In 1950, Percy Julian and his family moved from Maywood, Illinois, to the nearby, more exclusive neighborhood of Oak Park. This video segment, adapted from NOVA, uses reenactment footage to document the family's move, the resulting bombings and threats, and the support they received from the Oak Park community.
In 1935, Percy Julian accepted a research position with the Glidden paint company and moved from Greencastle, Indiana, to Maywood, Illinois. Originally from Alabama, Julian's move reflected America's changing demographics.
Beginning in 1915, as World War I caused a decrease in European immigration, hundreds of thousands of African Americans migrated north to urban centers in search of better opportunities. By moving, they escaped the Jim Crow laws and the explicit "de jure" (by law) segregation of the South, but the struggle for equality moved with them. In cities like Chicago, more subtle forms of discrimination and "de facto" (in fact) segregation isolated African Americans from the very opportunities they sought.
Between the 1920s and the 1960s, Chicago's black population grew, and with the surge in population came an increase in the demand for affordable housing. Congress passed the Housing Act of 1937, but the federal Neighborhood Composition Rule required that public housing populations reflect the surrounding community. As a result, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) segregated African Americans in housing projects on the edge of the city. When the CHA proposed integrated housing plans on two different occasions, racial violence ensued. White city officials, reluctant to have public housing in their own communities, rejected the plans. Ultimately, the majority of the black population was concentrated in an eight-square-mile overcrowded community of housing towers on Chicago's South Side. With limited access to transportation and employment, African Americans were relegated to low-paying jobs and sub-standard housing conditions. They were, in effect, officially segregated once again.
Julian was among a minority of African Americans who lived in Maywood, a working class suburb of Chicago. Maywood was predominantly white (91 percent), but had a small black community that dated back to the turn of the century. In 1950, after 15 years in Maywood, the Julians bought a larger house just three miles away in the more exclusive Oak Park neighborhood. Before they could move in, an arsonist fire-bombed the house on Thanksgiving Day. Less than a year later, someone threw dynamite at the house.
Oak Park was more than 99 percent white. A very small black servant population lived on the far west side of town. (White servants lived in the basement or attic quarters of many Oak Park homes, but it was unheard of to have an African American living in a white person's home at the time.) While Oak Park was a richer neighborhood, some still saw the Julians' move as a threat to the social order. And although some historians believe that the attacks came from people who lived outside of Oak Park, those actions demonstrated that integration in the North was not without disturbing and frightening repercussions. There were, however, many Oak Park residents who supported the Julians and kept watch over their house. Percy Julian lived in Oak Park until he died in 1975. His family still owns the house.
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