By David R. Murray
Bobbie Raymond is on her knees in the backyard of her Oak Park home, gardening while we talk. “I’m the type of person who likes to do two things at once,” she says, pulling up a weed with a five-inch root and waving it triumphantly in the air. “That’s what I love!”
We were talking about race–a topic Raymond hasn’t stopped talking about since the mid-1960s, when she returned to her hometown in her late 20s to find her old friends terrorized by falling property values in Chicago.
Whites were fleeing the adjacent Austin neighborhood as blacks were moving west, one group supplanting the other. That’s when Raymond and other smart liberals in Oak Park hit on the notion of racial balance–achieving that elusive ratio of blacks to whites that would allow the village to integrate while remaining desirable to hesitant white home buyers.
Oak Park has been upheld as a model of racial diversity for so long most people never ask how it stays that way. I never thought about it during my four years living there, until my wife took a job at the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.
Founded by Raymond in 1972, the Oak Park Regional Housing Center is a free referral service that seeks to keep blacks from concentrating in a few areas of town while encouraging whites to keep moving in, period. Funded through federal block grants and local tax revenues, the center continues to advise about 6,000 clients each year: now whites are encouraged to move near the Chicago border, mostly along Austin Boulevard, while blacks are pushed to settle in either the northwest part of town or in another suburb entirely.
If this practice makes you uncomfortable, that’s because it sounds an awful lot like “steering,” which is against federal and state law when done by a realtor. Steering has traditionally been used to keep races apart–some real estate agents will only show certain homes to certain clients because they assume whites would rather live in as white a community as possible while blacks would prefer a more integrated one. But in its early days the center was largely credited with helping blacks to move into Oak Park, and Raymond never profited from its activities. If you’re still uneasy, she’d say you simply haven’t been educated yet.
Surrounded by the beauty of Raymond’s garden, it’s hard to argue. Birds are chirping, dogs bark in the distance, cars whoosh gently past. She shows me her 26-year-old compost heap, “the oldest in Oak Park.” A visitor stops by: Harriette Robinet is a black author of children’s books who came to Oak Park with her husband in the mid-60s; their move to an all-white neighborhood was enabled by a white do-gooder who acted as a straw buyer. Robinet asks for a couple of plants growing out of Raymond’s backyard goldfish pond. Our conversation is interrupted by squeals from bicycle tires on the other side of the hedge. “There it is!” a boy whispers, peering into the garden. We laugh, but we can’t see his face through the greenery–he could be black or white. Suddenly it becomes hard to think critically of Oak Park.
I ask Raymond why these days the housing center spends so much time and money helping blacks move into suburbs other than Oak Park. She mentions an article she saw a few years back, about a star gymnast, a black kid from Cabrini-Green. “He obviously had a lot of goals,” she says. When asked what he would do if gymnastics earned him a fortune, the young man responded that he’d buy his mother a house in Oak Park. “That’s a wonderful dream, and yet if every black child in the city has that dream, does Oak Park resegregate? It’s a toughie. It’s a tough issue.”
It is a tough issue, especially since many Oak Parkers think the Diversity Hotel is full up: that with its minority population at almost 30 percent, the village has as many minorities as it wants. This is where Raymond always believed blacks in Oak Park need to be–in the minority.
According to Claritas Inc., a marketing research firm, blacks will make up a third of Oak Park’s population by 2002, while the number of white residents will fall to 56 percent (it was 77 percent in the 1990 census). While community leaders dispute these numbers, there are other trends that are making some whites nervous. The southeast side’s Irving elementary school is only 45 percent white, due to an influx of blacks, according to UIC political science professor Evan McKenzie, who’s been tracking the town’s school demographics since 1979. He’s alarmed by what’s happened at Hatch School on the village’s northeast side; in 1985 it had the same number of students as Mann School, its neighbor to the west, but now Mann is “twice the size of Hatch” because white residents have been transferring their children.
While McKenzie’s outraged by this trend, Raymond seems to be leaving the battle for others to fight. At 61, she’s retired and content to stay out of village politics. That doesn’t mean she won’t ever get involved; she just doesn’t want to be in control, which is surprising because Raymond is always in control.
