- Community: Naperville, 1831
- County: DuPage and Will
- State: IL
- Type: Suburb
- Metro: Chicago
By the mid-18th century, the Potawatomi lived in much of what would become Chicagoland. In 1831, a settler party from Ohio founded Naper's Settlement along the DuPage River. By the 1840s, German, Scottish, and English immigrants started arriving. Naperville was almost exclusively White during the mid-19th to early 20th centuries with few exceptions. The community’s mid-20th century transformation was spurred by significant physical and population growth. The suburbanization of the 1980s and 1990s accompanied increasing diversity that continues today. Naperville is Illinois’ fourth largest city with a population that is 69% White, 20% Asian, 7% Hispanic, and 4% Black.
- Owner-Occupied Housing Units: 75.6%
- Median Value of Owner-Occupied Home: $416,700
- Median Gross Rent: $1,516
- Median Income: $125,926
- Poverty Level: 4.3%
- High School (ages 25+): 96.9%
- Bachelors (ages 25+): 68.2%
Planned Exclusivity Defines Twentieth Century Growth
Located in metropolitan Chicago and considered a quiet community of farms and light industry, Naperville, IL in 1890 bore little resemblance to the booming technoburb of the twenty-first century. For over eighty years, Naperville was a sundown town.Sundown Towns: All-white communities or counties that purposefully maintained their status through harassment, discriminatory laws and ordinances, and violence or threat of violence. The name comes from posted and verbal warnings that Black people and other people of color would receive upon entry. Sometimes this status was codified in law and signaled with signs, sirens, or other warnings. Often, laborers such as household, farm or factory help could work in a community during daylight hours and had to leave town by sundown. Frequently, it was maintained by practice and custom of local people and law enforcement. Sundown towns appeared in many areas of the nation between 1890 and the 1970s with some still maintaining their all-White status. Its growth was shaped by exclusionary practices including racially restrictive covenantsRestrictive covenants: Agreements in contracts that prohibit buyers from taking certain actions after they purchase a property. Although covenants can pertain to any number of restrictions on property ownership or use, during the early-twentieth century it was commonplace to have restricted covenants preventing a buyer of a specific racial, ethnic, or religious group. designed to ensure an all-White community. Before the 1960s, few community members called these practices into question. Later, employees filed legal complaints against their employers and activists pushed for fair housingFair Housing : The assertion that people ought to determine the roof that they want over their heads without unlawful discrimination based on race, age, sexual orientation, religion, ability, or any other protected class. Commonly referred to as open housing in the mid-twentieth century, the fair housing movement and racial integration in communities were core demands of the Civil Rights movement. to expand access to people of color. In 1969, Naperville was essentially an all-White community. Today, it is a community significantly changed, with 32% people of color, primarily of Asian descent.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Naperville and most of DuPage County excluded Black people and other people of color from settling and working locally. In a 1907 Chicago Tribune article, a resident of neighboring Glen Ellyn pointed to Naperville as a model for exclusion, stating, “In Naperville they have no colored colony. They will not sell land or anything else to negroes or give them work, and they stay away. Negroes will lower the price of real estate. Do we want them here?”
During the mid-twentieth century Naperville grew into a Chicago suburb. Between 1950 and 1980, Naperville completed 240 land annexations,Land Annexations: The incorporation of new land into a city or county. primarily of farmland, sparking intense debates about what Naperville would grow to be. As early as the 1920s, Naperville landowners and developers put racially restrictive covenants in property deeds that prevented individual homes from being conveyed or leased to any person “not a Caucasian.” Although these types of covenants were ruled legally unenforceable by the US Supreme Court in 1948, they continued to appear on Naperville property deeds into the 1960s. In 1954, the City Council approved a suburbanizationSuburbanization: The process of movement from urban areas to developing or planned communities outside the city limits. ordinance that started a housing boom. This ordinance set minimum standards for home and neighborhood construction to ensure that Naperville building would always be “of the highest quality.” Excellent schools, along with the construction of the East-West tollway (made possible through the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956), made Naperville a desirable place for suburban living.
The Naperville of the mid-twentieth century was designed to be more than just a place where people lived. It was home to North Central College (NCC) and increasingly targeted businesses to relocate to the growing Tech Corridor along the East-West tollway. The combination of an increased residential population, a socially engaged college population, and the presence of national corporations put pressure on Naperville to embrace civil rights.
After World War II, students and community members challenged the discriminatory treatment of Black NCC students. Sundown practices prevented Black college students from comfortably traveling west of Main Street in the downtown. NCC students satirized that every time the college got a new Black student, the Naperville police got a new officer to follow them. Early desegregationDesegregation: The process of ending a policy of racial segregation. campaigns targeted barbershops, drug stores, and Centennial Beach. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at North Central College at the invitation of Rev. George St. Angelo, the school’s chaplain. King’s visit sparked an interest in civil rights that pushed students and faculty to travel to Selma and Chicago to protest for civil rights and to work in Naperville in the areas of employment and housing to create a more open community.
