When I walked into a history museum in a small Illinois town, I was startled to see a mannequin dressed in the peaked hood finery of an Imperial Wizard. The curator told me that the historical society’s mission was to preserve and present the history of the town good or bad.
Though I’ve never met a real-life Klansmen, I’ll never forget the racial tension and prejudice I saw as a kid. Growing up in Oak Park in the 1960’s, we didn’t see many black faces. My neighbors, however, felt a looming threat as block-by-block re-segregation changed the West Side from white to black. It seemed inevitable that Oak Park would be next.
Oak Park’s leaders resorted to racial steering and other quasi-constitutional practices to prevent re-segregation. It worked. Oak Park became a national model for achieving racial balance and harmony.
As much as Oak Park was praised for its progressiveness, some ugly racial incidents greeted the first black homeowners to venture west of Austin. The most prominent victim was renowned chemist Percy Julian, who created synthetic human hormones, fire retardant foam and steroids from plants like the soy bean. A bomb exploded outside his house and there were arson attempts.
Unlike Oak Park, Forest Park did not attempt to control integration. It seemed to occur naturally. When we moved here in 1980, I thought we had landed in a racial paradise. Blacks and whites, Latinos and Asians associated freely at school events and community gatherings. Skin color lost its stigma and I’ll be forever grateful our kids grew up in a color-blind community.
However, like Oak Park and towns across America, Forest Park had its share of regrettable racial incidents. The question is: should these unfortunate episodes be revisited? Is there any value in exposing an old injustice, or are we needlessly re-opening a long-healed wound?
In a file at the Historical Society, I came across some old hurts that had been inflicted on Forest Parkers. One incident especially intrigued me and I have spent more than two years researching it. It involved a black family who bought a house in Forest Park and were welcomed to the neighborhood with bricks, graffiti and arson.
I have read and heard the comments of many villagers who lived through that time. Many expressed embarrassment that such shocking behavior happened in our town. Others felt that discussing the incident was like picking at a scab. Some thought the family was placed here by Operation Push, or worse, they were blockbusters. Finally, some expressed the sentiment that history was important and that we could learn from talking about the bad old days.
Forest Park has never been home to peaked hoods but we can look back and see we’ve come a long way from the days a young family was tormented for their skin color.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.