Museum shows fair housing fight from many angles

'Open Housing' exhibit unearths unheralded history

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Harriette and McLouis "Mac" Robinet moved to Oak Park from Chicago in 1965 after having secured the help of "straw buyers" — a white Presbyterian minister and his wife who bought the historic four-square home and immediately sold it to the African-American couple in order to evade the racist restrictions that had blocked the couple's previous attempts to purchase a house. 

In a 1968 article published in Redbook, a national women's magazine, Harriette recalled moving day. 

"When a Negro family moves into an all-white suburb, it's officially called a 'move-in,'" she wrote. "A 'move-in' involves many precautions. The Illinois Commission on Human Rights suggests that neighbors not see the Negro family near the house before the actual moving day. I hadn't even been inside of our new home yet.

"The moving must be fast and professional, done in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week — no weekend idlers nearby. And the white neighbors must be completely informed before the move-in takes place." 

The Robinets did not integrate timidly. Harriette organized Saturday morning marches in 1966 in order to pressure local government to implement fair housing measures. A replica liberty bell used during those demonstrations was built in the Robinets' home. 

Harriette and Mac's struggle helped lead to the passage of Oak Park's Fair Housing Ordinance in 1968. The Oak Park Board of Trustees voted 5-2 in favor of the ordinance, which outlawed race-based discrimination against people looking to rent or buy in the village. 

That staple legislation is the focus of the Oak Park River Forest Museum's newest exhibit, "Open House: The Legacy of Fair Housing," which runs through June 2019. 

Wednesday Journal visited the exhibit a day after the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest, which operates the museum, was named the 2018 Small Museum of the Year by the Illinois Association of Museums. The distinction is a first for the society, said Executive Director Frank Lipo. 

Lipo said he didn't want the fair housing ordinance itself or the most obvious local personalities — such as the village trustees or famed chemist Percy Julian — to dominate the viewer's perspective. 

"I'm a mother, not a pioneer," Harriette wrote in her 1968 article, which could also be the exhibit's creed as it seeks to reinforce the idea that history is made in the mundane, by everyday people organized into forces larger than their individual selves. 

"This is not just about any one story," said Lipo, who curated the exhibit along with Sarah Doherty, a North Park University professor and Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate. 

Lipo and Doherty said they're conscious of how the everydayness of the past can get glossed over by heroic narratives. 

"To understand fair housing, we really thought you'd have to start off [well before the mid-20th century]," said Lipo. "You have to walk in and say, 'African-American people were not latecomers to the community. There were black residents here in the late 19th century and let's not forget that.'" 

For instance, it's relatively well-known that Julian, the famous chemist who was perhaps the first African American to move into Oak Park's tony estate section — had his home firebombed twice (both albeit rather feckless attempts) not long after he moved to the village in 1950. 

That part of history, however, comes later in the exhibit, after the visitor discovers that the home of Fredericka and Gertrude Jefferson, who lived at 622 S. Cuyler Ave., was firebombed in 1914. 

The incident "was buried on page 12 of the Oak Leaves with minimal details," according to a museum label in the exhibit's first section, which is designed to look like the entryway of a historic Oak Park home. 

The Chicago Defender, the country's leading black newspaper at the time, ran the story on its front page and also pointed out that white women were held in custody for the firebombing — a fact that the Oak Leaves' coverage did not include. 

The exhibit also tells the story of Oak Park's small African-American community, which was formed around Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. In 1905, the church broke ground on a sanctuary near Harlem and Lake, "two years prior to the groundbreaking for Oak Park's first Catholic church, St. Edmund," a museum label explains.

In early 1900s Oak Park, the exhibit shows, there were blackface comedy shows performed by Bible classes at local churches and there were even chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.

"The history is more than black and white," said Doherty. "It's religious, too. It's anti-Catholic and anti-Jew, as evidenced by the fact that in the 1920s, you had very active local chapters of the Klan operating out of Oak Park." 

Oak Park has always been "a community of contradictions," as a museum label notes — a town of two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one white body (to paraphrase W.E.B. DuBois) that, over the years, becomes less and less so as African Americans and other minorities move in. 

Nowhere in the exhibit is this contradiction more sharply drawn than in the glass case under a banner from a fair housing march that proclaims, "We Seek Equal Service From Realtors." 

A racist letter dating to 1971, written by a neighbor of Oak Park sociologist Bobbie Raymond — who founded the Oak Park Housing Center to ensure that blacks and whites lived beside one another, instead of clustering apart — sits next to an ad taken out in the Oak Leaves supporting fair housing.

"Even here the blacks have been raping women at the expressway entrance in south Oak Park," the letter, written by a Mrs. T. Richardson, reads. "Is this what you want?" 

In today's political environment, such blatant racism seems less like a vestige of a bygone history than an old tradition that has been revived. 

Lipo and Doherty said they wanted to emphasize the "past is prologue" nature of history — something that rings clear in the exhibit's very formation. 

The period pieces and historical artifacts, such as the letter to Raymond, come from people still very much alive. The Robinets donated the fair housing march banners, which had been in their basement, Lipo said. Doherty said the Herman Miller chairs and some yard signs come from her family's Oak Park home. 

The curators worked with Museum Explorer Inc., a North Riverside company that plans and creates museum exhibits, and is owned by an OPRF graduate, in order to "elevate the way we do exhibits," said Doherty, adding that she hopes the exhibit will inform the present. 

The exhibit ends with the visitor looking onto the home's outer wall, which features activist signs and buttons going back three decades, and bearing slogans like "Black Lives Matter." 

"Some of these signs are ripped from lawns today," Lipo said. "Some things don't change or they're slightly different." 

In order to address present hatreds, the curators said, we have to seriously grapple with, and reexamine, their past iterations.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com   

Contact:
Email: michael@oakpark.com

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