—by Rhonda K. Craven
By the early 1900s, Evanston’s black community was well established, with three growing churches, a variety of individuals owning their own businesses, children attending the local schools, families owning and living in homes in different neighborhoods, and thriving social organizations. Some original settlers, dating as early as 1855, had already passed away or were very elderly, so there was room for “young blood” to join the growth and expansion of black presence and influence in Evanston.
William Hamilton Gill was born in Rockport, Indiana, on January 20, 1886, one of several children born to James and Kate Gill. When he moved to Chicago in the early 1900s, he was a general jobber. Gill married his first wife, Mary Belle Weaver, in 1906, and they moved to Evanston, living at 928 Judson St. They joined the Second Baptist Church, where he served as the church clerk.
In 1913, he ran for the office of city constable
In the spring of 1908, as the Sanitary District of Chicago sought to clear land around the canal area in Evanston, the Gills sold a vacant lot they owned on Dewey between Grant and Noyes Streets. By 1909, they had purchased a home at 818 Washington St., integrating that area for the first time. This large house also provided a home for lodgers over the years. It’s been said that Gill was the first Negro employee at the nearby Washington Laundry. As the proprietor of The People’s Laundry, with offices at his home, a 1911 display advertisement described its services as “Hand work only. Ladies’ Fancy Shirtwaists and Suits a Specialty. All work guaranteed.” He continued working in the laundry business for several years.
Gill was an early financial supporter of the Emerson Y.M.C.A. as black residents sought to match funds raised by white supporters of the effort. He established the Young Men’s Progressive Club at Second Baptist in 1911 and was selected to be its first president. Gill, who was also a prayer meeting leader, regularly took part in programs inside and outside the church, and he was described as “an amusing speaker”. He participated in the installation of Rev. I. A. Thomas, Second Baptist’s new pastor, in May 1912 and the second anniversary banquet for New Hope C. M. E. in May 1914. In 1918, he spoke at Shiloh Baptist Church in Waukegan, which was pastored by the Emerson Y.M.C.A.’s first executive secretary, Rev. J. Rayford Talley, who had previously served at Second Baptist.
In 1913, he ran for the office of city constable, and he became the first Negro in Evanston to serve in that position, which he held for eight years. Around this same time, he began his career as a publisher and earned the nickname of “Editor Gill”. In the mid-1910s, he produced the Evanston Advertiser, and by the early 1920s, he began publishing the Evanston Weekly. These papers had offices at 1303 Sherman, and later at 1419 Sherman. In early 1929, he was the co-publisher (with future alderman, Edwin B. Jourdain) of the weekly North Shore Guide. Sadly, very limited copies of these papers are in existence.
During this time, there were ongoing protests against segregation in the local movie houses. In early 1919, Gill led a delegation that fought restrictions at the Star Theatre, 806 Davis St., after a customer was evicted because he chose not to move to the Negro section when asked. The Chicago Tribune reported that Gill said the next incident would “be made the basis of a prosecution in the courts.” It’s not clear how this specific incident was resolved.
He was appointed to report the Emerson Y.M.C.A.’s weekly activities for the Evanston News-Index in 1920. Gill also lectured at various churches to discuss “The Benefits of Co-operative Buying and How It Should Be Done”, and he was accompanied by a quartet of local jubilee singers.
In 1921, he was a principal speaker during a meeting to plan a $25,000 publication establishment. Gill also co-led (with barber, Forrest E. White) the effort to purchase a 50-foot vacant lot on Emerson Street between West Railroad (now Green Bay Road) and Asbury Avenues. The plan was to construct a three-story office building with a ground floor store, office space for businesses and organizations, and a lodge hall. Gill was one of 22 local businessmen who each contributed $100.00 towards the purchase of the lot. This building, the Masonic Temple at 1229-31 Emerson St., opened in the spring of 1929.