In researching this article, I got a taste of Raymond’s help, much of it unsolicited. She provided me with source after source after source, most of them worth talking to. She expressed disappointment when I hadn’t reached this or that realtor, this or that building owner. She typed up a ten-page time line of the housing center’s accomplishments during her tenure, from 1972 to ’94, when she scaled back her duties. And she provided me with plenty of reference materials–from videotapes of her appearances on local news shows to articles from publications like the defunct Chicagoan. She’d ask who I was speaking to and then politely question how I chose those people. She pointed me in new directions, tried to put off interviews, and threatened that she was losing interest in the story. She even suggested new angles, some of them not entirely flattering to herself.
“What’s interesting from a journalistic standpoint,” she mused on the phone one day, “is the number of people who have gotten active in Oak Park in the last five years who really want to bypass the old ideas and the old people and the old solutions. People who don’t want to hear the Bobbie Raymond 60s replay, who are really not interested in it, who think it’s bullshit.”
At times Raymond acted like my partner. She once put a source at ease before being interviewed by me, saying, “Oh, you’ll love him. He’s just like us.” Through it all, she’d always add, “I’m not telling you how to write your story.”
Truth be told, Raymond would just as soon leave people in the dark about how things work in Oak Park. That might seem strange, considering she believes she’s spent her life trying to set people straight. Her conversations are filled with stories of people–both blacks and whites–who think they know what they’re talking about but don’t. There are white people who have heard it’s too dangerous to live on or near Austin Boulevard, personnel officers who tell black recruits they’d feel most comfortable in Oak Park even though their jobs are in Naperville, black people who tell their friends and family that Oak Park is the only place in Chicago where blacks are welcome.
So why would Raymond rather you didn’t know the whole Oak Park story? “There’s always this fear that the government is going to sue you if you’re really coming out and being totally open and putting all of Oak Park’s programs out for public purview. There’s always this fear of lawsuits.”
Still, Raymond will fiercely and impressively defend each and every race-conscious practice her housing center has used to position blacks and whites around Oak Park and its surrounding suburbs. Oak Park doesn’t steer, she insists–it corrects steering. “What the housing center and other fair-housing agencies have done over the years is to overcome some of the effects of years and years of racial steering that went on, where blacks are steered to places that people think they would be ‘happy’ or ‘comfortable’ in. It’s the old story–‘Oh, I think you’d be happier in Oak Park,’ ‘Oh yeah, you’d be more comfortable there’–rather than looking at where people work and trying to take people through a logical process of making a housing choice.
“Whites go through a process of looking at various characteristics of communities, their own convenience to work, etc. They don’t say, ‘I’m white–can I live there?’ Whereas a black person experiences just the opposite. The first thing they ask themselves is, ‘As a black person, where can I live?’ Rather than, ‘What’s close to my job? Where is the kind of housing I’m looking for agewise, pricewise?'”
Raymond is forever telling people what they ought to ask themselves, what they ought to do. What she focuses on, she masters. “Once I got into [the fair-housing issue] I wanted to know everything I could possibly know about the subject, and anytime you do that–whether it’s in cooking, in gardening, whatever–you end up feeling like at least you have some answers.
“I’ve never known anyone like me,” she says. “I was never a child. I’ve had basically the same personality since I was four or five years old. I’ve always been fairly serious and interested in everything.”
Raymond was a child actress, appearing first on radio then on local television in its early days. After majoring in theater at Drake University in Des Moines, she spent ten years as an actress in New York City. She married and had a son in 1959. When she moved back to Oak Park, she was on her way to a divorce. She worked as a copywriter at an advertising agency before going for her master’s in sociology at Roosevelt University.
Raymond’s program at the Oak Park Regional Housing Center is simple. Say you’re a white person looking for an apartment in Oak Park. You were pleased to learn about this free referral service on a Web site that read like a resort brochure: “The Oak Park Regional Housing Center has listings for apartments in a variety of sizes, styles, rents, and building types. Your choices range from studio apartments in modern complexes to large apartments in vintage 2 and 3 flats. But whatever housing you choose, you will be able to take advantage of all the fine services available in our Village. Our staff helps to make your apartment search smooth and easy.”
