Since 2016, Naper Settlement has been working on a historic grant program that despite focusing on Naperville’s history in the 1960’s, is now just as relevant as ever.
“The real beginnings of this was when Naper Settlement revised and updated its mission around 2006,” Sack explained. “At that time we were a 19th century focused museum but we began to focus on all of Naperville’s history from the 20th century to the present as well. Once that occurred we started researching the 20th and 21st century. We authored a Teaching America History grant which was a grant that was for local school districts to work with colleges and museums to dig deeper into local histories. One of the topics of that program was the movements of the 1960’s. Civil rights, gay rights, American Indian Rights, Women’s rights, we were looking at all of the different movements.”
Five Museums Working Together
After partnering with five other museums and history organizations across the United States, Donna Sack and other researchers at Naper Settlement have been collecting oral history interviews and local documents for an exhibit regarding the disturbing history of exclusionary real estate practices in Naperville and surrounding suburbs until the late 1960’s.
“There were restrictive covenants that could follow with a property where you could designate that you wanted the property only to be owned by Caucasians. That held true until the 1960’s when the Fair Housing Act came out. In addition to that there was a very common practice where communities were known as sundown. That means communities were white by practice. Researchers looked at Illinois in the 1970’s and with 671 towns and cities with populations over 1,000, about 71% of those communities were all white. About 475 of those communities and almost all of those were said to be sundown.”
Sundown Towns in the Suburbs
Although many people consider segregation and exclusion to be issues primarily in the southern part United States, Sack and her research team soon realized that the suburbs of Northern and Western states were often just as guilty of discriminatory housing practices.
“Most people don’t know the history of sundown towns and they don’t know the history of real estate practices in the United States which have a really long history of exclusion,” Sack noted. “If you look across the U.S, the landscape is dotted with exclusionary practices. Naperville followed those same patterns. Fast forward to today and we see a very different composition of who we are. So over the past 50 years we have changed mightily. I think the current numbers are about 32% non-white. It’s not completely problem free but we have definitely seen our curve shift.”
Electronic Exhibit in the Works
Naper Settlement and its five cohorts in Appleton, Wisconsin, Brea, California, New Haven, Connecticut, Columbus, Ohio and Oak Park River Forest are preparing a free electronic exhibit titled “Unvarnished: Moving History Organizations to Interpret De Facto Segregation in the Northern and Western United States” which will be released in the fall of 2021.
“I’m glad we have three years under our belt working together because each of our communities has had their own version of needing to have community dialogue around topics of race,” Sack said of the exhibit. “I think that people are trying to understand why communities look the way they do, how they change, and what that looks like once communities do change. We have had people coming forward who want to share their oral histories. Last week we had a gentleman and his wife bring to us their Title and Deed to their house and it does in fact have the clause in it that it could only be sold to Caucasians. It’s a way to start conversations and understanding why we are where we are today. Hopefully by understanding the past we can find a better pathway to our future.”
Shining some light on a dark portion of Naperville’s history. For Naperville News 17, I’m Justin Cornwell.
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