— By Salome Perry Young (founder) —
At a time when the United States was still recovering from the Great Depression, everyday lives were characterized by a blend of optimism and pessimism. A nucleus of ambitious, energetic and optimistic young Black college-level women came together in 1938 to share in common interests and concerns. They chose to focus on social, civic and benevolent pursuits and, at a local level, changed the state of educational appointments.
At one of their first planning meetings while considering a name for the club, one of the members said, “We want to be tops in everything.” Another responded, “Let’s call ourselves Toppers.” This group of women, called the Toppers, wanted to make things happen. Through its existence, membership averaged 14 energetic women bonded by civic duty, their imperative to serve and their friendship.
As explained in the 12-page booklet, Through the Years with The Toppers Club of Evanston, Illinois, Many Blacks had moved to Evanston seeking a better life for themselves and their families. A proud and progressive community, Evanston nevertheless relegated most of its Black citizens to one sector of the city, the West Side. Schools, housing, churches and restaurants were segregated. Opportunities for Blacks in business and the professions were limited.
We want to be tops in everything.
Black families worked hard to improve their condition. Home ownership and the education of their children was the symbol of pride. The Toppers Club was organized out of a deep sense of the prevailing human condition and a desire to contribute to the betterment of society.
The Toppers began to visit and take food treats and gifts to the residents of the Hadley Nursing Home, then located on Emerson Street during the 1940s. At one time, the Hadley Home was the only local facility for housing and caring for the incapacitated, indigent, and chronically ill Blacks in the Evanston community.
In the 1950s, The Toppers were one of the first Black organization to work with Evanston Township High School to provide scholastic awards to outstanding and needy students, providing recognition and encouragement for Black students to pursue higher education. However, their pivotal contribution to the Black community lied in their role with Evanston school board.
The Toppers Club is credited in breaking down racial barriers within the school boards. During the 1950s, These young women were the first Black group to apply for membership in the all-white District 65 and 202 School Board Caucus. The Caucus was an organization that screened and selected candidates for the two school boards where their endorsement was tantamount to election in those days.
The club members actively participated and helped search for qualified Black candidates. Their work led to the placement of two Black board members in both school district 65 and school district 202. The Caucus later added a ruling that required member groups to have a minimum of fifty members to be an active participant in the Caucus. At first, the Toppers thought they would be grandfathered in. However, when the ruling went into effect, it was not made retroactive and as a result, the Toppers were eliminated from the Caucus.
It was hoped that new ideas and goals would emerge with relevance for the present, a different time in society.
Funds to support activities were generated through membership dues and fundraising activities and various other events. The Toppers Club met monthly to plan, share ideas, discuss issues and dine together. Seasonally, family gatherings picnics, entertainment, and special events were arranged. The CCC Newsette (July 21, 1977) recorded one of their reunion events:
“In their prime time (and also now) when Chicagoland – the Midwest – was the most segregated of Northern areas. . . Black women needed to form a protectorate against undue encroachment as they paved the way for Black men and Black women to attain their highest goals. So they formed an all Black Toppers Club, not because they were anti-white, but because they had to be pro-Black – future mothers of Black children who themselves would not have a future if Toper mothers failed to provide for their future.”
As stated in Through the Years. . ., Reflecting on the club’s past, Toppers were cognizant of the fact that times have changed and that they too have changed. While fully aware of the progress that has been made – and proud of their role in advancing that progress – they were shaken by the problems that remain, as well as the new and perplexing issues that today threaten the foundation of “our way of life”. They envisioned a revitalized and up-to-date Topper organization, perpetuating the Toppers’ name and the values the organization espoused. It was hoped that new ideas and goals would emerge with relevance for the present, a different time in society. “The challenge is great! There is much to be done!”
The organization disbanded during the mid 1990s after over 70 years of service. “We stopped because so many members just died off.” Said Lorraine Morton (Mayor of Evanston 1993-2009) who joined the Toppers in 1953. Lorraine later bacame Evanston’s First African American Mayor. When looking back on their activities, the Toppers philosophy could be found in the visions and missions in many of today’s civic organizations.
Throughout the Toppers existence, they had as many as 36 members. As of this writing, surviving members include Lorraine H. Morton, Thelma Osborne, Judy Simms and Founder Salome Perry Young.
Notes: This article was reprinted from Through the Years with The Toppers Club of Evanston, Illinois, by Salome Perry Young with additional updates, rearrangement and edited for length by Shorefront staff. The same work appears in the Toppers 1990 Membership Roster and Birthdays. A write-up on the organization appeared in the CCC Newsette on July 21, 1977, p. 5. Source items can be found in the Shorefront archives in the Social and Civic Clubs and Organizations Collection. Additional information came from discussions with former member Lorrane H. Morton on Dec. 27, 2007 and from founding member Salome Perry Young, January 2008 and August, 2012.