The parishioners of Oak Park’s Mt. Carmel Colored Baptist Church seen in a photo from 1905. Many of Oak Park’s early Black residents moved to Maywood after after the church was sold and razed to make way for white business development. Below, Christian Harris, an Oak Park native, said work should be done to track those parishioners’ descendants. | Provided
Wednesday, June 15, 2022 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Most of Oak Park’s early Black villagers lived in a small neighborhood adjacent to the village’s Marion Street business district. Those early Black residents worked in a range of what were called “colored jobs,” as railroad porters, cooks, laundresses and coachmen, among others.
In 1904, a group of Black Baptists who would meet in an Oak Park school for prayer meetings decided to purchase a lot to build their own church on Chicago Avenue. It was a long struggle to build, but they finally dedicated the cornerstone of the church at 1138 Westgate, which was called Mt. Carmel Colored Baptist Church, in 1905.
“In the late 1920’s boom period, as Oak Park’s downtown business district was being established, Mt. Carmel and the adjacent ‘colored neighborhood’ were clearly in the path of economic development,” local historian and former Maywoodian Doug Deuchler wrote in a 2005 Wednesday Journal article.
“After several mysterious fires, the church was sold and razed. The clapboard cottages and rooming houses were bulldozed,” he wrote. “Many of the church members moved over to Maywood; some settled in the city.”
This history has been on the mind of Christian Harris lately. Harris is part of a group of Oak Park stakeholders who are trying to figure out what it will take for the village to pass a reparations program.
“We need funding in order to track down those early Black residents — most of the Mt. Carmel parishioners ended up in Maywood and some of their descendants are still there,” Harris said in a recent interview.
Last month, an organization Harris founded called the Oak Park Reparations Task Force partnered with Dominican University in River Forest to facilitate a series of forums designed to get a sense of what Black residents of the village think about a municipal reparations program. The forums will help shape a survey that will go out to the village’s Black residents soon.
“The end goal is to present the village and other taxing bodies with a full report,” said Jacob Bucher, the dean of the College of Applied Social Sciences at Dominican, who helped facilitate the forums. He will work on administering the survey and will help draft the report.
Harris, 31, who was born in Evanston but grew up in Oak Park, leads the Task Force, which has nine members whose ages range from 19 to 75, he said. Harris said the Task Force evolved out of the grassroots group Walk the Walk, which he co-founded with Danielle Morales and Chris Thomas in 2020.
The group’s mission is “to break down systemic barriers to equity through community bridging, demonstrative activism and grassroots initiatives,” according to its Facebook page. “Our efforts are inspired by the idea of creating a world that is free of barriers to equity or equality.”
On Feb. 22, 2021, Walk the Walk proposed a reparations resolution to the village board that would have created a low-interest real estate purchasing program for Black Oak Parkers, provided free financial literacy and homeownership classes for Black residents and created a Reparations Task Force that would have proposed even more recommendations, according to village minutes of the meeting.
The proposal called for the creation of a reparations fund paid for with 100 percent of the cannabis sales taxes, “up to $10 million annually,” and 40 percent of the village’s Affordable Housing Fund. In addition to the reparations proposal, Walk the Walk also recommended the village board issue a formal apology for the local government’s treatment of Blacks in Oak Park.
“Oak Park government benefited from the sales and property tax revenue generated after the Black community was pushed out of their homes for the creation of a commercial district,” according to the Feb. 22, 2021 meeting minutes, which paraphrased the comments of Morales.
“Harlem and Lake is prime real estate today,” according to the minutes. “It is the Oak Park government’s responsibility to acknowledge this and repair the damage that was done. White Oak Parkers were allowed to build their wealth, Black Oak Parkers were not.”
Those were all aspects similar to Evanston’s Local Reparations Housing Program. Launched in 2020, the program allows each recipient a $25,000 reparations payment that could be used on home repairs, a home purchase or mortgage assistance, according to the city’s website.
The Oak Park village board discussion last year, however, has not yet translated into any formal action by the village government on the reparations proposal or the apology.
“[After the board presentation in 2021] there was an election right around the corner, so we said, ‘Let’s hold off and see who is elected,” Harris recalled during an interview last week. “Unfortunately, two of the three Black candidates lost. Particularly, the two candidates who can trace their lineage to the time period of a lot of the atrocities we are trying to get repaired both lost their races.”
