James Shannon, who grew up in a segregated section of the South, dreamed of owning a home in suburbia.
He and his wife, who had moved north to take jobs as teachers, set their sights on an integrated suburb on Chicago's near West Side.
But the real estate agent steered them to a neighboring, predominantly black suburb, insisting that comparable homes were at least $10,000 cheaper. And the Shannons later discovered that acceptable homes in the same price range were available in either suburb. Mr. Shannon, who for personal reasons kept his original home, still bristles at the incident.
The Shannons' experience is not unusual.
Although great strides have been made in opening suburban housing to blacks over the last decade, there are signs that the suburbs are repeating the segregated housing patterns of America's inner cities.
The 1980 census notes that for the first time the black population in the suburbs is growing at a faster rate than in the central cities. The suburbs now are home to 1 of every 5 blacks.
''There's been a substantial movement to the suburbs . . . but if you look more closely you find it's often (only) designated parts of suburbs,'' confirms Martin Sloan, executive director of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing (NCAD).
A number of suburbs have developed pocket concentrations of one race or the other in certain neighborhoods. Several others have simply shifted from all-white to all-black as white homeowners, concerned that property values could fall, have moved out.
Maywood, Ill., for instance, a western suburb of Chicago, had a population that was 41 percent black in 1970 but is now more than 75 percent black. And all but a handful of Chicago's suburban blacks live in a mere 15 of the city's more than 200 suburbs, according to a study by Pierre deVise, a political scientist with the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle.
Most experts say the trend is encouraged by a combination of forces.
One of the most common is racial ''steering'' by real estate agents -- often one of the hardest to detect. ''The realtors don't tell you that nothing is available -- that might make you suspicious,'' explains NCAD's Mr. Sloan. ''You're treated very nicely.''
One subtle modern means can be the exercise of an otherwise perfectly legal first option to buy property by a homeowners association. That's what happened to Mr. and Mrs. William J. Phillips, who had already signed a sales contract with the owners of a $675,000 home in an exclusive section of Oak Brook, a West Chicago suburb. When the local homeowners association intervened to buy the property instead, the Phillipses decided to take the case to court. The judge termed the association's action racially based and a ''flagrant violation'' of fair housing laws. He awarded the Phillipses a record high $288,691 in court costs and punitive damages.
Another reason for segregation is self-steering by blacks, experts say.
''Blacks are so conditioned to go to neighborhoods that whites have moved out of,'' says Mr. Shannon, now director of the Fair Housing Center of the Chicago-based Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. The council represents one of many efforts to discourage racial segregation in the suburbs.
One way that fair-housing centers try to determine if steering is intentional is to send in black and white ''testers'' to follow up on home-buyer complaints. If the treatment they get posing as buyers or renters confirms the suspicion, the realtor may be taken to court. A recent US Supreme Court decision on a Richmond, Va., case adds an important weapon to the fair-housing arsenal by affirming a tester's standing to sue on a home-seeker's behalf.
Many such court cases are filed, but the process is lengthy and some experts question its effect.
In many cases families are also encouraged to take the plunge of moving into neighborhoods where few blacks have ventured. Mr. Shannon reports that contrary to some of the well-publicized incidents of harassment, many black families have made such moves without incident and have reported extra acts of kindness from neighbors.
''It takes a lot of special effort to keep a community racially diverse over the long haul,'' notes Bobbi Raymond, executive director of the Oak Park (Ill.) Housing Center. That Chicago suburb, which passed a fair-housing bill in 1968 and has a well-dispersed 12 percent black population, is regarded as a national model of a successfully integrated suburb. ''You need a show of high quality and often improved services. And you have to get the message to owners of apartment buildings that these can be racially diverse and still keep their value. And the government has to look at itself. Are there blacks on the police force and in the fire department?''
''There are a lot of good people in many of these communities who are willing to stand up and make integration work,'' he adds. ''And I do believe I'll live to see the day when I can stand in front of any house and not know its racial makeup by its location.''