When you enter the Main Branch of the Oak Park Public Library, just inside the library proper, the first words encountered are inlaid on the floor before you.
“I believe that any people’s story is every people’s story and that from stories, we can all learn something to enrich our lives.” Harriette Gillem Robinet, from her book, If You Please, President Lincoln
Good words. But then Harriette and McLouis Robinet have a good word for everyone. That word is “home.”
The Robinet family was honored by the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, last Thursday night, with their annual Heart of Our Villages Award, along with Carlotta Lucchesi, a paragon of involved citizenship in River Forest, who served on the elementary and high school boards as well as breaking the gender barrier to become the first female member of the River Forest Service Club. The Historical Society could not have chosen better — or closer to the heart of who we are as intertwined communities.
My appreciation grew immensely as Carlotta was ably introduced by River Forest Village President Cathy Adduci, who considers her a mentor. But it was my happy charge to introduce the Robinets, who have long been dear to my heart.
Before the Robinets made Oak Park home in 1965, they were part of the Great Migration of African Americans, away from the awful repression of the Jim Crow South to the highly segregated and often unwelcoming North. Harriette grew up in the Washington D.C. area. Her maternal grandfather grew up a slave on Robert E. Lee’s plantation. Mac grew up in a small town in Louisiana, a place where Black families couldn’t paint their houses or buy a new car because it would make them look too uppity and put the family in danger. “I grew up,” Mac says, “where making trouble was the last thing you wanted to do.”
Harriette and Mac both had scientific backgrounds and met at Xavier University in Louisiana where they were teaching. They fell in love. Harriette got a job in her field, microbiology, in Washington. Mac landed a teaching position at the University of Illinois Chicago. Later he worked at Argonne National Laboratory for almost 40 years. They married in 1960 and started a family in 1964 with the birth of Stephen. Their next four children were adopted, Philip, Rita, Jonathan and Marsha. Then Linda was born, completing their family. A growing family needed more room than the tiny, zero-bedroom UIC staff apartment where they lived in the early ’60s. Friends suggested they look for a home in Oak Park. But Oak Park didn’t want them. At any rate the real estate industry didn’t want them here. Happily, that has since changed for people of color.
To expose the industry’s racially motivated practices, the Robinets joined the North Shore Project, which documented the unequal treatment Black couples and white couples experienced. When a Black couple asked about homes to purchase, nothing was available. When a white couple followed and asked about the same properties, they suddenly became available. Blacks in 1965 needed a white straw buyer to purchase a home for them, a necessary subterfuge to work around unjust restrictions. For Mac and Harriette, that straw buyer turned out to be Don and Joyce Beisswenger who had purchased a house on the 200 block of South Elmwood, but offered to sell it to the Robinets. There was one catch, Don said. “The police say you have to move in mid-day, mid-week, and you have to move in this week.”
That’s how the Robinet family joined the first wave of Oak Park integrators in the 1960s, along with the Registers (Don and the late Dolores) and the Reids (the late Henry and the late Sherlynn). The Robinets were received with open arms … and free appliances. Mac says they moved in with little more than a card table and a frying pan. Then one neighbor gave them a washing machine. Another donated a refrigerator. They were even gifted with a piano.
The neighbor next door, however, couldn’t handle the change. “Why would you want to live someplace where you’re not welcome? Now I have to leave,” she told them. She was gone in a month.
Harriette chronicled those early years in an article for Redbook Magazine, part of their “Young Mothers” series. It was published in February 1968 and titled, “I’m a Mother, Not a Pioneer.”
Turns out Harriette was both a mother and a pioneer, as became evident a couple of months later when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Of all the Oak Park stories I’ve been privileged to tell in the last 30 years, it is my favorite. Here’s a portion:
“Home alone with three kids, the only Black family on the block, one of the first and few in the village, her husband working 7 miles away at UIC, Harriette couldn’t help feeling vulnerable as the world around her was about to burst into flames. One can only imagine what it was like for newly arrived Black families.
