In the late 1940s, the US Supreme Court struck down restrictive covenants—rules that barred people of certain races from living in particular neighborhoods. This, combined with a booming post-war housing market, fueled a massive movement of people in Chicago. Over the next two decades, black Chicagoans increasingly moved out of the South Side to white neighborhoods on the city’s West Side. There, they encountered lots of racial hostility, followed by a slow rolling wave of white flight.
But Oak Park, a suburban community just west of Chicago, decided to fight that trend. They welcomed African Americans, with hopes of creating a truly integrated town.
“Moving to Oak Park for me was like Dorothy waking up in the Land of Oz,” said Crystal Shannon-Morla. “Suddenly she wakes up and everything’s in color.”
Shannon-Morla was just 7 years old when her family came to the Village of Oak Park. It was 1968, and they had just moved out of a low-income, hyper-segregated African American neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. “Everything looked different. The houses were bigger, the people looked different. This was the first time we ever saw white people in real life.”
On the first day, she was playing the backyard with her siblings, when they noticed the neighbor kids on the other side of the fence, playing in their backyard. The two groups of children just stared at each other. African American on one side of the fence, white on the other.
“It seemed like forever,” says Shannon-Morla. “And then my sister says to us, ‘That boy, he has blue eyes. Can you see out of those eyes?’ …They were just quiet—their mouths dropped. I imagine what they were thinking. That skin, look at that skin, like chocolate or whatever. And then we just went back to playing.”
Shannon-Morla and her family were one of the first African American families to move to Oak Park around this time. She didn’t know it, but they were pioneers—or maybe guinea pigs—in an ambitious social experiment.
It was spearheaded by a housing activist named Roberta Raymond. She didn’t like what she saw happening in Chicago: neighborhoods re-segregating from white to black, with disinvestment and blight close behind. “In many people’s minds, integration was that brief period of time between when the first black family moved in and the last white family moved out,” says Raymond. “And Oak Park had to really look and say, what can we do to make this different?”
Instead of opposing African Americans from moving in, or doing nothing as white residents fled for far-flung suburbs, the leaders of Oak Park decided to encourage a diverse community. In 1968 — the same year Lyndon B. Johnson passed the federal Fair Housing Act — the village passed its own fair housing ordinance. Unlike other communities with similar laws, Oak Park actually enforced theirs. Then, in 1972, Raymond started up a new nonprofit: the Oak Park Housing Center (now known as the Oak Park Regional Housing Center).
“It was based on the idea that you couldn’t just let all of these forces control the housing market — that you had to intervene,” says Raymond. “We just developed one program after another to educate the Realtors, [and] to say to people, ‘If one black family moved into an apartment building, that doesn’t mean the whole building has to become all black, or that the building should be allowed to deteriorate.’”
Over the course of several years, the Village of Oak Park, along with Raymond’s Housing Center, created a comprehensive fair-housing strategy. They built a web of relationships between community groups, local government, landlords and real estate agents, and law enforcement. They provided housing counseling and encouraged newcomers to spread throughout the village rather than cluster by race. They bought ads in national magazines, and they promoted Oak Park as a well-run, safe, diverse place to live.
“You have to send this message that racial change in a community can be a very enriching experience, that it can make a better community,” says Raymond. “That is a hard lesson for a lot of people to learn.”
For some people, racial change felt like an invasion. They didn’t want African Americans in their town, and Raymond was telling them they were wrong. She got a lot of threatening midnight phone calls. “I can remember one call it was like, ‘N**ger lover you better get out of town before we take care of you,’” she says. “You know, very threatening phone calls. And I had a file at the Housing Center of hate mail, and it was vicious!”
But most people weren’t vicious; most were just uncomfortable with change. There were probably lots of dinner table conversations as documented by As Time Goes By, a 1974 documentary about Oak Park. In one scene, a couple debate what it would take for them to move out. “At what percentage would we move? When a certain percentage of blacks move in, when would we consider leaving,” ponders the resident. “I think myself it would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 60-80 percent.”
Her husband agrees, adding the rate of change would be a factor as well. “If it had become only 40% but was changing 15 or 20% a year, you know, I might be inclined to leave sooner if I were inclined to leave at all.”
As it turned out, a lot of white people were inclined to leave. In the 1970s, about 10,000 whites left—and in a village of 60,000, that’s a sizable amount. But over time, Oak Park’s integration strategy worked. Instead of resegregration, there was integration.
Amanda Seligman is a professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the author of Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago’s West Side. She says Oak Park enjoyed certain advantages that made integration easier.
“One is that they were their own municipality, so they could do things that the city of Chicago as a whole couldn’t do.” She says while the independent village could pass and enforce fair housing rules and intervene in the local housing market, the same feat was much more difficult for city neighborhoods entrenched in Chicago’s political machine.
Another advantage: the village was pretty liberal, so the integration strategy had a lot of local support.
“And ultimately also it was wealthier,” says Seligman. “So the tolerance for a few African Americans of wealth was greater than it might’ve been for a larger population of poorer black people.”
Today, the population of Oak Park is about 64% White, 22% Black, and 7% Latino. Demographically, that’s similar to the metropolitan area, although Latinos are underrepresented. And while other towns have racial and ethnic enclaves, Oak Park is integrated—almost block by block.
In the nearby suburbs, however, it’s a different story. Maywood is mostly African American. Cicero is mostly Latino. Elmwood Park is mostly white. Some of these towns have gotten more segregated in the last 20 years. Other suburbs are projected to segregate even more in years to come. And Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in the country.
“Segregation is so inbred in American life, that the opportunity that Oak Park affords a family—a child growing up—is invaluable,” says Raymond. “My grandson is 10 years old and he doesn’t think about the fact that he has kids of all races in his school. That is not something he thinks about. And I think if children throughout the country grew up that way, we wouldn’t have to have some of the things that go on in this society.”
Raymond thinks big social problems like mass incarceration and generational poverty wouldn’t be so big, if there were more integrated communities in America.
Crystal Shannon-Morla agrees. “It made every difference in my life. Literally, my life would be different now,” she says.
Growing up, she had white and black friends. She went to a good school, where she had access to extracurriculars that just didn’t exist in her old Chicago neighborhood. And she grew up being comfortable around people of different races—she could code-switch at an early age. “I’m always aware of that, so it makes me wanna contribute and give back.”
Today, Shannon-Morla is a psychologist and a mentor at an after-school program in Oak Park, trying to help academically struggling students catch up. Because even though the village is diverse, it’s grappling with a racial achievement gap.
“You know we’re learning, it’s a work in progress,” she says. “These are big problems, and so we have to continue to come together as a community and work on these things and not give up. There’s more work to be done.”
Now, she just has to do what Raymond and others did 50 years ago: Organize from the ground up, look for new strategies, and hopefully, lead the way for the rest of the country.
This piece was produced in partnership with WBEZ Radio’s Curious City. Listen to Steven Jackson’s piece on today’s Oak Park and also check out BackStory’s entire episode on the history of local power, Little Caesars.