A 40-minute drive southwest of Evanston, a team of nine community members is carving its own path to reparations in Oak Park.

The Oak Park Reparations Task Force was one of dozens of reparations leaders that traveled to Evanston last year to study Evanston’s road map to local reparations.

The reparations movement in Oak Park looks different. That’s partly because its government and Black history is different from Evanston’s.

A Black community lived in the heart of Oak Park’s downtown district before a series of suspicious fires tied to white development efforts pushed Black residents out in the 1920s. Credit: Downtown Oak Park

Unlike Evanston’s council/manager form of government, Oak Park has a village manager form of government with five taxing bodies, which each have elected boards. The village of Oak Park is just one of those taxing bodies.

The beginnings of Black history in Oak Park have been hidden and manipulated. Many today don’t know about the small Black community that lived in what’s now the downtown for nearly 50 years before being pushed out after a suspicious fire in 1929.

Michelle Perkins, a member of the task force and a social worker, connected with Dominican University’s Black Social Work Association to foster a dialogue about reparations on March 15.

Dominican University’s March 15 panelists (left) Precious Porras, Collete Marie Davion, Michelle Perkins and Ariel Rogers. Credit: Gina Castro

A handful of people took their seats inside the gothic walls of Dominican University’s Martin Recital Hall to watch The Big Payback, the documentary about Evanston’s efforts to make reparations for Black people a reality. Another 30 people tuned in virtually for the screening.

The Black Social Work Association had been pushing faculty to bring an event tying in racial issues, policy and advocacy to campus, said Suhad Tabahi, director and associate professor for the university’s School of Social Work.

Jeanne Herry, a student with the association, moderated the panel at the screening.

“We wanted to show reparations are possible,” Herry said, as well as “how it’s impacted Evanson, and how we can do it for other parts of the community such as Oak Park and River Forest.”

The Oak Park Reparations Task Force formed in 2020, a year after Evanston passed its ordinance committing $10 million to reparations. 

Walk the Walk, an Oak Park grassroots group, put together the task force to focus on housing and anti-gentrification, said Christian Harris, its founder.

Issuing monetary reparations is just one form of justice the task force is pursuing.

five people sitting at long black table as one of them talks into a microphone
“That board was completely not interested in really anything we had to say,” said Christian Harris of Oak Park during last year’s local reparations symposium. “The only victory we had for that evening was they sent a letter in support of H.R. 40 to our congressional delegation of Oak Park, which was nice, but not what we wanted at all.” Credit: Gina Castro

The task force wants the little-known history of Oak Park’s Black residents to be publicized and included in school curriculum, and for institutions to promote racial healing by acknowledging and apologizing for the harm caused by discrimination.

Harris, a founding member of the Oak Park Reparations Task Force, and others with Walk the Walk sought an apology and acknowledgement from the village board on Feb. 22, 2021.

The task force left that online meeting with neither an apology nor public acknowledgement. New village board trustees have been elected since. One of their goals is to discuss reparations again in the next quarter, which starts April 1, said Oak Park Trustee Susan Buchanan. 

“They agreed to discuss it,” Buchanan said, but “that doesn’t mean they support [reparations].”

Buchanan, who supports the reparations movement, is the only current trustee who was present during the initial reparations discussion. Last summer, the village of Oak Park hired Danielle Walker as its chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer to create a racial equity action plan and toolkit. Walker has begun conversations with the task force.

Since the village’s stance on reparations is uncertain, the task force forged ahead without its local government. It partnered with Dominican’s College of Applied Sciences to survey 549 residents about reparations and to identify issues. The survey was completed in October 2022 and was originally intended to collect responses from only Black Oak Park residents, but non-Black residents ended up being included as well because the survey didn’t directly ask the race of respondents, said Jake Bucher, dean of the College of Applied Sciences.

Despite that interference, Bucher said the survey was still useful. The university analyzed the responses and determined the following areas for repair: relationship with the village, generational wealth, education, criminal justice and housing.

The survey results haven’t been shared yet. The task force is in the process of drafting a report analyzing the results to show additional evidence of discrimination against Black residents in the village and support for reparations. Harris estimates that the report will be completed in the coming months.