Once inside the center you’re handed a questionnaire and a card. The card contains contact information as well as this statement: “The policy of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center is to assist in achieving meaningful and lasting racial diversity in the west suburban Chicago area. Clients are encouraged to consider the full range of housing opportunities–especially those which contribute to racial diversity. Listings will be provided in keeping with this policy.” Soon you’re being driven by an escort to visit several apartments on the eastern and southeastern sections of Oak Park, where blacks are concentrated. If things go well, you’ll find an apartment you’d like to rent. Unless you ask, you’ll never be told why they’ve picked that neighborhood.
If you’re a black client, you enter the same door and you’re handed the same forms, but you won’t see any flats in Oak Park. You’ll be handed a few listings, most likely for places on the western side of town, and you’ll be asked whether you’re dead set on settling there. Would you be open to other suburbs in the area, such as Brookfield, LaGrange, Des Plaines, Addison, Rosemont, River Grove, Melrose Park, Schaumburg, Lombard, Glen Ellyn, Elmhurst, Arlington Heights, Westchester, or Northlake? If so, escorts from the “Apartments West” section of the center are available to show you places in those suburbs. Maybe you’ll take the ride and find a nice place in a suburb you hadn’t considered. But if you want to live in Oak Park, you’ll have to find a place on your own.
In this way, client by client, Oak Park has maintained its racial mix. To make sure the housing center didn’t violate any laws, Raymond checked the program with attorney Bob Jones, a longtime board member. Jones says the center has always met the criteria for giving legal housing guidance because it always discloses its intent. Jones says the staff does what it must to let clients know what’s happening.
He concedes it sometimes seems like treading on thin ice. “Anything that’s done in our society that’s not strictly color-blind makes people uncomfortable, makes people stand up and take notice,” he says. “The staff and the directors think hard about these issues and about issues of fairness and legality and ethics. There are a lot of conversations and regular program reviews to make sure that people are comfortable, that the way the program is done is fair and legal and so forth. It is, admittedly, an unusual program.”
Carole Goodwin, author of the 1979 book The Oak Park Strategy, a laudatory study of the village’s efforts in the 1970s, says she’s never gotten over her queasy feelings about the housing center. “I haven’t been comfortable for a very long time in that kind of management. It sort of fits in a little bit with Oak Park’s paternalism, and this kind of attention to race. ‘You should live here and you should live there.’ And in the beginning, it was white people managing it, and that’s not appealing, you know? So I have a philosophical reason to find the view that we’ve gone beyond that and we don’t need it anymore.”
But back in the late 60s, it seemed something had to be done and someone had to take the first steps to prevent the white flight and urban decay that had befallen Austin. “The west side was burning,” Raymond recalls. “What were we going to do?”
In her book, Goodwin relates a conversation between an outsider and a resident.
“It’s getting pretty black in Oak Park, isn’t it?” asked the outsider.
“No,” the resident calmly replied, “there are only about 1,200 blacks.”
“Jesus!” the outsider responded. “That’s a lot!”
In 1970, Oak Park was a lot like its neighbors–mostly conservative, old-fashioned, and completely white, with a large segment of its 60,000-plus population happy to keep it that way. To the south was working-class ethnic Cicero and Berwyn, places where blacks dared not go after dark. To the west were Forest Park, also working-class and unfriendly to integration, and upper-class River Forest, where most blacks couldn’t afford to buy a house. That left only Galewood, the Chicago community that hangs over Oak Park’s northern border. And Galewood was a bastion of whiteness enjoyed by city workers, mostly firemen and police.
The situation was painted in plain terms by urbanologist Pierre deVise in 1973. Speaking at a tea of the Oak Park-River Forest League of Women Voters, deVise repeated what he had written several years earlier after a careful study of “the approaching wave of Negro population, now at the very borders of Oak Park.” DeVise said, “Lower income white residents are moving into Oak Park out of transitional areas to escape Negroes, and higher income residents are moving out of Oak Park to escape low-income whites. We believe that the next ten years will see a continuation of lower income, younger, larger families moving out of Austin to escape Negroes. However, Negroes themselves started moving into Oak Park in 1971.” He predicted the village would be 25 percent black by 1980.
