Articles

Shorefront Update #011

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Premier screening of “Lorraine H. Morton: A Life Worthwhile”. Hon. Morton seated center.

2018 has been a significant year for Shorefront. Outreach, programming, recognition and special projects has kept Shorefront’s boards busy. Our activities throughout the year has expanded our impact on both a local and national platform.

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Dino Robinson

Shorefront founder, Dino Robinson, has been a strong advocate on the importance of independent community repositories and controlling its “own narrative”. He has presented these ideas in various forums and as a speaker at archival forums at Harvard University, UCLA, the Midwest Archives Conference Annual Meeting, the Black Communities symposiums in North Carolina and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

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Former Foster School now a local landmark

In addition, Shorefront presented a successful argument before the local Preservation Commission to have recognize the historic significance of a property that was once a segregated school in Evanston. The Commission unanimously voted in favor of passing a resolution recognizing it as an Evanston Landmark based on its history and the City of Evanston passed the resolution on October 22, 2018.

Shorefront produced and released its first independent documentary, “Lorraine H. Morton: A Life Worthwhile,” chronicling the nearly 100-year life of Evanston’s first African American Mayor, former alderman and career elementary and junior high teacher and principal. Hon. Morton, seated, at the premier screening on Northwestern University’s campus June 29, 2018. Since the release, Shorefront hosted 5 free public screenings of the documentary and has been entered into several film festivals. In 2019, Shorefront will release the DVDs.

Lastly, Shorefront gives thanks to our major funders, who over the years continue to support the activities of Shorefront. These include the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) African American History and Culture grant; MacArthur Funds for Arts and Culture at The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation; The Francis Beidler Foundation; and the Stone Heritage Properties.

IMLS enabled Shorefront to establish its publishing arm, Shorefront Press, form new partnerships and outreach efforts, attract new board members and expand its collection, recognizing two distinct island communities.

Under the Press, we signed three new titles. Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr: The Emergence of Black Political Power in Evanston, Illinois, 1931–1947; Dream Dancers Vol Two: Journey to the Promised Land 1865-1924; and Maintenance and Change of Status Immigrant Community: Haitians in Evanston, Illinois(summer 2019). Our titles are available on lulu.com.

Shorefront expanded its collection efforts to include two island communities present in the North Shore, Haiti and Jamaica. As Shorefront worked to build community with each presence, we have participated in multiple celebrations, had one-on-one discussions with representatives and now appear on a regular basis on a local Haitian radio station.

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Filming the Shorefront Promo

The MacArthur Funds for Arts and Culture at The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation has funded Shorefront over the last six years providing general support. This enabled Shorefront to welcome over 500 visitors to the Legacy Center including high school students and faculty, community groups and initiatives and student groups from Northwestern University. We revamped our multiple websitesinto a more cohesive and connected web presence and produced a 60 second video on the function of Shorefront that is viewable at our website. We added new panels for the “Legacies” traveling exhibit that was on display at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center throughout 2018. Lastly, we engaged in new partnerships that complimented the 6th annual Black History Month Lecture Series creating over 20 public programs during the month of February.

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Honorary street naming ceremony of a local Haitian community leader

On a weekly basis, Shorefront engages with the local community in various aspects of collecting, archiving and advocating for the preservation of local history. We cannot continue this without the generous support of our collective communities. 100% of funds supports these activities for future generations and we truly appreciate your support. Looking forward to 2019 for a new year in community archiving! Follow us on our various social media platforms and our new website launch site:

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Researching Glencoe’s Racial Past

Taylor Family c1920s in Glencoe
Taylor Family posing in Glencoe, IL, c1920s

—By Celia Buckman

I came to work at Shorefront through a circuitous series of realizations and referrals. During the summer of 2017, just before I went to college, I was reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy on my back porch in Glencoe. I was taken aback by Stevenson’s stories of defending inmates on death row, but equally struck by two of his other ideas: First, that the United States has a long, long way to go in memorializing the horrendous legacy of slavery, and second, that one must be proximate to issues to truly understand them and make a difference.