“Here’s what it was like: Harriette wanted to do something instead of just feeling helpless, so she brought out their flag and put it up outside. A few hours later when she glanced out the window, almost every house on the block was flying the Stars and Stripes.”
Harriette used the Redbook article as a springboard. She had left the workplace to stay home with the kids, and she obviously had a knack for writing and research. Between 1976 and 2003, she penned (longhand) 11 books, the first two featuring a child with disabilities as the central character. Ride the Red Cycle was inspired by their son Jonathan who has Cerebral Palsy and now lives in the Ryan Farrelly Home in Oak Park. According to their daughter Linda, Mac was the inspiration for the father in that book, who built a number of quad-cycles and hand-cycles for his son to get about. The other nine books were works of historical fiction, beginning with Children of the Fire about the Great Chicago Fire. Harriette’s books won numerous awards, but the greater honor is that her daughter still uses them to teach her students at Beye School. For the last 17 of her 21 years in District 97, Linda has taught fourth grade — in the same classroom where she was a fourth-grader herself.
Of her books, Harriette says (on her website), “Unless we know our history, we have no perspective on life today. How can we know where we’re going, or appreciate where we are today, if we don’t know where we’re coming from?”
Of her parents, Linda says: “They have the most powerful love I have ever witnessed. Their love has always been strongly rooted in the Roman Catholic faith. Being Christian, for them, is not about being perfect but about being vulnerable, weak, and human and being called to help, to be in service to each other first; to care for others and the planet; and that all people are God’s children. I became a teacher because of my parents. They were constantly teaching all of my brothers and sisters. They are still teaching me to this day about grace and humility and enduring love and, always, the pursuit of learning.”
Grace and humility for sure. Mac likes to downplay the significance of their contributions. “We didn’t really do anything,” he says. “We just showed up.”
Well, Mac, an old adage holds that 80% of life is just showing up, but when you’re African American from the Jim Crow South, just showing up takes a lot of nerve. As for the other 20% of life, we’re really glad you and Harriette showed up in time to join the local Citizens Committee for Human Rights and help lead Open Housing marches in the 1960s — from Stevenson Park, west on Lake Street to Downtown Oak Park, to picket and protest against those unethical real estate practices. We’re glad you lobbied the village board to pass a landmark Fair Housing Ordinance in May of 1968, one of the first in the country. We’re glad you raised six kids here, who have contributed in their own ways — two teachers, a social worker, an eBay entrepreneur, and an IT specialist at Gottlieb Hospital and longtime employee at the local library. We’re glad the two of you walked to daily Mass at St. Edmund, hand in hand, and were such active parishioners there. We’re glad you got involved in the Oak Park Climate Action Network and also started the Repair Café nine years ago so we can keep our old appliances functioning, everything from breast pumps to chainsaws, and keep them out of landfills.
And we’re glad you made some trouble — the good kind, as John Lewis would say. When you moved in, your cranky old neighbor next door said, “Oak Park will never be the same.”
We’re particularly glad about that.
When they got here, Mac said, “Oak Park seemed like another planet” compared to every other place they had been. He also said, “This was the first place where we felt part of the community.”
Which brings us back to the story about April 4th, 1968.
Growing up here, I always thought of Oak Park as special. Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright and all that. But it wasn’t until Harriette told me the story about the flags that I knew for sure.
And that’s not the end of the story. Fifty-four years after the Robinets helped make Oak Park a better place, they’re still here in the same house. And they’re still here partly because of that April day in 1968 when their neighbors demonstrated in clear terms that Oak Parkers were capable of rising above their biases and fears to become one people.
From many flags, one people.
Or as Harriette put it when she first told me this story, “That’s when I knew I was home.”
It occurred to me last Thursday that the Historical Society is one of our most important organizations. Those who know their history tend to love their town. And if you love your town, you try to make it a better community.
The Heart of Our Villages Award was an opportunity to say to both the Robinet and Lucchesi families:
“Thanks for coming home.”