Oak Park may not have been more enlightened about blacks than other communities, but it was slightly less opposed to dealing with them. Its first stroke of genius wasn’t an idealistic move toward creating a mixed-race utopia; it was a pragmatic resignation that social change was inevitable and that such change was better joined than fought.
The first step was the passing of a local Fair Housing Ordinance in 1968, which guaranteed blacks equal rights to purchase and rent property. The ordinance wasn’t passed easily. At an emotional community meeting that filled the Oak Park-River Forest High School gymnasium, a man stood up and shouted at a proponent of the ordinance, “If a nigger moves in next to my daughter, I’ll kill you myself.”
Enforcing fair housing at that time was no mean feat. It would require aggressive efforts against realtors who were brazen in their intent to profit from white flight. Sky Realty, the notorious Austin realtor, actually ran an ad that began, “If you want to be a former neighbor fast…”
Panic peddlers went block by block, house by house, convincing scared whites to sell cheap and then charging blacks top dollar. One Austin broker was quoted in a 1971 Tribune series: “I don’t care if the whites run all the way to Hong Kong, as long as they run….I go where the money is. I’m a money-oriented guy. It’s good business for us when they’re scared.”
Because of Oak Park’s ordinance–one of the area’s first–predatory realtors mostly steered clear of the village, preferring easier prey on Chicago’s west side, where, at the height of white flight, it was reported that one block per week was “turning” from predominantly white to predominantly black.
Not content to merely enforce its new law, Oak Park did other things to discourage panic peddling. For instance, the town banned “for sale” and “sold” signs, reasoning that the mushroomlike signs contributed to perceptions that blacks were overtaking neighborhoods. All but the main thoroughfares were closed to through traffic, limiting access from Austin Boulevard and insulating the town from the city. Citizens’ groups fought banks guilty of “redlining” parts of Oak Park–refusing to offer mortgages in areas they thought were vulnerable to white flight. And when it became clear that southeast Oak Park was going to be a hot spot for black migration, the village planted a stake in the ground, choosing a site at Madison and Lombard for its new city hall.
Various other schemes were tried and more were proposed, all in a desperate attempt to save Oak Park from going the way of Austin. But while these measures were often dramatic, they were essentially quick fixes. A long-term strategy was needed, one that would appeal to the more levelheaded members of the community, like the real estate salesman at a village seminar who responded to a claim that race doesn’t affect property values. “If that’s true, why don’t you educate people?” he asked. “You put the burden on us. People are scared to death. For the average man, his home represents the bulk of his assets. What are you doing to educate people so they can feel a little security?”
Raymond was already considering the problem. She had made race and Oak Park the subject of her master’s thesis at Roosevelt University, and she was coming to a conclusion: “At this time, in this society, a stable integrated community doesn’t ‘just happen.’ It is made with intelligence, perseverance, and the courage to openly state stable integration is the goal.”
As head of the housing section of the local Citizens Committee for Human Rights, Raymond was escorting black people into Oak Park, as many as would come. She organized tours and helped individuals, showing one and all apartments to rent and houses to buy. The committee even placed ads in the Chicago Defender, urging blacks–unsuccessfully at first–to consider moving to Oak Park. Why? “We were do-gooders,” she says.
According to at least one anonymous late-night caller, she was also a “nigger lover.” She received death threats, which she took seriously. But by this time she was consumed by a calling–the need to set people straight and to give them the courage to follow their better instincts. “There were horrible newspaper headlines, ‘Fear stalks the streets in Oak Park,'” she says. “I went to a lot of block meetings on blocks where a third of the houses in the block were for sale. It was real. You could touch it; you could inhale it. You’d go to these meetings and people would be sitting there and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, the house across the street is for sale. We haven’t seen one white person being shown this house.’ And people would say, ‘I’m staying, I’m staying. I’m not going to be afraid. I’m not going to run away.’ And then the next time you’d go to a meeting, they’d be gone.”
House by house, apartment by apartment–that’s how a community went down, Raymond reasoned, and that’s how it would have to be kept up. The main recommendation of her thesis was the creation of some type of bureau that would enforce the letter and promote the spirit of the fair-housing law. It would also publicize Oak Park as a desirable, progressive, integrated community where like-minded people should want to live.