The task force will send the report to each of the village’s taxing bodies (Elementary School District 97, the Oak Park Public Library, the Oak Park Township, the Park District of Oak Park and the village of Oak Park) as well as nonprofits and religious institutions, in hopes that each entity will pursue a form of redress.

The task force is debating either remaining independent of the village of Oak Park or developing a formal arrangement with the village. One reason the task force wants to be independent is because of some issues of distrust, said Nancy Alexander, a member of the task force and a longtime educator in Evanston District 65 schools.

“We wanted to maintain our independence because what we found on our survey is that most Black Oak Parkers who responded don’t trust the process,” Alexander said. “They don’t trust the village. Our respondents don’t believe that the village will will actually do anything about it. There’s a lot of distrust.”

Black history

Harris, though born in Evanston, spent his early life in Oak Park. Despite growing up there, he felt like an outcast. 

“My whole life here I felt like an invited guest,” Harris said. “But nevertheless, a guest with no real say or ownership in Oak Park.”

The plaque commemorating Mount Carmel Baptist Church was dedicated in 2022. “This plaque commemorates the early Black residents of Oak Park who overcame great odds to build community in a town that did not always welcome them. We thank them, we honor them and this plaque will stand forever in their memory,” the plaque reads. Credit: Downtown Oak Park

Alexander, who has lived in Oak Park for 34 years, felt the same when she and her partner and children moved to the suburb in 1989.

“There were only a few places Black people could move in Oak Park,” Alexander said. “Yes, even in 1989. Austin Boulevard is just one of the places.”

Their sense of ownership in the suburb changed when they learned the history of Oak Park’s Black community.

Harris learned in school that the beginnings of Black history in the village date to 1950 when Percy Julian, an award-winning nationally recognized chemist, bought a home in the suburb.  

Oak Park’s Black history actually predates Julian’s arrival by at least 70 years. 

Before Westgate Street became a core artery in Oak Park’s downtown business district, it was the foundation of a tight-knit Black community dating back to the 1880s. 

Black business owners lived in the flats above their businesses on what was once known as William Street. Mount Carmel Baptist Church opened in 1905 on William Street to serve the growing Black Christian community. 

“At the time I read about this, I lived above my business in Oak Park, and it just all hit me – my ancestors were here in the 1880s doing what I’m doing,” Harris said. “For the first time, I felt like I’m not a guest here. My ancestors were here. They were fighting. They were building. They were owning businesses. And so I wanted Black people to feel that same ownership that I now feel that so many people don’t feel.”

Christian Harris, a founding member of the Oak Park Reparations Task Force, with his wife Richelle Harris at the plaque commemoration ceremony. Credit: Downtown Oak Park

But as the Black population inched closer to 200 in the 1920s, local Ku Klux Klan chapters were created and recruited hundreds of Oak Park members, according to the Unvarnished project. Ads in the local newspaper featuring white hoods called for “100 percent Americans” to join the KKK. Then, white business owners set their sights on redeveloping William Street. 

The hostility came to a peak on Christmas Day in 1929, when Mount Carmel Baptist Church was set ablaze. Other suspicious fires led to Black-owned spaces being destroyed and a community being pushed out. 

“‘Fire was a common tool in the early 1900s to intimidate Black people out of their homes,’” said Harris, reading from Suburban Promised Land: The Emerging Black Community in Oak Park, Illinois 1880-1990 by Stan West to the village board in 2021. “‘Notably the Chicago race riots in 1919, where 2,000 Black people lost their homes due to fire and the Tulsa riots of 1921 where an entire Black community was burned to the ground in one night all occurred around this time.’”

Perkins, another member of the task force, moved to Oak Park so her daughter could have a good school. Her daughter also learned that the village’s Black history began with Julian. Cherishing the full history and keeping it alive will help racial healing in the village, Perkins said.

“I really want the histories of the Black people that were pushed out of Oak Park put in the curriculum,” Perkins said. “I just think that it’s important to the history of Oak Park, that the truth is actually told. These people were here and had they been allowed to stay, they could be part of the very wealthy establishments or families that have been in Oak Park their entire lives.”

The task force had the opportunity to tell this history with their own words and put this history center stage in downtown. The Oak Park Area Arts Council, using the public art funding budget, placed a plaque last year commemorating the Black community that lived on Westgate Street.

Shanon Williams, executive director of Downtown Oak Park, was shocked to learn a Black community once lived on Westgate long before the high-rises and shops were built.