While reading about the cruelty of systematic incarceration and capital punishment of African-Americans, I couldn’t help but think about to which issues I, a Jewish girl on her back porch in Glencoe, was proximate. Throughout my time in Glencoe’s public schools and New Trier High School, I could count my black classmates on one hand, and had never considered why. Nearly all-white suburbs are not natural; they are the products of deliberate racial discrimination. I had been so close to the issue that I couldn’t see it for what it was. It was time to transform that inability to examine my surroundings to a meaningful proximity, like stepping back from an impressionist painting.

Celia Buckman
Celia Buckman

How did my town come to be so white, and what was to be done about it? That was the question I tried to answer with a free summer and the internet at my disposal. I found scans of census records on a genealogy website and hand-counted each black resident from decades of data. Although tedious, I found something important: the black population of Glencoe halved in between 1920 and 1930. What had happened during that time?

I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t know where to go next for my research. I read Robert Sideman’s African-Americans in Glencoe, which illuminated some important sources for me, and interviewed a few residents. I would be starting school soon, and had to table the project to transition to college.

Just a few weeks in, I met Dr. Marcia Chatelain, a history professor at Georgetown. She’s regarded as a must-take professor – equally accomplished and devoted to her students. When I told her about my nascent project, she directed me to Shorefront, where she had done research in graduate school. I reached out to Dino, and started to work in the archives when I returned home for the summer.

I really enjoyed organizing sources to be used by future researchers. I categorized letters written by Freedom Summer teachers to their disapproving parents. I sifted through legal notices and memoranda about discrimination by the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. But what interested me the most was a heap of unsorted materials about Glencoe from the 1880s to present day: newspaper clippings, letters, invitations, pamphlets. They proved incredibly helpful in establishing what had happened in my hometown, from its inception to the present. With that arc of history came a set of patterns that made Glencoe the way it is today.

First, Glencoe was always meant to be idyllic. This hasn’t changed much since its founding: Glencoe is situated overlooking a beautiful beach; it’s filled with well-maintained green spaces; the schools are well-regarded and small enough that everyone knows one another; the houses are beautiful and often sell for millions. Such was the vision of its founders, who sought an escape from their busy city lives.

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St. Paul A.M.E. Youth Choir practicing for the MLK remembrance in 1983. Photo by Jim Robinson

African-Americans bought property in Glencoe from early on in its history. Morton Culver, a local real estate developer, first sold land to blacks from Chicago in the early 1880s. The St Paul AME Church was founded shortly after in 1884. I found a Chicago Tribune article from the same year about a picnic in Glencoe, an event that drew blacks from the city and a number of surrounding suburbs. The picnickers are reported to have sung, “We’ll rest in this beautiful land, / Just along Michigan’s shore / Sing the song of Moses and the Lamb, / And dwell in Glencoe evermore.”

The vision of a blissful suburb seemed, at this moment, accessible to blacks. The air was fresher and the schools, which had always been racially integrated, were better than the cramped ones in the city.

But Chicago’s white elite was also taking notice of this ideal setting. Wealthy white couples started to pine after lakefront mansions for the weekends, and founded country clubs to entertain them during their stays. Eventually, these weekend visitors began to permanently settle in Glencoe.

A critical mass of them took measures to remove black people from Glencoe. In 1919, the Glencoe Homes Association was founded by residents with the intent to “beautify” the town. It bought properties to be resold with what Robert Sideman calls “zoning-like restrictions” to increase the town’s green space and sell selectively to what it deemed “proper” buyers.

In 1927, Glencoe Homes embarked on a project with the town’s government to build a public park. Rather than using the town’s many vacant lots, it would be located in the middle of southwest Glencoe – where the majority of black families lived. After much opposition, the families were forced to settle. The Glencoe Homes Association published an op-ed in the local paper about their disapproval of the “negro colony,” paraded under the headline: “Prevention by ‘Syndicate’ of Blight to Community Saved Realty Values in Millions.”

This is the point at which Glencoe’s black community halved, the enormous dip in the census data. I had sometimes wondered why Watts Park, where I learned to ice skate and had lacrosse practice, was divided by a street in the middle. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for it to be continuous? But nearly all-white suburbs are not natural; they are planned deliberately.

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July 10, 1942 Chicago SunTimes article

Despite this major fracture in Glencoe’s black population, the suburb continued to be relatively more diverse and progressive when compared to its surrounding suburbs. A.L. Foster, a Glencoe resident and then-Executive Director of the Chicago Urban League, won a case to desegregate Glencoe’s public beach in 1942, while Kenilworth didn’t have a single black resident until 1963.

