Harriette Gillem Robinet's Home
214 S. Elmwood Ave., Oak Park, IL
In August, 1965, when this pristine 3,200 square-foot home was more fixer-upper than Better Homes and Gardens showcase, McLouis and Harriette Gillem Robinet moved in. There were no other Black homeowners on the 200-block of South Elmwood. In fact, there were hardly any Black homeowners in all of Oak Park. That was by design. Institutional racism, particularly during the real estate industry’s “fair housing era,” blocked…read more
In August, 1965, when this pristine 3,200 square-foot home was more fixer-upper than Better Homes and Gardens showcase, McLouis and Harriette Gillem Robinet moved in. There were no other Black homeowners on the 200-block of South Elmwood. In fact, there were hardly any Black homeowners in all of Oak Park. That was by design. Institutional racism, particularly during the real estate industry’s “fair housing era,” blocked Black families from integrating into an almost all-white, fiercely exclusionary Oak Park. Though its accuracy is disputed, the oft-quoted Ernest Hemingway line, “Oak Park is a neighborhood of wide lawns and narrow minds,” still applied.
The Robinets were required to get out written notifications regarding their pending move, essentially warning neighbors that their heretofore all-white neighborhood was being infiltrated. Police informed the Robinets that the move must happen in the middle of the day, during the middle of the week, ostensibly to “protect” the white neighbors and their privilege.
The Robinets had enlisted the help of friends Bob and Lynn Bell, a white couple, in their search for a new home. The search lasted more than two years, during which time several offers fell through. Eventually, Don and Joyce Beisswenger bought the house at 214 S. Elmwood in order to sell it to the Robinets.
Harriette had never seen the house; McLouis, who goes by “Mac,” had visited only briefly. Mac’s first impression was, “I thought this was it for us.” Harriette trusted Mac’s judgment. There was really no choice. If a Black couple were seen inspecting a house, the ingrained forces of resistance would mobilize to prevent, yet again, the potential sale.
In February of 1968, Harriette wrote an essay titled “I'm a Mother-Not a Pioneer” published in Redbook magazine. It recounted the move-in experience and their four years proceeding it. On her first impressions of the house, Harriette wrote “We had lived in a small Chicago apartment for five years, and the house looked like heaven. An avenue of elms and maples formed an arch of brilliant red and gold leaves. The fenced backyard would be a safe place for our boys to play in; large bay windows promised light and air; there was a real fireplace. And I could still plant some tulips before the first frost.”
Mac recalled that Oak Park had been a generally welcoming community, aside from one next-door neighbor, who said “My son tells me I’m going to have to leave, it's too dangerous.” Mostly, though, the Robinets began a new life in harmony with their new community. Mac recalled “an army of girls wanting to babysit.” The Robinets made quick friends with others on the street. Mac admits that he “was kind of in a double world” as he was at work a lot of the time, while Harriette remained home. Harriette interacted with the community and would sometimes experience animosity toward the family. Daughter Linda said Harriette always carried herself with grace and humility despite this, with her “back straight and head held high” and taught her kids to do the same.
Change, not in small part accelerated by the Robinets, came to Oak Park over the decades. The Robinets raised six children in this house. The youngest, Linda, born in 1974, said she benefitted from her parents’ pioneering journey, in that she never experienced racially motivated behavior growing up.
The block at one time housed an overwhelming number of young families with school-age children. The Robinets were active at St. Edmund parish and frequented popular local attractions like the Lake Theater, Ridgeland Commons, Tasty Dog, Katie’s Country Candy Store, and Woolworth’s. The house itself was filled with music—every Robinet child played an instrument, including the piano, while recorded songs from folk to rock to metal to alternative played on the home record player. The house bustled with the activities of chores and schoolwork and family meals.
Now known as a diverse and welcoming village, the Oak Park of today is diametrically opposed to its 1965 values that made Black home ownership nearly impossible. In an April 22, 2008 Wednesday Journal article, Harriette told Ken Trainor that some of the younger Oak Park Black families were oblivious to the struggle and transformation. “The younger generation doesn’t know,” Harriette was quoted as saying. “They can’t imagine it.”
The house, too, underwent dramatic change, also for the better. Once painted nearly all white, including the brick fireplace, the 1891-built home’s natural beauty was all but hidden. The Robinets put into motion constant restoration projects, big and small. The ugly brown bagasse siding on the exterior came down to expose the original siding. New stairway railings were installed. Paint stripped to reveal glistening warm wood and rosy brick. Fresh paint applied elsewhere. These improvements happened over the course of decades. The scientist Mac and his scientist wife (Harriette had a decade-long career as a bacteriologist for the United States Army) also undertook the challenge of making the house a model for efficiency. They installed geothermal heating, a white steel roof, even put solar panels on the garage. At one point, during a hallway paneling job, the Robinets inserted several “time capsules” in hopes that a future owner would learn a bit about their history as it related to the community’s integration. In 2010, the home received the Landmark Preservation Award from the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission.
Through all this, Harriette wrote. Her first breakthrough as an author was that 1968 Redbook essay, for which she received the then-handsome sum of $500. She reinvested her earnings in an electric typewriter. Harriette was later inspired to write her first books, Jay and the Marigold (1976) and Ride the Red Cycle (1980) because she wanted to provide better representation for kids with disabilities in children’s literature.
She wrote at a desk in the corner of the dining room, where neat piles of research notebooks were stacked. She wrote in the den. On fair days, she took her turquoise laptop desk onto the porch. Later, she wrote in a dedicated office that had been her bedroom. All this while raising six children and maintaining a large house.
In all, Harriette wrote 11 books including: Children of the Fire (1991, Friends of American Writers Award winner), Mississippi Chariot (1994), If You Please, President Lincoln! (1995), Washington City is Burning (1995, Carl Sandburg Award winner), The Twins, the Pirates, and the Battle of New Orleans (1997, Midland Authors Award winner), Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule (1998, Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction for children), Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues (2001, Jane Addams Award Honor book), Missing from Haymarket Square (2001), and Twelve Travelers, Twenty Horses (2003).
The grandchild of a former slave, Harriette stopped writing when Alzheimer’s reduced her memory.
She and Mac continue to live in the house as of March, 2023. The Elmwood Avenue home has three bedrooms and one-and-a-half bathrooms. The basement houses Mac’s workshop and the living room features an abundance of greenery born of Harriette’s green thumb. Photos of their family, art and souvenirs, trinkets, and books all fill the house. Just recently, Harriette declared, “I absolutely love Oak Park!”
Linda added, “214 South Elmwood was more than a home, it was a sanctuary. Not many adult children can say that their parents still live in their childhood home or that they can always go ‘home.’ The house was where my parents taught me how to cook; clean; do well in school; become responsible; love and lose pets; have every ‘first’ that typical childhoods are filled with; and it also was the home that I brought my newborn infant son to for the four weeks of my maternity leave. The 200 South block of Elmwood was extraordinary: at one time its claim to fame was having over 70 children under the age of 18. My best friends since birth grew up there, we stood up in each other's weddings, welcomed each other's babies, and grieved when their parents passed away.”