When Park Forest won its first All America City award in 1953 only white Americans were welcome there. When it won its second award, in 1977, it was one of the few racial-integration success stories in the country.
This village of 23,400 people, located 30-some miles south of the Loop, began integrating in the 50s, not long after the modern civil rights movement began gathering steam. Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the major leagues in 1947, Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, and that same year the Supreme Court ruled that states could no longer enforce restrictive covenants, agreements between whites not to sell property to nonwhites. In 1954 Thurgood Marshall argued and won Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that outlawed segregation in public schools.
These efforts were led by African-Americans, yet the Martin Luther King of Park Forest wasn’t black. He was a low-key Japanese-American from the west coast named Harry Teshima, whose photo in the Park Forest Public Library’s collection shows a thin, genteel-looking man wearing a bow tie. At his funeral someone called him “a white hot flame, burning away at injustice.”
Park Forest started as the vision of Carroll Sweet, a businessman who saw dollar signs in the cornfields near a forest preserve south of Chicago. He and his partners, Philip Klutznick and Nathan Manilow, wanted to build a “GI town” to house the families of soldiers returning from the war, and the development that was incorporated in 1949 was the world’s first post-World War II privately funded, self-governing planned community, complete with its own shopping mall.
Racial integration wasn’t part of the original plan. William Whyte’s classic study of the new suburban lifestyle represented by Park Forest, The Organization Man, published in 1956, mentions “Negroes” only once–and then only to say they weren’t welcome in the village. Asians and other nonwhites weren’t much more welcome.
Harry Teshima arrived in Park Forest in 1954 looking to buy a home. It’s not clear why he chose the village, though it’s possible he read a 1948 article about it in Colliers. (Teshima’s widow, Kay, who now lives on the west coast, declined to talk about her husband.) Like 85 percent of the men who lived there, he was a veteran. Unlike them, he’d also been in an internment camp.
President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, forcing 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent into ten internment camps in western states. Among the internees were Teshima and his family, who’d been living in Riverside, California.
Eventually the government allowed internees to leave the concentration camps if they enlisted in the U.S. army, and Teshima was one of 1,200 to do so. He didn’t speak Japanese and had to take classes in it before being assigned to the intelligence branch as a translator. One of his brothers was killed while serving in Italy. After the war Teshima went to the University of California, then got a master’s in engineering from the University of Illinois.
According to OH! Park Forest, a 1981 compilation of articles and oral-history interviews, when Teshima and Kay (who’s also Japanese-American) showed up in 1954 Sweet and his partners refused to sell them a house, for reasons that aren’t clear. The developers’ business depended on being able to get loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration, and Don DeMarco, who worked in community relations in Park Forest from 1971 to ’82 and is now acting executive director of the Fund for an Open Society, remembers that the FHA agreements contained language that in effect barred loans if they would be used to integrate a community. Bill Caruso, who runs the fair-housing legal clinic at John Marshall Law School, thinks that’s likely. “It’s hard to be sure now,” he says, “because many of the documents showing federal complicity in housing discrimination have become very scarce.”
But the developers could offer to sell Teshima land, and they did. He bought it, then built his own house, where he would live for the rest of his life.
“He was gentle but firm,” James Saul, who worked with Teshima on integration, told an interviewer for a 1980 oral-history project. “He didn’t throw his weight around intellectually, put people down by asking them if they had read the latest philosophic author. He was just intelligent, modest, and talented with his hands.”
But Teshima was determined not to become just another model minority. “A stubborn little fellow,” says Jack Star, who interviewed him for a 1967 Look magazine article. Teshima joined the local Unitarian Church, which was known for its activism, and Shirlee Wheeler, a fellow activist, thinks he might have helped start a social action committee and a civil rights study group there. The members of the group believed in integration, and they knew what they were up against. Fred Peterman, who started selling real estate in South Holland in 1953 and in Park Forest in ’57, wrote a two-page reminiscence in 1999 about integration efforts in Park Forest, in which he noted that when he began his career “home builders discriminated. When a ‘Negro’ or an Asian showed up in a new home project, the standard practice was for the sales staff to disappear.” Peterman, now 77 and still living in Park Forest, adds, “We were told to lock the door, go down in the basement, or get in the car and leave.”