In 1972 Raymond convinced insurance executives at CNA to fund the upstart Oak Park Housing Center. “If you’ve got a community where there are billions of dollars invested by financial institutions, and if you can show people that resegregation doesn’t have to take place–and we didn’t dream of the price of real estate being what it is today–if I were an insurance person or a banker, I would certainly find the housing center idea, at that time, in the 1970s, very appealing.”
With funding from corporations, foundations, and local donors, Raymond and her mostly volunteer staff began running ads in the New Republic, Harper’s, and other publications known for their liberal readership. If the whites leaving Oak Park were not replaced by whites, they reasoned, Oak Park would reach its tipping point and go all black. The ads were effective, attracting not just whites but the kind of whites who would embrace integration and work for it.
Raymond continued to welcome blacks into Oak Park, finding them good places to rent and buy. But now the housing center also counseled whites, trying to persuade them to move into buildings that were becoming predominantly black. With significant help from village officials, Raymond was building a coalition of integration-friendly property owners and realtors who would keep buildings maintained, property values up, and white demand high.
At this point, the story of the housing center usually deteriorates into a list of interrelated activities that eradicated problems one by one. Raymond describes the center as a guerrilla operation: “We never really sat down and said, ‘This is the program of the housing center.’ The program really developed out of needs and problems that we saw. And being a person who doesn’t give up easily…I was just unwilling to give up on this whole idea of people steering themselves away from really beautiful buildings.”
That’s how the center’s escort service got started. Originally white and black clients were given different listings. These were based on their race, of course, but the steering wasn’t obvious because both races were physically treated the same–that is, they were both handed listings and sent on their way. But in the early 1980s Raymond began getting complaints from apartment owners on Austin Boulevard who said they weren’t getting the visits they’d been promised.
Raymond wouldn’t have it. If people weren’t going to visit these buildings on their own, she and the center’s staff would personally show them what beautiful apartments they were missing. This also led Raymond to create the “New Directions” program (since renamed “Apartments West”) that has staffers driving black clients to see apartments in suburbs they wouldn’t normally consider. Raymond insists everyone was grateful for good steering; she says she was thanked many times: “If you had not suggested this, I never would have known that I could live close to my job, or that there were things that existed out there exactly what I was looking for.”
If you still have questions, Raymond will put you in touch with people like Harvard professor Gary Orfield, a leading authority on fair housing, and you’ll get testimonials about the importance of Oak Park in the history of fair housing as well as tributes to Raymond. “Bobbie is a remarkable character who made a very large contribution,” says Orfield, “and one of the most intense personalities in the national fair-housing movement for decades.”
Decades past, that is. What about now?
“I spend most of my time on art,” Raymond says, referring to her watercolors. “Gardening and art. I have no ambitions in life anymore. I just love to draw. And I draw every day. I love to paint and I love to draw. I don’t really have any big ambitions anymore.”
No longer up for the daily grind of the housing center, Raymond sometimes spends weekends in Door County with her second husband, Richard Larson, a professor of mathematics, statistics, and computer science at UIC. But Oak Park and the housing center remain primary concerns. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I’ve never done drugs in my life,” she says. “But I have my addiction: Loving a community and wanting to see it succeed, and wanting to see this whole project succeed.”
The housing center has hardly changed since Raymond retired four years ago. Current executive director Aggie Stempniak, Raymond’s handpicked successor, struggles to put the center beyond its founder’s shadow. She knows she’ll never succeed entirely. “Bobbie Raymond will always be the hero of the housing center,” says Stempniak.
Asked how the housing center has evolved since Stempniak took over, Raymond replies, “The annual report is really nice since she’s been there. And I think she’s made the housing center look a little bit better, look more visible with some signage and stuff like that.” Probably the nicest thing Raymond can say about Stempniak’s center is that it closely resembles her own, which, everyone agrees, it does–except in the crucial area of governance.
Longtime Oak Park activist Bruce Samuels recalls Raymond’s years as executive director. “The way a not-for-profit works is the board should rule the operations and policy of the executive body, the staff. But it was always the tail wagging the dog there. [Raymond] was always in charge of the board.” No more, says Stempniak, who spends her energies trying to motivate a board she has neither the power nor the desire to rule as her predecessor once did.
