Understanding local history of racism helps to make our communities more welcoming to all


Image courtesy of Shaw Media

Cary and Fox River Grove, towns that if you blink you may miss them, are towns just like any other around America. Towns that have been, unfortunately, often unwelcoming to those who are different from the mainly all-white inhabitants. 

The stories of those who have felt unwelcome or belittled by their own neighbors are stories it is crucial to hear to ensure a welcoming community and schools. As the towns have grown and changed over the past three decades, they have slowly but surely become more diverse, and that has led to some backlash against that progress.

The resistance to diversity in our area is not a new phenomenon. The mainly all-white towns all around McHenry County are largely the result of the racist zoning policy called “red-lining,” a practice banks used to prevent mostly black residents from residing in predominantly white areas. One epicenter of this pre-Civil Rights Era racist policy was the Chicago area. 

Though “red-lining” is mostly a relic of the past, the legacy of it is still visible today in terms of who lives where in our communities. It can also be seen in our communities in recent years, when people fought against housing developments that they feared would bring “undesirable” low-income neighbors to our towns.

In 2014, the developer Pedcor proposed a plan to build affordable housing units on First Street to the Cary Board of Trustees, and the plan faced backlash from hundreds of residents after it was approved. Many of the residents saw the plan as a threat to the safety of the community and a threat to housing prices in the area, while many proponents of the plan saw them as NIMBYs. NIMBY is an acronym for “not in my backyard” and refers to people not wanting potentially negative developments located near their homes.

Some proponents of the Pedcor development argued that racism was at the heart of the fear of those negative developments. Though the right to speak up and voice your opinion on plans for the community is a right guaranteed to all, many used language that can be seen as racist in tone. Many in the infamous “Cary-Grove Chat” community group on Facebook called the housing an attempt by the village to do “social engineering” in the community. The affordable housing units opened in early 2017 despite significant community pushback that often took the form of scare tactics and misinformation.

Mayor Mark Kownick of Cary stated back when the project was being debated that crime would not increase as a result of the development, and he has been proved right in the years since. But that fear of a possible uptick in crime tells a larger story of intolerance in our community to those who are different from the majority.

This intolerance can transcend generations, just like the effects of red-lining, and it is often passed down to children who grow up around rhetoric that’s intolerant to “outsiders.” Some young people in our community are trying to reverse that trend, however.

In the summer of 2020, we went through a national reckoning on racial inequality and the overall treatment of people of color, and it swept through all walks of life, including our very own school system in District 155. During that summer, D155 alumni established a website for minorities who attended or are currently attending a D155 school to share their experiences dealing with bullying and hateful rhetoric to ensure future students go to a school in which they can truly feel safe.

Many of the stories told by these former students are ones reflective of feelings felt by minorities in our community for decades. 

As a woman of color going to Cary-Grove High School, I felt invisible,” CG alumnus Alexa Rojas said. The sentiment of feeling invisible while having to conform to community ideals which center around whiteness is a common theme told in all the stories as many students of color were never seen for themselves, but rather as a stereotype.

“Being Asian-American growing up in Crystal Lake meant that my identity was degraded down to stereotypes that felt inescapable. I could never fully be myself because all people saw was ‘the Asian kid,’” said former D155 student Jess Chen. She said that once she left the community and entered a more diverse learning environment in college, she was finally able to embrace her identity. 

The stories told by these D155 alumni to ensure a safer school environment reflects a broader trend of minorities and their allies in the area finally speaking out about bigotry of all forms. In the summer of 2020, during the racial justice movements the towns of Fox River Grove, Cary, and Crystal Lake had hundreds of community members turn out to protest for greater racial equality and social justice, a first for our community and its surrounding areas. I went to the Fox River Grove peaceful march that June and saw firsthand a change in the community where, for the first time, I saw the topic of racism talked about openly in the community.

Though the problems that have long plagued people of color in our community appear to be changing for the better, the stories of the past must not be forgotten as history is shown to repeat itself if the past is ignored. Those range from personal stories of those affected by racism perpetrated by those in the community to a Ku Klux Klan rally being held in defiance to diversification of McHenry County.

In 1995, a Ku Klux Klan chapter from Michigan planned a rally in front of the McHenry County Government Center in Woodstock to protest recent diversification of McHenry County that in the 90s saw an explosion in population. The Klan sought to protest, but also had hopes of inciting racial unrest and “running out” those who weren’t white from McHenry County.

The Klan rally ended up having a smaller-than-expected turnout, and they were outnumbered by anti-racist community members who came to speak out against hate and in support of people of color in the community. The Klan rally brought upon a short-lived community reckoning of racism in which the McHenry County board established a “human relations council” to combat both racism and sexism in the community.

This council established shortly after the Klan rally in Woodstock came without many substantive results to really change the lives of those who continued to be targets of discrimination. Website archives from the Bill Clinton White House reported that the function of the human relations council was to “educate and build awareness of racial diversity.” This was published in 1998, three years after the Klan rally.

The White House website states that no formal evaluation of the council was conducted and that there was no investigation to see whether or not the council was something of substance that actually led to change in the community. The only outcome it reports is that people who received information from the council gave positive feedback. The council was later merged into the human resources department in the McHenry County board, which actively promotes the fair treatment of all residents, including those of different races, ethnicities, national origin, disability, and more.

Even though the actions of hate displayed by the Ku Klux Klan rally in Woodstock was done mostly by outsiders from the community, it – and the ineffective response to it by local leaders – may have given a greenlight to those who have long hidden their racist ideologies.

In February of 1996, the Chicago Tribune reported on a hate crime perpetrated by white nationalists against a 15-year-old black boy and his white friend at a local restauarant in Cary, where the perutrators screamed “White power!” while severely beating the two young men. 

In 1999, four Wonder Lake teenagers spanning ages 15-19 were arrested for allegedly burning a cross in the yard where an interracial couple resided. The teens gave testimony to then-McHenry County Police Chief Keith Ngyuen that they burned the cross because “(they) didn’t like a black man living in the neighborhood.” 

This atrocious crime came just six months after a Japanese businessman, Noaki Kamijuana, was gunned down in his Crystal Lake convenience store due solely to the fact that he was a different ethnicity.

As time moved on from that period, hate crimes seem to have lessened, and as the community in recent times has rallied around people of color, there is much to be hopeful for in the future, though much still has to be done. As long as the stories of students in the community facing discrimination and the past stories of racial intolerence remain unheard, the community will still feel like an unwelcoming place to many who call this very community home.