Glencoe became a small enclave for black residents in an otherwise overwhelmingly white sea of suburbia. Mayor Robert Morris initiated programs to encourage African-Americans to apply for the village’s jobs in the mid-1950s, and the Glencoe Human Relations Committee formed to advocate for open housing and more harmonious race relations. When parents of New Trier students formed Concerned Black Parents in 1977, it met consistently where there was a critical mass of black parents: Glencoe. The group pushed for New Trier’s recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and inclusive teaching at the majority white high school.

Newspaper articles I found from this period struck me as odd. There were multiple articles that profiled Glencoe’s black residents as anomalies in their exposure to such a progressive society. In particular, I found this article bold in its claim to Glencoe as a champion of race relations:

February 9, 1977 (Suburban Trib)

“Assumptions on Race don’t Hold; Glencoe’s 6% Black”: The article rebukes the assumption that Glencoe has no black population, but rather a percentage far below the national average. It also acknowledges that “…a black homeowner will have to sell for a bit less than a white homeowner with a comparable house in Glencoe.” It recognizes that the original sale of property to blacks in Glencoe may have been a scheme to resentfully decrease its property value, but it “backfired and for years Glencoe was a primary source for domestic help on the North Shore.” Such “backfiring” refers only to the quality of life for white residents.

While these articles clung to every testimony and long-time residency of black Glenconians, the population has been declining gradually, but consistently, at about 1% per decade since 1930. One woman whom I interviewed cited the exorbitant housing prices as the main reason that her children didn’t raise their families in their hometown – an obstacle exacerbated by the fact that blacks often sold their homes for lower than they were worth. Another black resident wrote to the Glencoe News in 2004 to lament her inability to return to Glencoe because the homes on her childhood block had been torn down to build houses of twice the value. One might be reminded of the Glencoe Homes Association’s calls to beautify the town, and its consequences.

But economics aside, and with a multitude of studies proving that black families are more likely to live in lower-income areas even if they can afford not to do so, other factors influenced this gradual exodus. In a 2004 Glencoe News article entitled “Black Population Dwindles,” advocates cite widespread “‘steering’ [of] prospective homeowners toward communities that fit their demographic.” Carol Hendrix, a co-founder of Concerned Black Parents, witnessed her community leaving Glencoe over time, saying, “…[T]here was an effort by the builders to engineer the neighborhood.” Angela Hatfield, another resident interviewed in the article, said she was virtually certain that a white family would live in her home after her. 

Glencoe is currently 0.7% black. With its green spaces and beautiful beach, its colonial homes and quaint downtown, I can’t help but think of a line from Martin Luther King Junior’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He writes of the shame and injustice in “when you…see tears welling up in [your six year old daughter’s] eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people.” Glencoe is Funtown. While it wasn’t part of the Jim Crow South, it had been closed off to African-Americans in a gradual, de facto manner. Beyond the public policy implications of this injustice, it’s an affront to the dignity of so many.

In closing, I tried to better understand this issue to which I was so proximate. In doing so, I realized just how much history this suburb, of less than ten thousand residents and five square miles, holds. This history was sometimes subject to the reverberations of events far beyond its own scale – the Great Migration, for example – but, on the whole, was largely influenced by everyday people trying to change their hometown. From Morton Culver to A.L. Foster to Carol Hendrix, these individuals transformed the microcosm that is Glencoe, beyond the purview of anything I would learn about in an American History class. I’m grateful for organizations like Shorefront, that safeguard these local histories, and the legacies of those who sacrificed for their vision of a more equitable society.

 

Sources:

Sideman, Robert A., African Americans in Glencoe: The Little Migration, © 2009, The History Press, Charleston, SC.

Chicago Sun-Times, “Court Opens Glencoe Beach To Negro Family: Injunction Granted Against Official Of Park District”, July 10, 1942.

Suburban Tribune, “Assumptions on Race don’t Hold; Glencoe’s 6% Black”, February 9, 1977.

Wednesday Night Bridge Group Now Includes Men!

