By Gary Kopycinski
There’s an air of Park Forest Pride when one drives past the Park Forest Police Department’s LED sign on Lakewood near Forest Blvd. lit with a message that leaves no doubt: “BLACK LIVES MATTER to us at PFPD.”
It’s simple and yet in today’s world complex, a necessary statement from the police force in a town that was perhaps the first in the United States to embrace and welcome African Americans who moved to town.
“Black Lives Matter” is a statement that needs no defense. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “Black Lives Matter: It’s a matter of fact. [President Trump] should be leading this, not criticizing it.”
Our police made us proud by marching with protesters, as Chief Christopher Mannino and Sergeant John DeCeault did at the George Floyd Chicago Heights march in June.
“We’re here as participants,” Chief Mannino told eNews Park Forest that day.
When protesters took to the streets of Park Forest June 12, our police assured the safety of the marchers, squad vehicles accompanying the approximate 200 participants at the lead and back. There was no tension. Our police were there to support Black Lives Matter because they get it, it’s that simple: BLACK LIVES MATTER.
We are not perfect. I know there are still incidents where officers in Park Forest require periodic discipline. I was “in the room” as a trustee over a dozen years when the Village Manager informed us of such incidents. We were “informed.” We didn’t make hiring or disciplinary decisions, nor should we have, nor should any Village Board in Park Forest.
But these instances were few and far between, and they were handled with the utmost professionalism.
This is a police department of which we can be damn proud. There is no doubt all Park Foresters matter to these officers, women, and men.
Thanks to our Police and Fire Commission and the recruiting efforts initiated through the years, there are more people of color serving in our police department.
A History of Diversity in Park Forest
A generation-and-a-half ago, Park Foresters decided to be different, and that has made all the difference for those of us living here today, as well as the rest of the South Suburbs. The story of Park Forest’s early commitment to diversity is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
After he marched in Chicago, after crowds of angry whites threw stones at him as he led a march in the Gage Park section of Chicago’s southwest side, Martin Luther King, Jr. told journalists he had never encountered such hostility, not even in the deep South.
In the mid- to late-50s, Park Foresters decided they did not want to be Chicago. They wanted to be different, and they began to actively recruit people of color to move into town.
The village was integrated, peacefully, in December 1959. This happened at a time when other suburbs across the country, including the Levvittowns, were experiencing serious acts of discrimination against their first African American residents. The Social Action Committee of the Unitarian Church helped bring the first African American, Dr. Charles Z. Wilson, and his family to Park Forest. The Human Relations Commission joined the SAC in going into the neighborhoods to ease the way of each African American family for many years after that. Later, Park Forest instituted a program of Integration Maintenance to avoid block-busting and white flight, successfully maintaining a well-balanced, integrated village.
Park Forest has been studied for integration, sociology, city planning and the history of suburbia in the mid-20th century. William H. Whyte’s book, The Organization Man, published in 1956, was researched here. Gregory Randall published, America’s Original GI Town in 2000. Both books are used as textbooks around the world. Jerry Shnay wrote Park Forest Dreams and Challenges for Arcadia Publishing. It sells around the world, and you can buy it in the museum.
It wasn’t all a bed of roses, of course. In his 1967 article Negro in the Suburbs, senior editor of Look magazine Jack Star notes that some newcomers to Park Forest were greeted in less-than-friendly ways, but those instances seem to have been rare.
Dr. Wilson’s three-year stay in Park Forest was “uneventful,” Star writes. Dr. Wilson moved out to take a teaching job elsewhere.
‘Being a Negro in the middle of white people is like being alone in the middle of a crowd,’ says Mrs. Jacqueline Robbins, a young Negro housewife who lives in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest, Ill. In December, 1962, Mrs. Robbins, her chemist husband Terry, 32, and their two sons moved into the then all-white suburb, whose first, and only Negro family had just recently moved out…The Robbins are not alone. Although Negroes are still a rarity in the green reaches of suburbia, they are emerging from nearly all the large metropolitan ghettos with increasing frequency. In Chicago last year, 179 Negro families moved into white suburbs-more than twice as many as in the previous year, seven times as many as in 1963, and 45 times as many as in 1961 and 1962 combined.