The housing center is currently running at a deficit; this summer it was down to just three months’ reserves. The board wants Stempniak to cut costs, and Stempniak wants the board to make it up through fund-raising. Both parties appear to be waiting for some sort of tiebreaker. That tiebreaker, most mornings, is sitting out by her goldfish pond painting watercolors.
And that’s just where many Oak Parkers would have Raymond remain. They are sick to death of hearing about her. They talk sarcastically of “Saint Bobbie of the 60s.” They’ll tell you, “Bobbie Raymond didn’t do it all, you know. There were lots of other bright people involved.”
Raymond has certainly gotten credit. When she retired from the housing center in 1996, the local Wednesday Journal put out a special 16-page section containing dozens of paid ads from local banks, businesses, and individuals thanking Raymond for her service to the community. It was a genuine and impressive outpouring. Perhaps the people who stayed involved didn’t begin to resent Raymond until after she’d retired.
What about Jim McClure, the village president in the crucial years between 1973 and 1981? What about Vernette Schultz, who created Oak Park’s public relations machine, which helped to turn around a lot of potentially negative stories? What about the smaller, unfunded groups that nagged banks and picketed realtors? What about the real estate agents who put ideals before profits, or at least long-term profits before short-term gains? And what about Sherlynn Reid?
For almost three decades, Reid served as Raymond’s counterpart in city government; she was director of community relations, and in that job played the role of full-time “harmonizer.” Being black, she lent credibility to Raymond’s programs: “I added the color that wasn’t there. I could say things that, when I said them, meant a whole different thing than when Bobbie said them.”
One of the only blacks in Oak Park government, Reid was often forced to turn the other cheek. “I had a lady call me on the phone to tell me her garbage hadn’t been picked up and the reason it hadn’t been picked up was because ‘niggers’ lived in the community. I interrupted her and put her on hold and I went out and called public works and said, ‘Get the hell over there and pick up that woman’s garbage right now.’ And I went back to the phone and she just did a tirade on niggers and so forth. And I finally got her off the phone and about a week later she came into village hall and was standing at the counter and I was in my office and I heard her say, ‘I came to see Sherlynn Reid.’ And she said what her name was because they asked her if she had an appointment. And I stepped out of the office and I spoke to her and she said, ‘Oh, I’m looking for Mrs. Reid.’ And I said, ‘I’m Mrs. Reid.’ And she stuttered and stamped. And I said to her, ‘Did I solve your problem? Did you get your garbage picked up?’ She said, ‘Yes, and that’s what I came to thank you for.’ And I said, ‘That’s all I’m interested in is giving you the service you want.’ We got to be very good friends, and she taught me a lot and I taught her a lot.”
Reid sacrificed a great deal during those years. To some she became a sort of Uncle Tom figure–Bobbie Raymond’s token black. Today, in retirement, Reid distances herself from her old “harmonizer” role, even daring to cross Raymond. When asked if she still believes in tipping points, she says, emphatically, no: “That’s Bobbie Raymond using tipping points. I don’t use tipping points. If we’re operating on the 70s mentality, then everything’s going to work on the 1970s mentality. Maybe white people operate on the 70s mentality. If they do, then we’re going to have the results that are anticipated based on the 70s mentality.”
She says Oak Park is resting on its laurels. “It’s not as diverse as it ought to be, but to some people it’s racially diverse enough. So my question is, what do you want to do, stop it? You want to put up a moat, or you want to tell people, ‘Don’t come in no more,’ or what? That’s OK, as long as you tell both black people and white people not to come in.”
She’s sick and tired of being a symbol of the “good black,” she says. “It does bother me that after 32 years some of the stereotypes about blacks from whites still exist. And they tell me, ‘But you’re different.’ Well, who else do you know? I’m the only one you know! So how do you know I’m different? Most of the people are like me that are black. And if you don’t know them, that’s your problem.”
Reid, whose daughter Dorothy is on the school board, has an angry take on what’s happened at Hatch: “If white people still won’t go to school unless they’re in the majority, then we can forget it, OK? And don’t blame black folks for that. Because sometime somebody isn’t going to be in the majority. And as long as the education that you’re getting is top quality, that’s what we should be looking for, not the color of the skin of the kids.”