—By Janet Alexander Davis

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Don Washington, Nellie Nichols, Lorraine Morton, Kathy Boatright, Grace Pickens, Rev. Nabors (there for dinner) Edna Barber (hostess for that bridge day) Terri Ann Langston, and John Frye. Sitting is Janet Alexander Davis. Photo by Pam Barber

Change is one of the constant experiences we all will face during our lives, and change has come to an all women’ s bridge group which started around 60 years ago, The Wednesday Night group has been in existence for more than 60 years. Back then, many African American families were able to provide for their families where mothers and wives were able to stay home, raising their children and care for other family members. So too was the situation that enabled this group to begin and remain intact even today. Many wonderful members have passed away and others took their place, but they are never forgotten. That’s the beauty of memories, our bridge members that have gone home to be with the Lord, are never very far away. We remember often members who played a hand so well we couldn’t believe it, always served sumptuous food for our dinner and others made everyone laugh so hard they had to hold their stomachs.

Within the last several years, two men have added a wonderful addition to the vitality of our bridge group. John Frye and Don Washington are gifted players, and many of us want to beat them at their game of bridge! Lorraine Morton, former Mayor and Educator said about the group, “I thoroughly enjoy the group and its challenges. I get a kick out of the fact there are two men in the group- both excellent players. I enjoy more when I win a prize and they don’t.”

Our Wednesday Night Bridge Group meets every first and third Wednesday, and to make the night more interesting we give out three cash prizes. We won’t get rich on the amount but it adds spice to the process of playing five rounds of bridge and receiving bragging rights of winning at the end of the evening.

Cathy Boatright, retired Math Teacher, says about the group, “The joy of having friendships with several ladies and now gentlemen who enjoy playing bridge is wonderful. I enjoy talking about current events on a national level and events that affect the City of Evanston is most simulating.”

Hearing from one of the newest members of the group Don Washington, retired law enforcement officer says, “The group is stimulating, interesting, entertaining and keeps me young and happy.” The other man to join the group John Fyre, retired postal employee and business owner says, “I look forward to the first and third Wednesdays of each month.”

Some of the other members shared their thoughts about the bridge group including Terriann Langston, retired government employee, “I have such fun!” Nellie Nichols, retired from the medical field says, “Our friendships remain stronger through the years, we are all neighbors at one time or another of the City of Evanston which makes it special. I’ve been in the group 51 years.” One of the longest members in the group is Grace Pickens, retired care taker, ” I came here in 1955 and I joined the bridge group while visiting at Sam Mckinley’s house, even though at the time, I didn’t know how to play. There never was a discussion on asking men to join and I was there because initially it was something to do. I like to play. . .I enjoy winning. . .when I make a slam (taking all the books except one is called a little slam, taking all the books is called a grand slam and is a real feat) I get such a thrill and I get up from my chair and yell! it’s a lovely group. . .having men in the group is about the same for me, I always want to beat them!”

The longest serving member of the group is Edna Barber, a retiree in the medical field and a thoughtful bridge play. Edna always seems to have the card you’d rather her not have because it causes you to miss your bid!

At times, I had been substituting in the group when others couldn’t attend. After some of the members passed away, I was asked along with another person to join the group. It’s been a wonderful experience and I look forward to the friendship, compassion and camaraderie from a fantastic group of people.

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Bridge club c1950s at the then, Foster Recreational Center, now Fleetwood Jourdain Center. Photo courtesy of Virginia Griffin, Shorefront photographic collection

I started learning how to play bridge in my late 20s. Back then there were quite a few bridge groups around so I had the opportunity to play with some of the best players around such as the late (all late) Dr. Florence Winfield, Gillie Frye, Louise Dye, Camilla Harris, Celestine Washington, Ernestine Guillebeaux, Honorable Mayme Spencer and more. Bridge was a popular past time then and was enjoyed by many, not so much today, though there are opportunities to play bridge at the Levy Center.

