Why Is Deerfield (Still) So White?
Commentary: A North Shore suburban native reflects on the community's troubled racial history.
In 1962, my parents adopted an infant girl who they named Rebecca. Rebecca’s birth certificate identified her as Caucasian. However, over the course of a few months her skin darkened. And when my parents began to ask questions, they learned that Rebecca was half African American. While they were surprised, my parents were split on how to proceed. My dad, a prominent businessman, felt that raising a black child in all-white Deerfield would be too much of a hardship on the family and Rebecca herself. My mom, an ardent civil rights activist, had bonded with her baby and wanted to keep Rebecca. Eventually, they made the gut-wrenching decision to relinquish Rebecca to social services for re-adoption. I was adopted several weeks later, replacing Rebecca.
With the luxury of hindsight, it’s tempting to harshly judge my parents’ decision, which is what I did most of my life. However, as I recently discovered, there’s more to the story than what meets the eye.
Three years prior to Rebecca’s adoption, in 1959, the all-white North Shore suburb of Deerfield where my parents lived had condemned a housing development – which was in the process of being built -- when village officials discovered that the developers intended to sell the homes to African Americans. Town leaders didn’t openly admit to opposing integrated housing. Rather, they objected on the basis that Deerfield suddenly needed more parks. A debate ensued.
Bankrolled by Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a fervent supporter of integration, the housing developer, Morris Milgram, sued the town and tensions were still high in 1962 as the developer’s case slowly made its way through the courts. Milgram would eventually lose the case when the Supreme Court of the United States denied his appeal.
Those were turbulent years in a fractured Deerfield. A cross was burned on the front lawn of a resident who -- like my parents -- was pro-integration. My brother who was 8 years old at the time, remembers our parents keeping the curtains drawn and never leaving their cars in the driveway because they feared vandals or worse. The Deerfield story was covered by national media, including the New York Times, Time magazine and the CBS Evening News, who referred to Deerfield as “The Little Rock of the North” – in reference to Little Rock, Arkansas’ stubborn resistance to school desegregation laws.
Another incident that factored into my parents’ decision to relinquish Rebecca, occurred in 1961. A Deerfield Pastor, Paul Berggren, publicly announced his intention to adopt a ‘negro child,’ in part because of his disappointment in the outcome of the fight to integrate Deerfield. The announcement triggered anonymous death threats against the Berggren family, and the Berggren’s teenaged daughter was called names and ostracized at school. Berggren eventually dropped his adoption plan.
Today, Deerfield’s population is still 94 percent white, which is hardly an accident. Following the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, Illinois, like many states, passed its own fair housing regulations. The state requires 10 percent of all housing to be designated for individuals and families earning no more than 60 percent of the area's median income. However, Deerfield applied for home-rule status from the state in the 1970s. This home-rule status exempts Deerfield from state housing regulations that often result in greater diversity.
Deerfield Mayor Harriet Rosenthal believes Deerfield has an ethical and moral obligation to provide housing for middle-class families, but acknowledges that, statutorily, Deerfield has no such obligation.
In 2015, a 48-unit affordable housing project was proposed by a partnership that included the very same Zion Lutheran Church where Paul Berggren was pastor. As in 1959, opponents to the housing complex objected on the grounds that it would lead to declining home values, school overcrowding and traffic congestion, and because they wanted to preserve the community’s “character” (something of a code word among opponents in both the 1959 and today.)
Deerfield was divided along the same lines as it was in 1959, and the effort to build more affordable housing seemed doomed. However, developers returned this year with a scaled back plan to build 25 units, and in August, received a key vote of approval to proceed with their plans to build the apartment complex behind the church.
Supporters of Zion Woods welcome the development as a reflection of their personal values. They believe there is no reason why the people who serve them in their restaurants or make their lattes or do their nails shouldn’t live in the same community. They believe diversity is desirable and affordable housing is a critical means by which to achieve a diverse community.
When Dr. Melba (Nicholson) Sullivan grew up in Deerfield she was one of the few people of color in the community. She described what it was like: “We lived across the street from the Walgreens Corporate headquarters, but we couldn’t walk into a Walgreens and find products to do our hair. When we went to the grocery store, we couldn’t get the things we were used to eating like black eyed peas on New Years and collard greens. Those are the day to day things that matter.”
I asked Sullivan, who has doctorate degree in clinical community psychology, if she’d experienced racism while growing up in Deerfield in the ’80s. She described how a real estate agent asked the Sullivan’s white neighbors if it was okay for a black family to buy in the neighborhood. And when her mother opened the front door she was often asked if the owners of the house were home. She also told me about “gifts” that went along with growing up in Deerfield: “I’m not fazed by being the only black person in a room and move between a variety of worlds and have meaningful relationships with people who look different than me. I’m able to recognize the humanity of white people instead of dealing in stereotypes. I have a profound respect of the diverse racial, economic, cultural, religious dimensions that I have an opportunity to be a part of that comes from the fact that I’ve been navigating these since I was seven and moved to Deerfield.”
Despite these gifts, Sullivan asserts that Deerfield would benefit from more racial and economic integration, the sort that would result from more affordable housing. She believes that integration is important to a community because it creates the opportunity for people to build emotional ties that enhance their ability to empathize and show up as a compassionate friend with someone who doesn’t look like them.
History lessons are still being learned and taught in Deerfield. Deerfield High School has added the 1959 integration controversy to its curriculum alongside more flattering aspects of Deerfield history, such how Deerfield’s founder, Lyman Wilmot, allowed his home to be used as a stop on the Underground Railroad to Canada.
Beginning in January 2019, the Deerfield Library will host a series of panels and guest speakers, including myself, and Angelle Smith, the child who my parents adopted before me in 1962. More information about "The Fight to Integrate Deerfield: 60 Year Reflection" programming can be found at deerfieldlibrary.org/FID.
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