Maywood’s Past On Display At Oak Park Museum’s Fair Housing Exhibit

Saturday, October 6, 2018 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Featured image: The Oak Park River Forest Museum’s newest exhibit, “Open House: The Legacy of Fair Housing,” runs through June 2019. | VFP 

In 1937, the famous black chemist Percy Julian, then living in Maywood, wrote a letter to the editor of the Oak Park Oak Leaves newspaper in order to chime in on a controversy involving an African American star football player at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

The player, Lewis Pope, had been denied by high school authorities the privilege of playing another high school football team in Miami. The other team decided that it would not take the field against OPRF if Pope was on it, a demand to which Oak Park conceded.

The Oak Park high school officials, Julian wrote, “despite their attempts at rationalization — have officially paid tribute to the teaching of hate in our schools.”

In his letter, Julian shared his own humiliating racial experience in Oak Park. After having accepted a position on Chicago’s West Side, near Oak Park’s border, Julian “looked about me for a place to live near my work — a temporary abode, which would give me opportunity to look around for a little home where we might rear our children.”

Julian eventually wrote the Oak Park Y.M.C.A., asking if the organization would “kindly give me a room for a short time?” The Christian organization’s answer, Julian recalled, was no.

“We regret that we cannot accommodate you nor can we find you a place,” the chemist wrote, summarizing the organization’s response to his request.

Visitors to the Oak Park River Forest Museum, 129 Lake Street in Oak Park, can take a copy of Julian’s letter when they cycle through the museum’s newest exhibit, “Open House: The Legacy of Fair Housing,” which runs through June 2019.

The exhibit illustrates Oak Park’s century-long struggle to integrate, most importantly by challenging barriers to homeownership in the village for African Americans like Julian.

The visitor from Maywood may notice a pattern. Throughout the exhibition, you’ll see stories of middle-class black professionals seeking to move into Oak Park from Maywood.

Julian and his family are the most notable example. They moved from Maywood in 1950 — likely the first family to purchase one of the mansions in Oak Park’s prestigious estate section. Their home was firebombed twice — the first time before they even moved in.

Many white Oak Park residents rushed to the Julians’ defense, some even keeping guard outside of the black family’s home.

That white racist-white progressive divide in Oak Park is also on display in a 1964 letter from Oak Park’s then-village manager, Harris Stevens, to members of the village’s community relations commission.


Featured image: The Oak Park River Forest Museum’s newest exhibit, “Open House: The Legacy of Fair Housing,” runs through June 2019. | VFP 

The focus of the letter is an interracial couple, Mr. and Mrs. Lee King (“The man is negro and the woman,” who goes by the name of Dr. Vero Markovia, “is white”). The Kings lived at 815 South 19th Street in Maywood before purchasing a home in Oak Park.

Stevens writes the members requesting that they mobilize, which includes contacting the police chief and sympathetic neighbors in order to protect the couple from the kind of reactionaries who would firebomb Julian’s home.

The exhibit also includes a photo of Ted Wheeler, an Olympic athlete who moved his family from Maywood to Oak Park in 1965, “seeking better schools for his children.” Wheeler “publicly expressed his criticism of initial discrimination faced by his son in Oak Park schools, which later dissipated.”

In another section, a photo of the renowned sculptress, Geraldine McCullough — another former Maywoodian — is featured beside one of her small sculptures.

Frank Lipo, the executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, which runs the museum, said that the outmigration from Maywood to Oak Park is actually predated by a reverse flow of people that happened around the time of the Great Depression.

“This fluidity between Oak Park and Maywood” has a long history, Lipo said.


The exhibit is laced with references to Maywood residents who have moved to Oak Park, only to struggle against racism. Those struggles helped integrate the village. | VFP 

From 1905 to 1930, Oak Park’s small black community was concentrated near the intersection of Harlem and Lake, the main hub of the village’s downtown. During that period, the black community in Oak Park formed around the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church.

“When the Depression hit, [the village] bought out the church to tear it down and to put more business properties there,” Lipo said. “I talked to several people who live in Maywood now, who say their grandfather and great-uncle came from that Mt. Carmel community to Maywood.”

“There was already a vibrant middle-class black community living in Maywood,” said Sarah Doherty, a North Park University professor who co-curated the exhibit along with Lipo.

And Julian might be considered the embodiment of the fluidity between the two black communities in Oak Park and Maywood.

“He had just moved to Maywood right before writing that letter to the editor,” Lipo said. “He was writing because he cares. He was already a renowned scientist and it’s so great that he references trying to get a room at the Oak Park YMCA and he couldn’t because he was black.

“He talks about traveling in Europe even as the Nazis were coming to power. He’s saying, without bragging, that ‘I’m accomplished, I’ve traveled, but it took a black family in Oak Park to take me in.’ I think he’s calling out that strand of hypocrisy we sometimes have in Oak Park. He has to call out his future friends and neighbors.” VFP 

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