In Memory of Lorraine H. Morton

Microsoft Word - Shorefront Cover Letter for In Memory of Mayor Morton.docx

Standing left to right: Don Washington, Nellie Nichols, John Frye, Grace Pickens, Janet Alexander Davis, Terri Ann Langston. Sitting left to right: Edna Barber, Lorraine Morton, Kathy Boatright. Photo by James Davis

Since 1958, the Wednesday Night Bridge Group has gathered together for an evening of fun and camaraderie. the late Honorable Morton was a member of our bridge group for many years and brought smiles and laughter to us all: Grace Pickens, Nellie Nichols, Terri Ann Langston, Janet Alexander Davis, John Frye, Don Washington, Carlis Sutton, Sue Aron, September 22, 2018.

Shorefront Legacy Center: A North Shore Jewel

— By Angela F. Allen

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The Family Rendezvous Reunion visiting Shorefront on July 21, 2018

Abbeville, SC to Evanston, IL

In 2016, my family and I ventured to Abbeville, South Carolina to walk the land, to visit the cemetery and to spend time in the church of our maternal ancestors. It was the first time for some family members to see this part of the country. Abbeville connected us to our southern roots. That connection made this trip special.

In keeping with the theme of “connection,” the Family Rendezvous 2016 participants voted to explore Evanston, Illinois in 2018. A great number of Abbeville residents migrated to Evanston during the Great Migration. By 1925, our maternal ancestors lived in Evanston: Oscar and Catherine (Jenkins) Davis, 1011 Emerson; Rufus and Annetta (Ramey) Watt, 1012 Ayars Place; Spencer and Mary Watt, 1012 Ayars Place. Oscar and Catherine Davis’ descendants currently reside in Evanston.

IMG_0976On Saturday, July 21, 2018, the major event for the Family Rendezvous 2018 introduced the participants to Shorefront Legacy Center, (Shorefront) 2214 Ridge Avenue, Lower Level, Evanston, IL. Morris “Dino” Robinson, Shorefront’s founder, graciously hosted over 50 family members and friends from California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. Evanston residents, Mattie Amaker, Priscilla Giles, and Catherine Johnson, members of the African American History and Genealogy Study Group of Evanston and Afro-American Genealogical & Historical Society of Chicago, attended and offered their expertise.

IMG_0947Shorefront’s welcoming spirit encourages investigating, learning, and researching. This repository immediately immersed participants into Evanston’s African American history. The Shorefront Journal covers spread out across a wall displaying faces from the community. Another wall display highlights various photos and artifacts. The meeting room contains artifacts, books, and an ongoing video presentation. In the midst of all of these displays stands the Archives.

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Founder Dino Robinson

Once everyone gathered, Dino discussed how Shorefront began. He recognized a dearth of Black historic information on the North Shore and the need to establish a center in Evanston that would serve as a place for educating students and researchers, for preserving historic material, and for showcasing the contributions that African Americans made to the community. Participants listened intently. Family members appreciated Dino’s knowledge and passion for history. One member described Dino as a “walking encyclopedia.” Some members pinpointed particular elements of Dino’s discussion that touched them:

  • Dino laid out the importance of Shorefront by explaining what would happen if its collection had been given over to a larger institution. Not many people know these things.
  • The idea that students and researchers have access to the actual archives impressed me.
  • It was wonderful to see photos and artifacts unique to the area.

Dino entertained questions. Family members asked significant questions regarding funding for Shorefront, maintaining the collection, and volunteering to process the collection. Others perused the books and artifacts. Most members purchased copies of Shorefront’s publication –A Place We Can Call Our Home (by Morris Robinson, Jr.). The Family Rendezvous 2018 committee donated copies of the Family Rendezvous 2016 and 2018 Family History books for the Abbeville, South Carolina collection, and a promise to donate the family t-shirt as well. Overall, the visit to the Shorefront Legacy Center proved to be a worthwhile educational experience.

Anyone with an interest in African American History on Chicago’s suburban north shore, take the time to explore the Shorefront Legacy Center, the North Shore Jewel. Consult www.shorefrontlegacy.org for the online finding aid and additional information.

Forming the Evanston Branch NAACP: A Historical Outline

—by Dino Robinson

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2017 Evanston Chapter NAACP officer installation ceremony. Ret. Judge Mary Maxwell-Thomas delivering the oath of service.

There are moments in this country’s history when movements emerge in response to social conditions surrounding us. Our current generations “Black Lives Matter” came to life defined by the inequity of law enforcements treatment of people of color. The Civil Rights movement was defined by the activities of the 1950s and 60s. Fighting the establishment of Jim Crow during the Reconstruction era, led to the formation of the Niagara Movement in 1905.

