Sixty years ago, the village of Deerfield was nearly all-white when a group of residents blocked integrated housing in the growing post-World War II community.
On Thursday night, a group of residents acknowledged that ugly history at a vigil at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church.
“This evening we gather together on this anniversary in the context of memories about our own village’s struggle with the issues of fairness,” said Rev. Suzan Hawkinson, of First Presbyterian Church of Deerfield. “We come together to remember, to reflect and to resolve.”
The land right by St. Gregory’s was supposed to be the site of luxury housing, and, in 1959, two models homes went up. When the village board found out black families would move in, panic over property values set in, as did racism.
“Racist statements were common at these community meetings as when one resident wondered ‘what kind of white people would want to live in that development.’ Or another argued that God and nature intended segregation,” reflected Dylan Zavagno, of the Deerfield Public Library, which has an exhibit on the fight to integrate.
Ultimately, Deerfield blocked the development, and the park district took over the site.
Decades later, racial diversity in the affluent northern suburb is only slightly better. About 8 percent of Deerfield’s residents are nonwhite, according to the latest census figures. And the suburb still struggles with affordable and integrated housing.
In 2013, Zion Lutheran Church proposed building affordable housing on land it owns. Many neighbors cited concerns about density, traffic and declining property values. Others worried about school overcrowding (school district officials said those fears were unfounded). One resident speculated that children in the housing development will be “prone to violence and theft.”
For many proponents of affordable housing, the conflict harkened back to 1959. And then, last year, Deerfield approved Zion Woods, a 25-unit affordable apartment complex.
For Zion Lutheran Church, it’s been a six-year journey for approval with the church never giving up.
“We just kept talking. It was a lot of education,” said Rev. David Kyllo of Zion Lutheran Church. “The village trustees would come over to us and say do you really want to go forward with this. And we said absolutely.”
Kyllo said people were fearful of people who were different.
“Our message was they’re human beings. We welcome everyone who’s loved by God,” Kyllo said.
At Thursday night’s vigil, Deerfield Mayor Harriet Rosenthal read a proclamation to establish the village as an inclusive community committed to fair housing. She said a new housing development is coming to the area. Rosenthal said she asked the developer to set aside 10 percent of the rental units to be affordable.