By the middle of the 20th century, the village of Skokie, Illinois found itself undergoing enormous changes. The population of Skokie in 1960 was 59,364, a 300% increase from its population just ten years prior, and as a result, building, selling, and maintaining adequate housing was a priority to Skokie residents as well as the local government. Simultaneously, issues of segregation and discrimination towards people of color, particularly the Black* community, were growing ever more present in the daily lives of Americans as the Civil Rights movement began to gain steam.
Like many suburban communities, Skokie struggled with issues of segregation and discrimination. For example, a booklet from Skokie’s East Side Property Owners’ Association in 1940 indicates that membership would be extended only to white men over the age of 21. While Illinois and thus Skokie did not suffer from the segregation of the Jim Crow era, there were no laws in the state explicitly prohibiting discrimination and segregation, leaving Skokie’s predominantly white population to decide on an individual basis whether or not Black people were welcome in their neighborhoods and community organizations.
While discrimination had existed in Skokie for decades prior, the need for a Commission that would directly address interracial relations did not reveal itself until early 1961. On January 31, 1961, Mr. and Mrs. Jones moved into a home in northeastern Skokie; they were the first Black family to purchase property in the village. Local sentiment towards the Joneses was mixed -- notably, their house was vandalized in April of that year -- and it seemed possible that a wave of “panic selling” could soon take hold as it had in other suburbs that had attracted non-white families, in which white residents would attempt to sell their homes simultaneously, causing property values to plummet and furthering segregation.
In response, that same year, the Village of Skokie established the Skokie Human Relations Commission (SHRC). The Commission was created, according to its charter, "[t]o encourage understanding and respect between residents of Skokie of various racial, religious and nationality backgrounds and [t]o safeguard the rights of all citizens as defined by our Ordinances, Statutes and Constitution."
The organization was modeled after the Niles Township Human Relations Council, which had served a similar purpose of easing racial tensions in the region. In addition, Chicago and several of its suburbs were beginning to consider fair housing legislation in order to promote integration and growth. The SHRC, led in part by Donald P. Perille, whose records constitute a large portion of this collection, created the Skokie Plan, which was put into action in late 1965. The Skokie Plan invited real estate brokers to voluntarily sign on to use nondiscriminatory practices when showing homes. While the Skokie Plan appeared to be successful, with about 80% of Skokie real estate brokers agreeing to the plan, studies showed that it was not nearly as effective as official nondiscriminatory housing legislation would be. As a result, Perille along with co-chairperson Dr. Herman S. Bloch worked to draft a Fair Housing Ordinance over the first half of 1967. Around the same time, Perille traveled to Springfield to advocate for Illinois SB155, a fair housing law for the state of Illinois, which would eventually be passed in 1968.
On July 18th, 1967, an open town hall was held for community members to weigh in on the legislation. While the response, especially from Skokie’s large Jewish community, was mostly positive, there were some detractors, who argued that they had the right to sell their homes to whomever they chose, and some real estate brokers argued the law would hurt their business. In the end, the Fair Housing Ordinance was passed and became Skokie law on January 1st, 1968.
In 2017, Skokie Public Library selected items from our digital archive to create this online exhibit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Skokie Fair Housing Ordinance. Some residents of Skokie may find it hard to believe that just over five decades ago, it was a controversial stance to support fair housing and integration in our now very diverse community. Today, over 90 languages are spoken in homes in Skokie, and much of Skokie's diverse and multicultural heritage can be attributed to the village's proactive approach towards integration. The notes, documents, and correspondence included in this exhibit, as well as the historical anecdotes of Black Skokie residents such as Gwendoline Fortune, serve to prove the difficulty and importance of achieving racial equality in our community.
* - For this online exhibit, we have capitalized the term “Black," as suggested by the Diversity Style Guide (Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University).