“I didn’t realize that some of these stories were hidden and not being taught and not being talked about,” Williams said. “I really want, as much as I can, to make sure the public is aware of the history of the Black population that was here.”

Fighting for Black churches

When Alexander, moved to Oak Park with her partner and kids in 1989, Oak Park was grappling with allegations of racism. 

The Oak Park Village Board interfered with a Black Chicago West Side congregation’s bid for a church in Oak Park. 

Nancy Alexander (right) is a longtime Evanston educator and a member of the Oak Park Reparations Task Force. “We need collective justice for this church and other wrongs against the dignity and the economic power of Black Oak Park. It is time to acknowledge these hurts and to repair the harm that has cost Black Oak Park economically,” Alexander said during the commemoration ceremony, according to Downtown Oak Park. Credit: Downtown Oak Park

Unity Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church placed a bid on the First Church of Christ Scientist, located at 165 N. Marion Street, two days before Christmas in 1987. The Oak Park church had been up for sale for over a year with no bites. The board had a closed session with another interested buyer, Oak Park Development Corp., and agreed in a 5-1 vote to support the corporation. 

Village Trustee Thomas Edwalds, who voted against the endorsement, told the Chicago Tribune at the time there were racist comments made by other trustees regarding whether having a Black church there would “scare away” white shoppers in Oak Park.

The First Church of Christ Scientist ended up selling the space to real estate investor Chatka Ruggiero, who placed a lower all-cash bid. Ruggiero used the space for arts and entertainment. She sold it to the Free Church in 2020. Ruggiero told the Wednesday Journal that year she “wanted to save that building.”

“Yes, I was trying to save (preserve) the church in its original state since the church bidding to acquire it was rumored not able to afford it and going to sell many of the contents,” Ruggiero told the RoundTable via email March 28. “And there was talk of converting it into condos. Also, other offers were contingent upon possible financing – mine was cash.”

Acquiring Black spaces in Oak Park wasn’t easy in 1980s and it still isn’t easy now, Alexander said.

“People compare Oak Park and Evanston all the time, but having lived and worked in both, I can tell you that it’s a very different circumstance up in Evanston,” Alexander explained. “Evanston has a history of Black folk moving there continuously since its founding and a substantial population living there since its founding. Oak Park has not. Oak Park still struggles to establish African American churches here.”

One church in Oak Park is taking steps to try to atone.

Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church, which Harris describes as a predominantly white church, began its own reparations fund in 2018. 

The church’s reparations committee, which started in 2017, proposed introducing the fund as part of its 120th anniversary in Oak Park in 2018. The church raised nearly $40,000 from that event, said the Rev. Marti Scott, lead pastor.

“That was a service that became an act of repentance,” Scott said.

The church commits a portion of its annual budget toward reparations. Its fund gave $1,000 stipends to the Oak Park Reparations Task Force’s nine members so that the members could afford to work on reparations. The church also paid for advertising of the reparations survey. 

Oak Park shows that the route to local reparations isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. It’s as unique as the community itself.

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Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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  1. I have been discriminated against ever since I lived in Oak Park This is the most racist community I have video of my court case when they tried to jump me.

  2. The two little girls in the photo in front of the church are my Grandmother Ethel Shannon (Hurst) and her sister Grace Shannon (Hampton).

  3. Ms. Ruggiero’s comments that Unity Church was going to sell some of the contents of the First Church of Christ is very polite and politically correct. In fact, Unity Church planned to sell all the stained glass windows and all the wooden pews to help pay for the purchase of the church, in effect gutting the interior and exterior of the building. Oak Park has three historic districts – The Ridgeland/Oak Park Historic District, Frank Lloyd Wright-Prairie School of Architecture Historic District and Gunderson Historic District. These areas, comprising approximately a third of the Village, are locally designated and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Oak Park also has 11 buildings and one park listed on the National Register, in addition to more than 70 locally designated historic landmarks. ANY buyer who wanted to physically destroy this building would have been rejected by the Village as being in direct opposition to one of the core values of Oak Park.

  4. Thank you for providing this information. I did not learn of the Black store owners on Westgate until recently and certainly was not aware of the activity surrounding keeping Black Churches out of Oak Park nor of a Reparations Taskforce. History is truly important.