The 1100 block of Westgate in Oak Park is among the most valuable areas in the village. On Saturday, in the shadow of the luxury Emerson Apartments high-rise, a crowd of several dozen people gathered to remember the history of plunder underneath the cobblestone pavement and to install a permanent marker outlining the story of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church.
The church was built by Oak Park’s early Black community in 1905, just a few decades after Emancipation and Reconstruction. The congregation had originally purchased property on Cuyler and Chicago avenues but the village rescinded the building permit after “strong opposition from residents,” the historical marker notes.
The church on William Street (now Westgate) flourished into a social center for Oak Park’s early Blacks. Authors Stan West, Peggy Tuck Sinko, Frank Lipo and Yves Hughes Jr. detailed the church’s history in their 2009 book, Suburban Promised Land: The Emerging Black Community in Oak Park, Illinois, 1880-1980.
“Activities at this well-appointed brick building, which was dedicated on November 19, 1905 were less prominently reported in the local newspapers than those of other churches, but Mt. Carmel functions were not totally ignored,” they wrote. “For example, in 1912, an announcement in the Oak Leaves, written by church officials, proclaimed that Mt. Carmel ‘in a large measure has proven itself the spiritual and social center of the colored population in Oak Park and vicinity.’
“It went on to announce a special event: ‘No pains have been spared to make this one of the leading attractions of the season,’ although the precise nature of the festivities was not revealed. Other special events at the church received coverage, like the program in May 1919 that featured music by the Chicago Guards (an African-American band), and a drama entitled, ‘Out in the Street,’ with an all-black cast, all for only twenty-five cents, or thirty-five cents with an ‘old-fashioned supper.’”
In those early years, the church was pastored by Rev. Harry W. Knight, Rev. Harry C. Weatherspoon and Rev. Buchanan Lewis, the authors added. The Westgate area around the church was also where many of Oak Park’s Black families lived in the early 1900s.
But the racism that kept Mt. Carmel from building at Cuyler and Chicago would haunt the Westgate facility as well. On Christmas Day 1929, the church mysteriously caught fire, resulting in $1,000 in damages to the building. The next year, the congregation sold the building.
“At the time of the fire,” the marker notes, “the general locale was experiencing economic growth and fast becoming a thriving commercial center. The Black community dwindled over the next 30 years with many Black residents moving to Maywood and surrounding communities.”
During Saturday’s ceremony, Nancy Alexander, an Oak Park resident and educator, fleshed out what Black people lost when Mt. Carmel closed.
“We lost a meeting space, we lost a religious school, we lost a source of local news and information, we lost a music center and a concert hall, we lost a pulpit for public speaking, and we lost a recreation center,” she said. “We lost the heart and soul of Black Oak Park. But most egregiously, we lost the collective wealth that was the value of this land — the rock upon which generational wealth is built in this country.”
Alexander said that lost wealth and equity, “built over 24 years,” was the result of systematic policies and practices implemented by whites in Oak Park at the time. After the permit to build on Cuyler and Chicago was rescinded, Blacks were “constricted to this little sliver of lot where we were basically redlined in,” she said, referencing the practice of denying credit, insurance and other financial services to potential customers who live in predominantly minority or low-income areas.
After the fire, Alexander explained, if the village ever investigated its cause, no one was ever charged, “no cause was ever announced, no police report was made that day, no bill of sale exists to the developers and no transfer of deed exists that we can find. And finally a 1930s map of this block that does exist erases where Mt. Carmel’s lot had been in the 1920s.
“By snuffing out this church, the village of Oak Park established a pattern of treatment toward Black folk that includes erasure, blurring and obfuscation of our history that has continued to this day,” she said. “This Westgate Old English village is an early form of urban renewal and gentrification. It is now some of the most valuable property in Oak Park.”
The plaque was made possible by a collaboration between the Oak Park Reparations Task Force, Black Residents of Oak Park, the Oak Park River Forest Museum, the Oak Park Area Arts Council and the village of Oak Park.
Christian Harris, who leads the Task Force, said on Saturday that he hopes the historical marker will launch the beginning of a concerted effort in the village to remember and repair this dark history.
“It was pretty difficult for me to learn that this history has never been taught in Oak Park schools. It was pretty difficult for me to learn that the name of the street and the lot numbers had been intentionally changed and moved to make it harder to trace the community that was here,” he said.
“I always felt like a guest here — an invited guest, but nevertheless a guest with no real say and ownership in this town,” Harris said, adding that, knowing Blacks were integral to Oak Park from the beginning and “continue to be today,” gives him a newfound sense of ownership in the village.
But those gathered on Saturday said they want more than long overdue apologies. For instance, Harris, Alexander and others in attendance are part of a growing effort to get the village to implement a local reparations program. Earlier this year, the Task Force, using funds from Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church’s Reparations Working Group, partnered with Dominican University to administer a survey to gauge how Black residents in Oak Park feel about local reparations. The Task Force plans to present a formal report to the village board at some point in the coming months.
“We need collective justice for this church and other wrongs against the dignity and the economic power of Black Oak Park,” Alexander said. “It is time to acknowledge these hurts and to repair the harm that has cost Black Oak Park economically.”