But the social action committee wasn’t action-oriented enough for Teshima. “After a year of studying and talking I began to realize we were just talking and not accomplishing anything,” he told Star. “Nuts to having people sign pledge cards for open occupancy and nuts to preaching sermons. The way to have integration is to integrate.”
Teshima began meeting once a week with James Saul, Shirlee Wheeler, her husband Ted, and a few other people, trying to figure out the best way to integrate blacks into Park Forest. “We thought we could change things by marching and demonstrating,” remembers Saul, who still lives in the Park Forest home he bought in 1953. “Harry thought you had to use the law. Harry was right.” Saul called their meetings a “floating crap game,” because they’d meet in different members’ homes to keep from calling too much attention to themselves. “We tried to be cautious,” he says. “We knew the Klan and its many little brothers were watching.” As he told the oral-history interviewer, “There could be economic retributions. There were constant threats of that and of physical violence. . . . We do know of someone who had a cross burned on their lawn.”
They also had to worry about what would happen to blacks who agreed to buy homes. In 1951 there’d been white riots in Cicero when a black family tried to move in. In 1957 there would be riots in Levittown, Pennsylvania, when the first black family arrived. And though these days white Park Foresters like to remember themselves as civil rights pioneers, the chief of police noted in OH! Park Forest that on July 13, 1959, phone calls came in to the police department “indicating a rumor prevalent in the Eastgate area to the effect that the house at 240 Arcadia … has been or was being sold to colored people.” The report states that about 60 adults had gathered in the yard at 238 Arcadia and that a smaller group was assembling across the street.
Evidently the owners had been having trouble selling the house and had listed it with a real estate firm on the south side of Chicago, and a black couple had come out to look at the home. The couple suggested the seller ask the people gathered in the yard how they’d feel about “colorizing” their neighborhood. The answer was “not very happy.” The seller then told his neighbors he would never sell to anyone “objectionable” to them, and the crowd dispersed.
By early 1959 Teshima and the other activists heard that a Dr. Charles Wilson–an associate professor of economics at DePaul University, the kind of position black men rarely held in those days–had been trying to buy a home in Park Forest for his family for several months. Shirlee Wheeler remembers him as a “very independent” type who at first didn’t want help from anybody. But then she and the other activists learned that Bert Growald, a member of the Park Forest Human Relations Commission, had to move because he was being transferred to Kalamazoo. He said he was having trouble finding a buyer for his home and, since he was sympathetic to the idea of integration, might be interested in selling his house to a black family.
Wheeler pulled together a meeting of about 40 progressive people she knew, including members of the floating crap game and the social action committee, then invited the Wilsons to come. The Teshimas agreed to hold it in their spacious home, but at the last minute they had to back out because Harry, who was being treated for cancer, was sick. The meeting was moved to Wheeler’s house.
Wheeler says that when she called to invite the Growalds she spoke to Bert’s wife, who seemed shocked to hear that her husband wanted to sell to a black family. He’d evidently forgotten to tell her. According to OH! Park Forest, he didn’t tell his neighbors either. Wheeler told his wife that the Wilsons thought they were coming simply to meet nice, progressive whites. If the Growalds liked the Wilsons, then they could decide what they wanted to do.
An hour or so after the meeting started the Growalds told Wheeler they wanted to show the Wilsons their house that night. According to OH! Park Forest, “The only remaining stumbling block was the last-minute refusal of Park Forest Realty to handle the sale.” But Anthony Scariano, a lawyer and first-term state legislator who later became a respected judge, agreed to help. According to Scariano’s interview in OH! Park Forest, Growald told him he had a black buyer and asked if Scariano was interested in representing him. “I said, ‘Why wouldn’t I be interested in representing you?’ . . . He said, ‘Well, you are in politics; it might hurt you.’ I said, ‘Well, if it hurts me, fine. If people want a bigot in the legislature they’ll have to go and get themselves one.'”
Another problem arose, however. Wilson didn’t have the $5,000 down payment–a pretty steep down payment given that the average Park Forest house went for $10,000. According to Star’s article, Wilson had only $3,000. Teshima lent him the additional $2,000. A friend of Teshima’s told Jack Star, “Harry was very sick at the time. He was getting radiation for a tumor in his nose and had no way of knowing what was going to happen. But he felt very deeply about Wilson having his chance.”
