This past July, I flew to Chicago to attend Justice Day 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the North Shore Summer Project, a 1965 fair housing effort to challenge the practices that perpetuated housing segregation, practices that had been taken for granted for so many years. It led me to look back even further in time.
In the mid-1940s, at the Charles C. Lea elementary school in the Philadelphia neighborhood now known as University City, there were a few “colored” children (“African-American” wouldn’t come into use for some forty years), and I never wondered why none of them lived on my street. A few years later at the Philadelphia High School for Girls I became friendly with a few “Negro” girls, but none of them lived in my neighborhood, and aside from a couple of evenings when my mother invited some of them to dinner at our apartment, I didn’t see any of them outside of school. At Penn in the 1950s I can’t remember any students of color. No wonder: our 1955 yearbook shows only one black woman in our entire graduating class. It’s a snapshot of the times.
I never considered myself prejudiced, but I’m mortified to admit I was blind to the barriers that separated people by skin color. It wasn’t until the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s that my consciousness was raised. I was horrified by the violence down South. But as a Manhattan mother of three children under six, I didn't feel I could go to Mississippi to fight for justice. When I heard about the New York-based National Committee against Discrimination in Housing, I realized that I could work for change in my own backyard. I joined the staff of the NCDH.
New York City had a fair housing law – but if people didn't apply for housing, the law meant nothing. I wrote "Neighborhood Profiles," describing areas of the five boroughs where few minorities lived – and which many nonwhite home seekers knew little or nothing about. We distributed these profiles and followed up with home-seeking families. Whenever minority applicant were refused, my anger helped me get through the process of lying to make my profile sound like theirs and to overcome my nervousness about testifying in court. I became more and more incensed that people should be treated this way.
Late in 1964, my family moved from Manhattan to Glencoe, a northern lakeside suburb of Chicago, and I met Philadelphian Bill Moyer, who was working with the American Friends Service Committee. Bill, a mild-mannered social worker, was a genius at organizing. “There’s just as much racism in Chicago as there is in Mississippi,” he told me. “But white people – even liberals – don’t realize it. We want to make them see it.” His idea was to launch an Open Housing movement in the thirteen almost-all-white suburbs along the shores of Lake Michigan by emulating the Freedom Marches in the south. He named this1965 effort the North Shore Summer Project, after the Mississippi Summer Project.
“Down South,” Bill told me in his soft-spoken way, “the movement is focused on voting rights. But these North Shore suburbs don't have to deny black people the right to vote – they just deny them the right to live here. Only two of these suburbs – Evanston and Glencoe – have real black populations. They also have real ghettoes to keep them in.”
The Quakers, Bill explained, wanted to expand white people’s knowledge of racism: “Black people don't have to learn about prejudice: they’re living it.” Bill’s sense of mission was contagious, and I enthusiastically agreed to serve as volunteer public relations director.
It was a heady time. I was working with representatives from the worlds of religion, civic involvement, and social activism. Because these suburbs were almost totally white, we had black committee members from only two towns, the Reverend Emory Davis from Evanston and Gerry Washington, a Glencoe mother whose daughters went to school with and played with mine. We met with realtors, conducted vigils outside their offices, and distributed literature about their discriminatory practices. We marched and we sang. We recruited college students to interview North Shore residents, who declared overwhelmingly that they would welcome nonwhite neighbors, despite the realtors’ contention that they were following homeowners’ wishes by refusing to show houses to nonwhite home-seekers. Our major coup was bringing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Winnetka, the whitest of these suburbs, to speak to a crowd of 10,000 on the Village Green.
I issued weekly news releases, was quoted in the local press – and received hate mail. Instead of intimidating me, it let me know that our efforts were being noticed and inspired me to become even more committed. (Of course hate mail in Glencoe was not as scary as hate mail in Biloxi.) Our final event was the August 29 six-mile march from our NSSP Freedom Center in Winnetka to the Evanston-North Shore Board of Realtors, where we presented a summary of the project’s findings at a rally, followed by an all-night vigil. Then the NSSP, which from its conception had been time-limited, disbanded. Our students went back to school, our AFSC sponsorship ended, and most of the volunteers moved on to other forms of activism.
Soon afterwards my family moved away from Glencoe, and I lost touch with my fellow volunteers. Last spring I reconnected with Carol Kleiman, another former Philadelphian. Carol told me that when she had told Dr. King she wanted to move from Glenview to an integrated area, he told her, “No, stay where you are. Lance the boil.” The “boil” was segregation, and a few results of that “lancing” can be seen in activities we set in motion.
Although the NSSP failed with Harriette and McLouis Robinet (a physicist then teaching at the University of Illinois), who were not able to buy a house on the North Shore and suffered humiliation while looking, they were energized to continue their search and did buy in the previously all white western suburb of Oak Park, where the family still lives. Harriette wrote about her family’s experience for Redbook, launching an award-winning career writing multicultural historical fiction for children.
David and Mary James’s North Shore story is more successful. The first African American to buy in Winnetka, David, a lawyer and former Tuskegee airman, founded a program for suburban and inner-city children, now a day camp for 7- to 12-year-olds. It was – and still is – infuriating to learn how hard it was for so many good people to do a simple thing like housing their families.
Fortified by the 1968 national Fair Housing Act and moving beyond educating the white community, Winnetka’s Open Communities now works to influence housing policy and enforce the law. At the anniversary celebration it sponsored, the crowd of about 1,000 – many of whom had not been born in 1965 – gathered on the Village Green where Dr. King had addressed the largest crowd ever to assemble there and pledged to continue the work. The bronze marker memorializing him, installed with money raised by Winnetka schoolchildren, gleamed in the sunlight, heralding a brighter future.
But the wheels of justice still grind exceedingly slow. Even though in 1968 the national Fair Housing Act became law, many brokers have simply gone underground. The North Shore suburbs are still almost entirely white. It’s disappointing, half a century later, that there’s still a need for a follow-up to the push to open closed borders. I briefly wondered whether our efforts had had any impact at all. But then I reminded myself that change had occurred. That even when an ideal is not fully realized, our efforts were not in vain. Although the numbers of nonwhite residents in these suburbs are still small, they’re larger than they had been.
The biggest change was in us mostly white volunteers, who learned from our educators, the black volunteers and home-seekers. Working in the context of the society of fifty years ago, we morphed from white liberals to white activists as we realized that a new world will be formed in new ways. Many of us went on to work for change in many facets of society, including but not limited to racial equality. So yes, we can wear the sobriquet of “do-gooder” proudly. We did do some good – largely for ourselves, but also for thirteen communities. We will never go back to who we were before – just as the North Shore is no longer what it was. I remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”