Gill was an admirer of noted Evanstonian, General Charles G. Dawes, who was nominated as Vice President of the United States in 1924. He sent Dawes correspondence with clippings showing the Weekly’s support of his political efforts. In turn, Dawes provided financial support for the paper at a critical juncture and purchased two subscriptions for at least a year. Later, Gill was among several Evanstonians who encouraged Dawes to run for President in 1928.
He served as president of the Baptist Young People’s Union (B.Y.P.U.) for several years and was appointed as a trustee at the church. By this time, Gill was also involved in the real estate (“Farm Lands a Specialty, Specializing in All Kinds of Trade”) and insurance businesses. He continued his leadership with the Emerson Y.M.C.A. as a member of the board of management.
In 1929, Marshall Field purchased property at the northwest corner of Church Street and Sherman Avenue (the site of Haven School from 1888 to 1927). Local newspapers reported several real estate transactions that reflected rapidly escalating property values in downtown Evanston. This prompted Second Baptist to discuss whether the church (which had acquired its Benson Avenue lot as leased property from Northwestern University in 1883 and purchased it in 1891) should stay in the area.
Though a number of black-owned businesses and residents were still in the downtown area (largely concentrated on University Place, Clark Street, Oak Avenue and Maple Avenue), there was an ongoing push for blacks to move west. Within the church, talks became contentious about what should be done with the church property, resulting in two factions among the membership. There were accusations that Rev. Thomas was excluding members who disagreed with his plans, and Gill, who was serving as the church clerk at this point, was part of the opposition. Rev. Thomas and his officers were removed from service in a controversial election in July 1929, and he challenged the results for more than a year. Eventually, around 1931, he and some former church members established “Second Baptist on Emerson” after worshipping at Foster School for a time. Gill remained at the church on Benson.
His wife, Mary, who had been sick frequently over the years, died in 1930. With the endorsement of the League of Women Voters, Gill ran for justice of the peace in 1931. In spite of there being over 3,000 “race votes” available, he came in fifth in an eight man race.
In 1932, after the election of Alderman Jourdain in 1931 had been challenged due to alleged voter violations, Gill emceed a rally held at Second Baptist, and the keynote speaker was noted attorney, Clarence Darrow.
That same year, a W. S. Hubbard, of the (International) Harvester building in Chicago, received a letter from Edwin M. Goodman, Evanston’s Commissioner of Buildings, after he expressed concerns about the 800 block of Washington. In reply, Goodman advised Hubbard that the colored population had lived there for some time. He also cited Gill’s long residency and his real estate business. Hubbard apparently wanted the neighborhood to be segregated and the building condemned. Goodman indicated that the first was illegal and the second almost impossible to accomplish. He then suggested the establishment of a neighborhood improvement association to control tenancy in distressed buildings.
Gill married Della Robinson in 1941. In July 1947, he published the first Church and Business Directory, which documented schools, institutions and businesses, notable individuals and aspects of Evanston’s history.
In 1949, he founded and was the first president of the Men’s Forum, an organization that provided donations of food, money and a helping hand to those in need. Gill was a long-time member of Mount Moriah Lodge, Evanston NAACP and the Fifth Ward Republicans, and he became the Emerson Y.M.C.A.’s branch chairman in 1953.
After he died of a heart attack in his home in July 1961, the Evanston Review stated that, as a longtime real estate broker, “It was through his efforts that many areas were opened to Negroes.” The Chicago Defender indicated that he “was always anxious to advance the cause of his race and his community, was always in the vanguard of progressive and uplifting events in our town.” Gill, who never had children, was survived by his wife, Della (who lived in the home until her death in 1981), two siblings who lived in Chicago, as well as a number of nieces, nephews and friends. His funeral was attended by different local ministers, including the pastors of Ebenezer A. M. E. and Sherman Methodist, a testament to his impact throughout the community.
Images: All illustrations from the Church and Business Directory, 1949 and 1951 issues, published by William H. Gill