Plaque at Westgate honors Mount Carmel Baptist Church

The 1100 block from Westgate to Oak Park is among the most valuable areas of the village. On Saturday, in the shadow of the luxury skyscraper Emerson Apartments, a crowd of several dozen people gathered to remember the history of the looting under the cobblestone pavement and to put up a permanent marker describing the history of Mount Carmel Baptist Church.

The church was built by Oak Park’s first black community in 1905, just decades after emancipation and reconstruction. The congregation originally purchased property on Cuyler and Chicago avenues, but the village rescinded the building permit after “strong opposition from residents,” the historical marker notes.

William Street Church (now Westgate) became a social center for Oak Park’s first blacks. Authors Stan West, Peggy Tuck Sinko, Frank Lipo, and Yves Hughes Jr. detailed the church’s history in their 2009 book, Suburban Promised Land: The Emerging Black Community in Oak Park, Illinois, 1880-1980.

Attendees listen to live music Saturday, October 29, 2022, during the dedication ceremony for Mount Carmel Baptist Church on Westgate in Oak Park, Illinois | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

“The activities of this well-appointed brick building, which was dedicated on November 19, 1905, received less publicity in the local newspapers than those of the other churches, but the functions of Mount Carmel have not been totally ignored,” said they wrote. “For example, in 1912 an advertisement in the Oak Leaves, written by church officials, proclaimed that Mount Carmel “has proved in large measure the spiritual and social center of the colored population of Oak Park and Surroundings”.

“He went on to announce a special event: ‘No effort has been spared to make this one of the main attractions of the season’, although the precise nature of the festivities has not been revealed. Other special events at the church were covered, such as the May 1919 program which featured music from the Chicago Guards (an African-American band), and a drama titled “Out in the Street”, with an all-star cast. black, all for only twenty-five cents, or thirty-five cents with an “old fashioned supper”.

During those early years, the church was led by Reverend Harry W. Knight, Reverend Harry C. Weatherspoon and Reverend Buchanan Lewis, the authors added. The Westgate area around the church was also where many black families in Oak Park lived in the early 1900s.

But the racism that prevented Mount Carmel from being built in Cuyler and Chicago would also haunt the Westgate facility. On Christmas Day 1929, the church mysteriously caught fire, causing $1,000 in damage to the building. The following year, the congregation sold the building.

“At the time of the fire,” notes the marker, “the general locality was experiencing economic growth and was rapidly becoming a thriving commercial center. The black community declined over the next 30 years, with many black residents settling in Maywood and in surrounding communities.

At Saturday’s ceremony, Oak Park resident and educator Nancy Alexander explained what black people lost when Mount Carmel was closed.

“We lost a meeting space, we lost a religious school, we lost a source of local news and information, we lost a music center and a concert hall, we lost a pulpit to speak in public and we lost a recreation centre,” she said. said. “We have lost the heart and soul of Black Oak Park. But most glaringly, we have lost the collective wealth that made this land so valuable – the rock on which generational wealth is built in this country.

Alexander said the loss of wealth and equity, “built over 24 years”, was the result of systematic policies and practices implemented by white people in Oak Park at the time. After the building permit on Cuyler and Chicago was revoked, black people were “restricted to this little piece of land where we were basically framed,” she said, referring to the practice of denying credit, insurance and other financial services to potential customers who live in majority minority or low-income areas.

After the fire, Alexander explained, while the village never investigated its cause, no one was ever charged, “no cause was ever announced, no police report was made that day. , no deeds of sale exist to the developers and no deed transfers exist that we can find.And finally, a 1930s map of this block that exists erases where the Mount Carmel land was in the 1920s .

“By extinguishing this church, the Village of Oak Park established a model of treatment for black people that includes erasing, blurring and obscuring our history that continues to this day,” he said. she stated. “This Westgate Old English village is an early form of urban renewal and gentrification. It is now one of Oak Park’s most valuable properties.

The plaque was made possible through a collaboration between the Oak Park Repairs Task Force, Black Residents of Oak Park, the Oak Park River Forest Museum, the Oak Park Area Arts Council ‘Oak Park and the village of Oak Park.

Christian Harris, who leads the task force, said Saturday he hopes the historic marker will kick-start a concerted effort in the village to remember and undo this dark history.

“It was hard enough for me to learn that this story had never been taught in schools in Oak Park. It was hard enough for me to learn that the street name and lot numbers had intentionally changed and moved to make it harder to trace the community that was here,” he said.

“I’ve always felt like a guest here — a guest, but nonetheless a guest with no real say and no ownership in this town,” Harris said, adding that knowing that black people have been an integral part of Oak Park ever since the beginning and “continue to be so today”. », gives him a new sense of belonging to the village.

But those gathered on Saturday said they wanted more than a long-overdue apology. For example, Harris, Alexander, and others present are part of a growing effort to get the village to implement a local reparations program. Earlier this year, the task force, using funds from the Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church Reparations Task Force, partnered with Dominican University to administer a survey to assess what the black residents of Oak Park think of local repairs. The task force plans to present a formal report to the village council at some point in the coming months.

“We need collective justice for this church and other wrongs against the dignity and economic power of Black Oak Park,” Alexander said. “It is time to recognize these wounds and repair the damage that has cost Black Oak Park economically.”

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Jerry B. Hatch