A week before the Wilsons were to move in, Park Foresters got wind of the sale. In a 1988 Tribune article, reporter Jerry Shnay described a confrontation with village president Robert Dinerstein. Angry residents demanded to know, “Why here? Why now? Why us?” Dinerstein kept asking, “Do you believe in the Constitution of the United States?” He finally persuaded them that they’d be making a mistake to attack their new neighbors. “In the event that a Negro family should make its home in Park Forest,” he wrote in a statement that village employees were to refer to when asked about policy, “the village government will assure that family the same protection of the law that is afforded to any other resident or property owner in the village.”
Dinerstein and members of the floating crap game and the social action committee visited the Wilsons’ soon-to-be neighbors. They told them about the Wilsons and warned that Park Forest would use the police to stop any violence and would prosecute the attackers.
The Wilsons moved in on Christmas Eve 1959. One of James Saul’s coworkers tried to enlist him in a plot to splash paint on their house, and he says gleefully that he ratted the guy out to village authorities. A few years later Dr. Wilson got a new job, and the family moved on.
Teshima began working with a Quaker group, HOME, or Housing Opportunities Made Equal, that showed black families houses in Park Forest. Bill Simpson, who was also interviewed for the 1980 oral-history project, remembered clearly that it was Teshima who drove him around when he was house hunting in 1963.
According to the Park Forest Historical Society’s Web site, “Harry and those he enlisted for his cause not only challenged racially restricted real estate covenants . . . they stemmed panic listings by convincing real estate brokers to show homes on newly integrated blocks to everyone.” Teshima worried that blocks wouldn’t stay integrated. He told Star about a run-down house between two homes owned by blacks that was being advertised only in black newspapers. “With the agent’s permission, a half-dozen of my friends and I spent the next three weekends in that house,” Teshima told Jack Star. “We cut the grass, trimmed the shrubbery, painted the kitchen cabinets and replaced cracked floor tiles. We also got the agent to take his ad out of the Negro newspapers. Then he had no trouble finding a white tenant.”
By 1974 Park Forest was well on its way to becoming the integrated community Teshima had envisioned. That fall he rode his motorcycle across the country to visit the camp where he’d been interned. On September 24, while riding back through Arizona, he was killed when he rounded a bend and crashed into some horses that were in the road. He was only 55.
Since Teshima’s death, Park Forest leaders have tried to keep their community integrated. Don DeMarco says, “Park Forest has slowly increased its population of color over more than four decades, during a time when the south suburbs, the whole metropolitan area, and the nation have been increasing POC population much faster than their white population.”
These days the population is about 55 percent white and 39 percent black, the rest a mix that includes Asians and Latinos. Yet those numbers don’t indicate who’s living next to whom. The Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research uses census figures to rate the degree of segregation in municipalities throughout America. A city with a rating above 60 is considered very segregated, and one with a rating below 30 is seen as fairly well integrated. Chicago, which is 37 percent black, has a rating of 86.2; Park Forest has a rating of 25.6. Most of the surrounding suburbs, where the nonwhite population has increased dramatically since the mid-70s, are more segregated than Park Forest.
Village officials say that keeping their suburb stably integrated isn’t easy, especially given the loss of middle-income jobs and the suburbanization of poverty. Barbara Moore, the community relations director, says the village doesn’t have a formal program. “Some communities, once they’re integrated, practice benign neglect,” she says. “We put emphasis on being an attractive community for people of all backgrounds,” by making sure the schools, police department, and other institutions are held to high standards. “We’re involved in the South Suburban Housing Center and support their testing program,” she adds, which “sends out people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds who pose as potential house buyers and renters, then document how they’re treated. She says that if they get a complaint, village officials try to work things out with the real estate firm, but they’ve also been willing to sue.
These efforts may not be enough. The village Web site states, “There are no racially identifiable neighborhoods.” Yet one white long-timer who wanted to remain anonymous–someone who’s believed in and worked for racial integration for years–says that at least one section of town has become quite segregated. “The Eastgate section of Park Forest is about 90 percent black,” he says. DeMarco confirms the estimate.
“Park Forest isn’t Camelot–it has its problems,” Moore admits. “But we prefer integration. We refuse to give up on the idea.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lowell Thompson, courtesy of the Park Forest Public Library.