Instead of waiting for additional village action, Harris said, Walk the Walk decided to take matters into its own hands, forming the Task Force last summer.
The nine members of the Task Force, all Black residents and/or natives of Oak Park, were paid $1,000 for their participation, thanks to $15,000 from Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church’s Reparations Working Group, which provides seed funding to a variety of initiatives and causes led by Blacks in Oak Park.
“It was big for me not to ask Black people to do this work for free,” said Harris, an entrepreneur and former Oak Park library board member who ran unsuccessfully for the village board in 2019. “I know we can’t pay them what they should get paid, but we wanted to give them something. The $1,000 stipend is for what would be a year of their time.”
The remaining $6,000 would go toward administering the survey, but Dominican University insisted on contributing its technical expertise at no cost. That balance may instead go toward marketing the survey, among other costs, Harris said.
“I think we have a responsibility to contribute our resources to the community,” Bucher said. “We are objective research partners in this. We’re not going in with an agenda or bias about what needs to happen. Our role is to collect data, so we can accurately reflect what the residents are voicing, but with that said, we hope the village will seek some changes.”
As they enter into this data collection phase, the Task Force and Dominican have a clearer sense of both the promise and perils of a local reparations program. For one, they have Evanston as both a model and an object lesson.
Since Evanston passed its local reparations program in 2021, criticisms have been raised about the amount of local input among Black residents and about whether the program is a sufficient enough response, given the scale of the past harm the city inflicted on its Black residents. There have also been a host of logistical quagmires, one of which WBEZ reported on in March.
Evanston’s reparations fund prioritizes Evanston residents considered “ancestors,” or anyone who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969. As of Jan. 13, the city had only approved 122 applicants qualifying as “ancestors.”
That leaves Black people like Northa Johnson, who grew up in Evanston in the 1950s, but had to leave the city after her father was denied a mortgage despite having a “good job, great credit [and] the G.I. Bill behind him.”
So instead of moving to a more spacious home in Evanston, the family bought a home in Gary.
“I think about what they deprived us of,” Johnson told WBEZ. “I had grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins [in Evanston]. And when we moved to Gary, they kept us from going around the corner to visit family.”
Johnson, who currently lives in Chicago, doesn’t qualify for Evanston’s reparations fund, despite being directly affected by racist housing practices.
More recently, Evanston community members have pushed the city to increase the reparations fund by $2.6 million and to identify additional funding sources beyond the tax on cannabis, such as the city’s general fund. The city’s attorney has argued that using general funds for reparations might violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, according to a June 3 article by the Evanston Roundtable.
Harris said he’s aware of the complications and complexities of Evanston’s program. Last week, he said the Task Force has been holding ongoing meetings to discuss those issues. He said they’re poised to discuss the lineage question, in particular, this week.
Although the survey is only open to Black Oak Park residents, there will be future conversations about strategies to addresses the Mt. Carmel parishioners who moved into Maywood.
“When we started the Task Force, we had more context with Evanston and some of the missteps they made,” Harris said.
The focus groups were an attempt to shore up community input before distributing the survey, he said, adding that 11 people registered to participate in the three scheduled focus groups, but only three people showed up.
“Overall, it was a pretty disappointing turnout, but the conversation we had with those two residents who showed up ended up being two hours long and they just really let it all out — to the point that Dominican said they have more than enough information on how residents are feeling based on that conversation,” Harris said.
Harris said the opinions on reparations from Black people he’s encountered both within and outside of Oak Park fall along a spectrum. There are those who fully support the idea of reparations and want it to become a reality, those who think it’s “a noble cause,” but who think governments should prioritize more immediate problems like gun violence and poverty, and those who believe that, even if a reparations program materializes, it “won’t do any good.”
Bucher said one sentiment, in particular, that lingered in the focus group discussions was “hope,” but mixed with “earned skepticism or reservation that Oak Park’s village government will do anything” with whatever recommendations come out of the process.
“The folks were really appreciative of the Task Force leading this effort and pushing the conversation, but there was a lot of, ‘Well, we’ve seen and heard stuff before and never seen any action,’” Bucher said.
Indeed, before Evanston, many of the municipal measures related to reparations had been formal apologies for past injustice and symbolic support for federal measures, namely HR 40 — a bill that would establish a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for Black Americans.
“On a national level, reparations is very black and white, but on a local level, it is a bit more muddied,” Harris said.
To learn more about the Oak Park Reparations Task Force, email [email protected].