Of course Reid is not alone among Oak Park blacks who object to Raymond’s tipping-point philosophy. And blacks aren’t the lone dissenters from the Oak Park party line. Some whites think the village is entirely too fixated on race.
Bruce Samuels recently refused an invitation to participate in Oak Park’s Black/White Dialogue, a four-year-old public forum that convenes on the first Wednesday of every month. Why? Because, Samuels says, the same people show up month after month to talk about the same old issues. “What the hell does it matter what the hell your skin color is?” he says. “The real question if you’re talking about these schools is, what kind of household do these kids come from? If they come from households where there’s no books in the house, or it’s only a one-parent household, or they don’t get a proper meal before they go to school and they can’t concentrate on their work, if those are the questions, we’ve got to move to those areas and try to deal with them as a society. And that’s a much more dangerous question than black-white integration. That challenges the economic system of our society. Oak Park has to go beyond the wonderful work it did in the 1970s.”
He’d prefer to see the old guard gracefully excuse themselves from the conversation, which has passed them by: “My kids are 30 and they’re not concerned with that crap anymore. They’ve moved beyond it as white people, which is great, you know? And here we have this community led by 60-year-olds like myself who are still hung up with this Black/White Dialogue.”
Ron Lawless, a 40-year-old who helped to start the Black/White Dialogue, says he’s convinced the housing center “never should have existed. They’re doing what we as African-Americans have always had to address: steering. They’ve basically told the world, ‘This is what we do, but we’re not really steering, we’re helping.’ But in essence, their integration system is based on whether or not we have enough blacks in OP.”
Another dissenter is Dr. Gerald Clay. A longtime Oak Park activist–he created a group called African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education–Clay has always spoken out against the village establishment. He says the housing center often leaves blacks smarting: “At Black/White Dialogue, we have had black folks who said they were steered or directed to the far suburbs and were offended by it. They knew where they wanted to be, they knew the difference between Westchester and OP. We have had lots of painful situations like that. These are the kind of situations that whites don’t realize that really sear black folks. It’s really painful when you are qualified economically, when you are a good citizen, all these kinds of things, and you come forward to make your application as others in society do, and you have these petty things put in your way.”
Still, Clay gives credence to the concept of tipping points. “I believe that in general whites have little problems with African-Americans as long as the numbers are small. When you get up to 20 percent–in the 70s you had less than 5 percent. Now the population is almost 30 percent. That creates concern. I believe that whites have a problem when you have more than a certain percentage. They become uneasy.”
The debate goes on–it covers the racial makeup of schools, whether the Oak Park police practice racial profiling, and the ethics of the housing center. Clay quotes a school principal: “There’s a thousand meetings going on every night in Oak Park.” But no one is leading them; no one meeting is more important than the rest. Nobody is in control.
Raymond doesn’t appear to want a place in the debate, though she says she’s happy with her legacy: “A lot of decisions I made in my life, a lot of personal decisions I’ve made in my life–was it worth those personal decisions to do the housing center?’ I would say yes. My mission in life was to be at the housing center and do what I did. That’s the way I saw it, you know? So would I do it again? Yes. If I knew in 1972 what Oak Park was going to be like today, I would be in disbelief. I’d be delirious. I wouldn’t believe it would look like it looks today. I wouldn’t believe the businesses that have opened here. I wouldn’t believe the condition of the apartment buildings. I wouldn’t believe it.
“I’m not a woulda-coulda-shoulda person. I was raised in a household with a mother and a grandmother who were kind of woulda-coulda-shouldas. And I try not to be one. Hey, what I shoulda done was buy ten apartment buildings on Austin Boulevard when they were $80,000.”
I laughed at that uncharacteristically cynical remark. Listening to the tape, it occurs to me that I’ve written the story Raymond had wanted me to write: “What’s interesting from a journalistic standpoint is the number of people who have gotten active in Oak Park in the last five years who really want to bypass the old ideas and the old people and the old solutions….”
No, what’s interesting is the 61-year-old woman who says her personality hasn’t changed since she was four or five. Oak Park needs someone like Bobbie Raymond.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell/Martha Leonard, Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest.