Oak Park, IL is located 7 miles West of downtown Chicago so it is easy to get to by car, or the robust Chicago Transportation Authority (CTA) system via train or bus. Visitors will find a charming neighborhood with 21% African Americans as of the 2010 US census.
Oak Park Home to Famous Chemist, Percy L. Julian
Oak Park makes great efforts to tout itself as the city whose Community Relations Department "enforces the Village’s Human Rights Ordinance and Fair Housing Policy", and, "encourages multicultural training," according to its website. The Village, however, also holds an unfortunate dubious historical distinction of being the town where at least two hate crimes were perpetrated against one of the world's most famous African-American chemists, Dr. Percy Lavon Julian. The Julian residence, in the 500 block of East Avenue was firebombed and attacked by dynamite in 1950 on at least two occasions; the first occurred on Thanksgiving Eve as recalled by his wife years later. While these heinous crimes galvanized the community, to date, no one was ever arrested for the crime nor has there been a public apology made by the Village. Though Julian's April 11 birthdate has been celebrated as Percy Julian Day by the Village since 1976, and a school was named after him, nothing can shake the long term pain and trauma suffered emotionally upon reflection of these crimes.
The renaming of Nathaniel Hawthorn school to Percy Julian Middle School at 416 S. Ridgeland Avenue occurred in 1985. The PBS Nova special, "Forgotten Genius" based on Julian's spectacular career was released and featured for viewing at the school in 2007. It was a tremendous affair that the author of this blogpost witnessed thanks to the invitation of Percy Julian's daughter, Faith Julian. The entire town was a buzz that day and the school had colorful strobe light fanfare to mark the occasion.
Though the Julian home still stands, it has not been designated as an official historical landmark. The least Oak Park could do to reward this brilliant scientist for the sacrifices the family endured while in the Village and the contributions made to the world is to assist in the confirmation of this designation and assist his offspring with any hardship they may have faced. You will notice no mention of the fabulous home in any of the Oak Park tourism website pages except for the Oak Park River Forest Museum's Hometown Hero's webpage. With a legend like Dr. Percy L. Julian, a national hero, it seems an easy symbolic gesture the Village could make to offer the same status afforded Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright who held racist views the Village claims not to share.
Personalized Books for kids - Afriware Books' affiliate link
Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School marked the second school to change its name in September 2002. It is located at 325 S. Kenilworth and was formerly known as the Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School. Of the city's 10 Best Public Schools 8 of 10 are named after African Americans. Gwendolyn Brooks was poet laureate of Illinois in 1968-2000. There's more about her life in a previous blog written called, "8 Black Women in History - Chicago Edition."
Black Businesses in Oak Park
Black owned businesses in Oak Park include, "Addis Cafe" on 818 South Oak Park Avenue, Live! Cafe and Creative Space on 163 South Oak Park Ave, GRND Coffee House on 140 Harrison, and Glamour Spa and Celebrations at 6717 West North Avenue to name a few.
Recently Takara moved out of Oak Park. Her clothing business was in Oak Park for 15 years. She now has a showroom available by appointment only. She was recently featured in a Chicago Magazine article. She was located on Marion street previously.
Historical Black Businesses in Oak Park
Afriware Books, Co was located in Oak Park from 1993 - 2012. As owner, and author of this blog post I can say that for the most part we felt welcome and were very well received particularly when located at 948 Lake Street. We had three separate locations in Oak Park. They were:
1. 948 Lake Street
2. 266 Lake Street
3. 440 South Ridgeland Avenue
We had many events that packed the house with top rated authors like Dr. Frances Cres Welsing, Anthony T. Browder, and Walter Mosley. We even survived one of the Village's infamous Lake street construction closures which lasted for almost 1 year and required customers to enter the store through the back door. We didn't experience any direct racist-oriented attacks, but there were a few questionable incidents that were never reported. We did experience a broken front store window early on and one paint-ball incident after we moved closer to Ridgeland that we never reported. In the above picture, the only evidence of the broken window was the missing colorful trim that we never replaced after the incident. Shortly afterward, we moved down the street to 266 West Lake Street. Honestly, it never crossed our minds that the attacks could have been racially motivated. When I later learned of Oak Park's history of race relations, it was a possibility that shouldn't have been blindly dismissed without question.
There was a time while in Oak Park that Crown Books and Kroch's and Brentano's would refer their Black customers to Afriware to fulfill special orders. I recall many customers used to complain about the poor selection of African American titles in the other stores. They also said that the titles were all kept in the basement and they felt that was demeaning in itself. We, of course, were happy to receive all referrals and fulfilled what we could. The Oak Park Library on Lake Street reached out to us on several occasions to co-host author signings which we greatly appreciated.
There was one collaboration we turned down due to the historically racist ideas of the author's writings against the Black community. Oak Park was also home to Edgar Rice Burroughs at 414 North August, author of the Tarzan series which depicted Black people as animals and in need of a white savior to save them from evil. His home is listed as a historic landmark. It's reported that he bought the home after the success of the Tarzan series. If Edgar Rice Burroughs' home can get landmark status, certainly Percy L. Julian should. Afriware turned down an invitation to bring our wares to a celebration of his birth. We are actually proud of this decision and considered it one small step in maintaining our dignity as a people. I recently spoke more about this incident in a podcast here.
Afriware Books, Co is now located in Maywood, Illinois and we welcome Oak Parkers and all neighborhoods to come and visit. Perhaps Afriware Books was the longest surviving Black owned business in Oak Park. I invite others to check into this. It is a tough research study to do.
I was inspired to learn of the first Black tourism related Oak Park business proposed by long-time Oak Parker, Frank Cannon in 1987. The business was named "Oak Park Horse & Carriage Service." This novel idea kickstarted after work night life with style and class. Cannon had 2 carriage stands that would hold up to 9 people as part of a pilot program prior to receiving a business license. The drivers wore tuxedos and top hats. The two pickup locations were: 1. on Oak Park and Lake Street, 2. Marion and South Boulevard where Poor Phils is located now. Cannon used Clydesdales which are a special breed of draft horses. In an interview with Cannon in March, 2021, he said that he chose top of the line horses because he wanted to distinguish the company from the 'plugs' that were used in downtown Chicago. He also wanted to make sure the horses would be strong enough to pull a large carriage. Unfortunately, a few of the Frank Lloyd Wright residents were opposed to the business for reasons that seemed beyond logical. Veterinarians and Oak Parkers testified on Cannon's behalf but it wasn't enough to push it through. In examining the news coverage, there were some racist undertones to it. It was rumored that Cannon would have had better luck if his idea had come from a white person.
In conclusion, Oak Park is an interesting community that still has a way to go in developing and supporting Black tourism and Black businesses. There's great potential due to its close proximity to the city and its celebrity resident Percy L. Julian in particular. Oak Park is poised to be on the right side of history if adding historic landmark status to Percy Julian's home since it doesn't seem to have any problem doing so for those with extremely racist views like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frank Lloyd Wright.