The Naperville Human Relations Council, an independent group created in 1965 by the Naperville Council of Churches, worked to make Naperville more accepting of residents and workers of color. A 1968 survey by NCC students found that of 113 local businesses, only 11 employed Black workers, but 70 said they would hire qualified Black applicants. The report’s authors argued that housing discrimination was the primary reason why Black people did not work in Naperville. Most of Naperville’s Black workers lived in Aurora, Joliet, and Chicago—nearby cities with established Black communities. They could not live nearby, so there was no point in applying. Even people who were employed locally could not find nearby housing. In 1967, only one of 225 Black employees at Argonne National Laboratories was able to live in surrounding DuPage County.
In 1964, Bell Labs announced plans to open a new division in Naperville and worked with the City to attract the best scientists in the country. But in 1966, when two Black scientists were transferred to Naperville, realtors steered them away from the city. The Naperville Human Relations Council attempted to work with local realtors to show the couple houses, but their efforts failed. Working with the NAACP, they filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, demanding that their employer help them find housing in town. They had to fight for the right to live in the city where they worked.
By 1967, there was enough support for integration that Naperville activists began to push for an official human relations commission in city government. The effort failed. At a city council meeting, Commissioner John Zedrow recalled Naperville’s sundown customs of years prior: “I remember when a certain minority (Negroes) had to be out of town at sundown. I remember when they couldn't participate in our beach, when they couldn't go get a haircut.” His answer, the same as many in Naperville, was to let change happen at its own pace. Further arguing there was no need to change laws or ordinances when practices would naturally shift over time. Advocates for civil rights rejected this model and continued to demand that Naperville become accessible to all who wished to live there.
The next battle was over fair housing (often called “open housing” in the period). Religious activists took the lead, framing the issue as one of personal morality—that racial integration was the right thing to do. Fair housing efforts were led by the Naperville Human Relations Council including Dr. Richard Eastman, Rev. Richard Tholin, Betty St. Angelo, and Mary Liz Burris. Eastman and Tholin were also connected with North Central College while Betty St. Angelo wrote publicly on behalf of Naperville Church Women United and Mary Liz Burris was active with the Naperville Human Relations Council. Their efforts provoked an intense public backlash. Defenders of segregation labeled ministers and professors as “outsiders” with no right to judge Naperville residents. Shifting tactics, activists presented fair housing as inevitable and framed the discussion around what would be in the best interest of Naperville homeowners. They argued that fair housing would help spur corporate recruitment and economic development and would also contain the rise of individual property taxes. A speaker at a November 1967 meeting of the Naperville Human Relations Council urged support for a fair housing ordinance, arguing that it would lead to economic, but not demographic change.
Opponents argued that fair housing violated their private property rights. In 1968, a community petition circulated to put a fair housing referendum on the next ballot, with the expectation that it would fail if put to community vote. National events soon overcame local debates. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., passage of a federal fair housing law, and the Supreme Court decision in Jones v. MayerJones v. Mayer, 1968: US Supreme Court decision that congress has the authority to regulate the sale of private property and bar housing discrimination based on the 13th Amendment. This allowed for federal action in private as well as public acts of discrimination. The ruling connected housing discrimination with the legacy of slavery and reinvigorated the Civil Rights Act of 1866 for the first time in a century. declaring that housing discrimination violated the 13th Amendment, pushed Naperville’s city council to adopt a fair housing ordinance in July 1968.
Naperville’s population doubled each decade from 1950 until 2000. The Naperville housing market reveals a complicated story about growing diversity in Naperville: while increased home values have added to the wealth and quality of life for many, the city has become increasingly unaffordable for low- and middle-income people. Contemporary housing debates largely focus on affordable housing. Individuals and organizations are now pushing for recognition of Naperville’s history as a sundown town. Community divisions around recent cases of racial and religious discrimination have brought negative attention to the city. A new generation of activists has facilitated discussions, called for new resolutions and government action to address discrimination, organized public protests, and celebrated Naperville’s diverse population in hopes of making the city more inclusive. Despite Naperville’s increasing diversity, racial justice and access to housing remain central to discussions of the city’s present and future.
Grassroots organizations and interfaith groups have pushed for greater understanding of the issues and work to promote community dialogue.
The City of Naperville adopted a new mission statement in 2019, specifically adding the clause “creating an inclusive community that values diversity.” In 2021, the city hired its first Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager who works directly with the Human Rights and Fair Housing Commission to promote equal opportunity, including fair housing.