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updated: 7/2/2014 5:13 AM

How the Civil Rights Act changed the suburbs

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  • Video: Project 2-3-1 trailer

  • Video: Civil Rights in Elgin

  • "It's kind of interesting: You see black and white, right here today," said Ernie Broadnax, right, about him and Phil Broxham working together in what was once a very segregated Elgin.

       "It's kind of interesting: You see black and white, right here today," said Ernie Broadnax, right, about him and Phil Broxham working together in what was once a very segregated Elgin.
    Brooke Herbert Hayes | Staff Photographer

  • Ernie Broadnax of Elgin is part of the new documentary film "Project 2-3-1," by the Elgin Area Historical Society. He is a lifelong resident of the three-block neighborhood called "the settlement," where most of Elgin's black residents lived throughout the 20th century.

       Ernie Broadnax of Elgin is part of the new documentary film "Project 2-3-1," by the Elgin Area Historical Society. He is a lifelong resident of the three-block neighborhood called "the settlement," where most of Elgin's black residents lived throughout the 20th century.
    Brooke Herbert Hayes | Staff Photographer

  • Phil Broxham, left, Ernie Broadnax, and Mason Broxham, all of Elgin, set up for filming on Hickory Place in Elgin. They're making a documentary film, "Project 2-3-1," about Elgin's black history.

       Phil Broxham, left, Ernie Broadnax, and Mason Broxham, all of Elgin, set up for filming on Hickory Place in Elgin. They're making a documentary film, "Project 2-3-1," about Elgin's black history.
    Brooke Herbert Hayes | Staff Photographer

  • Phil Broxham, left, and Ernie Broadnax, both of Elgin, walk down Hickory Place in Elgin. The two are filming a documentary called "Project 2-3-1" about what life was like for blacks before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Broadnax is a lifelong resident of the three-block Elgin neighborhood called "the settlement," where most of the city's blacks lived throughout the 20th century.

       Phil Broxham, left, and Ernie Broadnax, both of Elgin, walk down Hickory Place in Elgin. The two are filming a documentary called "Project 2-3-1" about what life was like for blacks before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Broadnax is a lifelong resident of the three-block Elgin neighborhood called "the settlement," where most of the city's blacks lived throughout the 20th century.
    Brooke Herbert Hayes | Staff Photographer

  • Before the Civil Rights Act was passed, most of Elgin's black families lived in a three-block neighborhood known as "the settlement." This undated photo shows a barbecue with Fremont Activities Association members Ernie Broadnax, Terry Green, Evelyn Hopkins, Debbie Lathen, Denise Kennedy and Lisa Broadnax.

      Before the Civil Rights Act was passed, most of Elgin's black families lived in a three-block neighborhood known as "the settlement." This undated photo shows a barbecue with Fremont Activities Association members Ernie Broadnax, Terry Green, Evelyn Hopkins, Debbie Lathen, Denise Kennedy and Lisa Broadnax.
    courtesy of Elgin Area Historical Society

  • Before the Civil Rights Act was passed, Elgin was more racially integrated than most suburbs. In this undated photo, kids and adults play in front of the city's Fremont Recreation Center.

      Before the Civil Rights Act was passed, Elgin was more racially integrated than most suburbs. In this undated photo, kids and adults play in front of the city's Fremont Recreation Center.
    courtesy of Elgin Area Historical Society

  • Elgin native Traci O'Neal Ellis still sees traces of racism in the suburbs.

      Elgin native Traci O'Neal Ellis still sees traces of racism in the suburbs.

 
 

Earlier this year, Traci O'Neal Ellis, a black attorney, waited in line behind a few white lawyers in a Kane County courtroom. She wanted to check with the clerk on a few details of her client's case before the judge took the bench.

When it was her turn, O'Neal Ellis started to introduce herself, but the clerk cut her off and told her, "Go sit down with the rest of the defendants."

The assumption that O'Neal Ellis was one of the accused, rather than one of the attorneys, shows that even today -- on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act -- ripples of racism remain despite great strides in racial equality.

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. It was a major piece of legislation that changed the lives of minorities, particularly blacks.

In the suburbs, the act allowed black residents to shop and dine where they wanted and apply for more jobs. It also paved the way for laws to let blacks secure home loans and buy houses in their neighborhoods of choice.

"Once you could get decent housing, you were on an upward-moving escalator," said urban historian Elaine Lewinnek, a former Oak Park resident and author of "The Working Man's Reward: Chicago's Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl."

Some of the black people who lived through the pre-Civil Rights era in the suburbs share their stories in a new documentary film by the Elgin Area Historical Society, "Project 2-3-1."

The film, due out later this year, documents the city's black history and includes residents talking about experiences unimaginable today. Among them is the story of a black Elgin High School football player forced to wait on the bus in the 1950s while his teammates stopped for lunch, because he wasn't allowed in the restaurant. Another example is a woman not being able to get a home loan despite having a solid job, good credit and a down payment.

"If you got a loan from a bank out here? Man, that was Happy New Year. They wouldn't loan (to) you," said Elgin resident Ina Dews, in the film's trailer. "Ever been homeless with a pocketful of money? I've been there."

Filmmaker Phil Broxham, president of Grindstone Media Productions, which is making the film, said it brings home just how across-the-board racism was in the suburbs in the 1950s and '60s -- even in Elgin, one of the more racially integrated suburbs. Most of Elgin's black population lived in a small three-block area nicknamed "the settlement."

"It was legal to say you didn't want to hire someone because of the color of their skin," Broxham said. "In order to appreciate what you have today, you have to understand people made hard sacrifices."

Ernie Broadnax, part of Broxham's film, has lived in "the settlement" area all his life.

"When the changes came about, the changes came about in race relations, the changes came about in real estate, and in rental properties," Broadnax said. "You couldn't rent, you couldn't buy, you couldn't get loans for housing. ... All those things changed."

Blacks first streamed into the Chicago area around 1915, during what was known as The Great Migration, Lewinnek said. Many worked as domestic servants on the North Shore.

When World War I halted the stream of European immigrants for low-paying factory work, blacks from the South moved north to fill those jobs. But they were segregated. In 1930, 90 percent of Chicago's black population lived in an area of the South Side known as "The Black Belt."

"Once you get 100,000 people arriving, there started to be so much more prejudice around them," Lewinnek said. "Racial lines hardened."

Blacks slowly pushed north and west into the suburbs, following job opportunities in cities like Waukegan and Elgin.

Even if they had a decent income, they were forced to live in high-density, poorly serviced areas with other blacks. Those who did live in white neighborhoods often were targeted with hateful acts, such as bricks thrown through their windows or crosses burned in their yards, Lewinnek said.

Yet, progress was made in Illinois over the decades. Among other milestones, voters in the state elected the country's first black woman, Carol Moseley Braun, to the Senate in 1992. Years later, they sent Chicago's Barack Obama to the same body, on his way to becoming the nation's first black president.

Still, racism in the suburbs persists, though it is more subtle than in the past and sometimes expands to other ethnic groups, such as Latinos, said O'Neal Ellis, an Elgin native now on the U-46 school board.

"It's shifted; it's not gone," she said. "I can walk into any restaurant I want and get served, which my parents could not always do. And I can walk into any store, which my parents could not always do. ... We've made tons of progress. But, yet, we can't rest on that, because it's still so insidious and pervasive."

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