Oak Park's fair housing era, recollected in tranquility

Brooke and Kubat have performed a community service with new book

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By Doug Deuchler

Blogger

People who don't have a long relationship with Oak Park often think that the community has always provided a classic example of racial integration. I have new young neighbors who were shocked to hear about the fear and upheaval of the 1960s — an era of blockbusting and panic-peddling, a time of white flight and rapidly "changing" neighborhoods on the West Side. 

For those who don't personally remember the period, the '60s can seem like one big happy hippie hootenanny. So it's important that we continue telling the stories, reinforcing the vision and commitment that grew out of that precarious period a half century ago, and celebrating the valiant efforts of the many courageous and inspired individuals who paved the way for our ongoing journey.

Lee Brooke and Marcy Kubat, who have written and edited 27 self-published books together, have completed a new work titled, Fair Housing: Oak Park, Illinois.The subtitle, Memories and Quotations, provides the key to the co-authors' modus operandi in this work. The short paperback volume is a collection of bite-sized quotes relative to what could truly be called "the best of times and the worst of times" in this village. 

Brooke and Kubat share the history of this precarious period by means of a vast assortment of carefully chosen comments and observations by dozens of individuals who were involved in the Oak Park open housing struggle. Much of this material has been gleaned from a series of 13 videotapes that were made in 1996 called Legends of Our Time. It would be a very time-consuming task to view all these videos (now on DVD at the library), so it is especially wonderful to now have many highlights and tidbits to present the mosaic of the Fair Housing struggle. The book is very accessible and concise.

Brooke himself, as early as the 1950s when he was in his 20s, supported the idea of integration and open housing. 

"I knew this was the right approach," the lifelong Oak Parker recalled, "but it was something that many people were insecure about and were even much afraid of. My neighbors stopped speaking to me. Even my parents stopped speaking to me. Most of my relatives were greatly opposed to integration."

At that time, there were so few examples of successful diverse communities. The "Chicago Pattern" had always been that once a few African-Americans moved into a neighborhood, white flight would commence and the area would quickly be seen as undesirable and experience rapid racial "change."

Professor Pierre DeVise (1924-2004), an urbanologist specializing in demographics, mobilized many Oak Parkers to action when he predicted that the village faced similarly imminent resegregation, that it would soon become an extension of Chicago's vast, increasingly black, West Side. Many villagers were terrified, as they were already witnessing rapid racial change in the adjacent Austin neighborhood to the east. 

The impetus for this book began as a speech Brooke delivered at Phi Sigma, a local literary society, describing his own involvement in the desegregation and fair housing struggles of the '60s. Coincidentally, it was also at Phi Sigma where Brooke and Kubat met and discovered they had many common interests and talents. They have been collaborators and very close friends ever since. The two have been co-chroniclers of local history and culture, documenting everything from the story of Joseph and Betty Kettlestrings, the first European settlers in what is now the village of Oak Park, to Behind the Badge about our local police force.

Fair Housing: Oak Park, Illinois presents a wide range of material, from the initial resistance to integration by realtors to the combustible mood among the residents of the village when efforts were first made to assist some black families in finding homes here. Sociologist and Oak Park Housing Center founder Bobbie Raymond, then a young mother, tells of threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. A cross was burned on the lawn of one family on Grove Avenue. At a volatile community meeting, an angry woman in the audience leaped onto the stage and began choking Hazel Hanson, one of the panelists.

Some of these pieces of history are almost unbelievable today. Heinz and Regina Kuehn, who had endured the Hitler years and post-war chaos in Germany, assisted the involvement of some local nuns. They had been forbidden to march in local protest marches against Oak Park realtors while wearing their habits or "garments of the religious." The Kuehns loaned them clothing so they would not be identified as Catholic sisters. 

Once integration began, there was a "Black A Block" goal: African Americans were to be scattered out across the village, one household per block, so as to prevent "ghetto zones" from occurring.

The individuals quoted range from Harriette and MacLouis Robinet, one of the first black couples to move into Oak Park in the '60s, to many individuals who served in Oak Park's government during those challenging years: former village president Jim McClure, trustees Vernette Schultz and Sandor Loevy, former village clerk Ginie Cassin, and Sherlynn Reid, longtime head of the Community Relations Department. It is also touching and inspiring to read of the bravery, confidence, and commitment of those heroic folks who are no longer with us, like Dr. Rupert Wenzel, Chief of Police Fremont Nestor, and Elsie Jacobsen. 

"Fair Housing: Oak Park, Illinois," by Lee Brooke and Marcy Kubat, which documents a defining chapter in local history, is available for $20 at The Book Table or can be ordered by mailing a check directly to author Brooke at 165 N. Kenilworth Ave., Oak Park, IL 60301.

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