“The only really unpleasant experiences,” Star writes, “are reported by a Negro couple who say their next-door neighbors were hostile. One neighbor put up an eight-foot fence; the other hung a blackface doll in his window. ‘The lady with the fence walks out the minute my wife shows up at a PGA meeting,’ says the husband. ‘And the name-calling is something terrific. It’s hard on the kids.”
In her book Becoming, former First Lady Michelle Obama writes of a childhood visit to Park Forest:
Everything in Park Forest was new and wide and uncrowded. There was no corner liquor store with ratty guys hanging out in front of it. There were no cars honking or sirens. There was no music floating from anybody’s kitchen. The windows in the houses all looked to be shut.
Craig would remember our visit there as heavenly, namely because he played ball all day long in the wide-open lots under a blue sky with Donny Stewart and his new pack of suburban brethren. My parents had a pleasant enough catch-up with Mr. and Mrs. Stewart, and I followed Pamela around, gaping at her hair, her fair skin and teenager jewelry. At some point, we all had lunch. It was evening when we finally said good-bye. Leaving the Stewarts, we walked in the dusk to the curb where my dad had parked the car. Craig was sweaty, dead on his feet after all the running he’d done. I, too, was fatigued and ready to go home. Something about the place had put me on edge. I wasn’t a fan of the suburbs, though I couldn’t articulate exactly why. My mother would later make an observation about the Stewarts and their new community, based on the fact that almost all of their neighbors on the street seemed to be white. “I wonder,” she said, “if nobody knew that they’re a black family until we came to visit.”
She thought that maybe we’d unwittingly outed them, arriving from the South Side with a housewarming gift and our conspicuous dark skin. Even if the Stewarts weren’t deliberately trying to hide their race, they probably didn’t speak of it one way or another with their new neighbors. Whatever vibe existed on their block, they hadn’t overtly disrupted it. At least not until we came to visit. Was somebody watching through a window as my father approached our car that night? Was there a shadow behind some curtain, waiting to see how things would go? I’ll never know. I just remember the way my dad’s body stiffened slightly when he reached the driver’s side door and saw what was there. Someone had scratched a line across the side of his beloved Buick, a thin ugly gulch that ran across the door and toward the tail of the car. It had been done with a key or a rock and was in no way accidental.
Obama, Michelle. Becoming (p. 29). Crown. Kindle Edition.
Park Forest was not a pleasant memory for Ms. Obama.
Norman Rockwell on Park Forest
Legendary artist Norman Rockwell took note of Park Forest also, creating in 1967 the painting New Kids in the Neighborhood.
At 73, Rockwell had lost the energy to develop his work in the painstaking way of the previous half-century. Now he would often omit the intermediary step of preparing a detailed charcoal drawing before proceeding to paint in oil. In addition, his color perception was diminishing due to cataracts. Still, his work continued to reach an appreciative audience.
In his illustration of suburban integration in Chicago’s Park Forest community, Rockwell was secure in expressing his philosophy of tolerance. We can see the children will soon be playing with each other, but the face peering from behind a window curtain makes us wonder how the adults will fare.
For all our faults through the years, Park Foresters long ago decided they wanted to be different. They wanted every black child to know and hopefully become friends with a white child. They wanted a peacefully-integrated community, and they worked hard to achieve that dream.
The ideal these Park Foresters began to strive for a generation-and-a-half ago is this: Park Forest is not the place you left. Park Forest is where you belong, regardless of who you are.
Our discussion on racism in America, about owning racism, must continue.
Park Forest Police make us all proud.
Here, Black Lives Matter. That’s our goal. And that makes all the difference in the world for all of us of every background.
Gary Kopycinski is editor and publisher of eNews Park Forest, ENEWSPF. He is in his 31st year teaching at Marian Catholic High School, and served as a Village Trustee in Park Forest over 11 years from 2003 to 2015.