When Oak Park rejected a Black church

Opinion: Dan Haley

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

It was in the summer of 1987 that, with its membership drooping, the congregation of the Christian Scientist church at Oak Park Avenue and Ontario decided it was time to downsize. The congregation, without controversy, purchased a smaller church on Harlem and Augusta in River Forest. It's still there 33 years later.

But the church's plan to accept an offer for its handsome 1916 Greek Revival space from a Black church based in Austin was nothing but controversial. The Unity Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church had grown to 1,500 members and was far too big for its storefront church at 211 N. Cicero Ave.

The congregation made an offer of $500,000 with $60,000 down. The deal was on its way to closing when an Oak Park trustee raised a ruckus with pretty plain talk that so many Black people in the heart of Oak Park would scare off shoppers a block away in what was then called the Avenue Lake Plaza (the ALPs!).

This overt racism was stunning in a town that, since the late 1960s, proclaimed its commitment to racial integration and diversity. The village board stalled the purchase. Its partners at the Oak Park Development Corporation argued it should be allowed to buy the building even though the only building it had ever directly purchased was the decrepit Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio. When the heat got too great on village hall, there was relief when Chatka Ruggiero, a local who had done well investing in Oak Park apartment buildings, offered $525,000 cash to buy the building for use as a community arts center.

And now Ms. Ruggiero has sold the building, ironically, to a church.

Oak Park's march toward racial equity has sometimes been a march straight into a wall. Worth remembering.

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Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

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Reader Comments

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Comment Policy

Marcy Grant from OAK PARK  

Posted: November 19th, 2020 8:21 PM

Seems strange not to mention this overtly racist trustee by name. Especially when their actions were so lastingly deleterious to the equity of Oak Park, then and now.

Nancy Hess from Oak Park  

Posted: November 18th, 2020 9:54 PM

Just FYI, that little church building at Harlem and Augusta has for several years been the home of the Chicago Center of the Self-Realization Fellowship, an international nonprofit organization.

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