have been in reshaping Oak Park.
In the days after Reid’s death I also heard concern that our coverage, that the developing historical view of integration in Oak Park has narrowed too much and focused on a handful of icons. The concern is both that there are icons we have overlooked entirely, that our constellation is too limited, our storytelling too focused on the usual suspects.
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That is entirely fair criticism. Not just of us as the local news gatherers. But of what passes for history writing in this complex and fascinating time. The early efforts at telling this story were still too captured by the rose-colored views of those who wanted a simple story of the inevitability of a happy ending.
As I wrote a couple of years back, the most profound telling of Oak Park’s integration story to date was the vivid and truth-telling exhibit mounted by the historical society at the Oak Park River Forest Museum. An eye-opener.
None of this diminishes the grace and goodness, the kind and the hard-nosed efforts of Sherlynn Reid and her well known colleagues. Just that is should whet our appetites for a better, more complete telling of this complex story.