Established on February 12, 1909, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was birthed out of the 1905 Niagara Movement. In Evanston, with a population of a little under 1,200 Black residents, had just begun to take action against the growing local Jim Crow establishment. Local and national newspapers took note while Evanston was compelled to maintain the image of a “sanctified” town, all while Jim Crow was becoming the norm. Evanston’s Black residents took action, challenged society, questioned government — and made headlines.

May 6, 1903 (Chicago Tribune)
“Evanston Blacks Fear Wave of Race Prejudice”:The article tells of a certain colored man frightening women and calls upon the colored people to keep their brother at home. The article is headed, “A Rope Might Do,” and the colored people in Evanston take it seriously. . .

January 22, 1904 (Chicago Tribune)
“North Shore Towns Aroused: Influx of Negroes Alarms the Residents of Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka and Glencoe”: .. . As a solution of the problem suddenly presented, Evanston citizens are reviving the old scheme of a town for negroes, to be located near Niles Center. To this it is proposed to deport objectionable characters.

February 7, 1906 (Chicago Tribune)
Charges Stir a Post office: Race Discrimination on of accusations at Evanston – Trouble is said to arise out of Employment of Negro Carriers”:
. . .DePugh accused Peterson frequently of discrimination against the colored carriers and is said to have made frequent threats that he would “tell what he knew.” Several times he was threatened with dismissal.

August 26, 1911 (Chicago Defender)
“Jim Crow Cars for Cultured Evanston”:Evanston Southern (White) Society Successful in Jim Crow Theater, will now resort to Jim Crow street cars — The Unwarranted segregation a blight in cultured Evanston; Where there are as many churches as schools. The Rights of the negro citizen should be demanded and respected; the matter peaceably adjusted, once and always— The constitution of the United States must be respected and guarded as strictly as the “Monroe Doctrine” was in the case of Cuba and the Mother Country.

In the same issue:

“The Segregation Equivalent at Evanston”:. . .Whether Evanston is to continue to maintain a clean, respectable, unbiased community such as she bears by reputation will be watched editorially by the Defender with great interest.

September 2, 1911 (Chicago Defender)
“Forces are Fighting Jim Crowism”:Rev. H. S. Graves of Ebenezer AME and Rev. E.H. Fletcher of Mt. Zion Baptist church charged against Jim Crowism from their pulpits on last Sunday evening. . .

September 9, 1911 (Chicago Defender)
“Colored People Admitted in All Parts of Evanston Theater”:The management of the Evanston theater came into camp with a flag of truce begging mercy of the butler of the Northwestern railroad president, Dr. and Mrs. Garnett, and Attorney Auter for trying to keep them out of a decent place to sit in their playhouse…

November 4, 1911 (Chicago Defender)
“Wealthy Evanstonians Speak in Defense of their Lethargy. . . Dr. W.F. Garnett cool but determined for Justice”: . . . [Long op-ed. ending with a listing of local leaders] – Respectfully submitted – Dr. W.F. Garnett, Samuel J. Cannon, William H. Twiggs, Richard C. Williams, James P. Hill, Thomas F. Richardson, Frank Davenport, Charles C. Breckenridge, Dr. Arthur D. Butler, Adam P. Perry, William F. Cromer, Thomas H. Cotton, Charles Morris, Joseph Prather, Robert T. Milner, Henry Butler, Sandy Trent, D.W. Richardson, John R. Auter, Charles B. Scruggs, J. H. Blackwell, Ernest Burns.

February 10, 1912 (Chicago Defender)
“Evanston Theater Sued by Mrs. Garnett”: Mrs. Helen W. Garnett, wife of Dr. Garnett, who lives in Evanston. The suit was brought for $500 in the circuit court. Hon. E.H. Morris is the man behind the law

June 22, 1912 (Chicago Defender)
“Evanston Theater Still Bars Negroes”:On last Saturday evening the Evanston Theater company again showed that it did not want and would not have Negroes sitting on the ground floor. . . Mr. Vance informed her that they would not tolerate Negroes on the first floor.

August 7, 1913 (Chicago Tribune)
“Wilmette Takes Trail of Negroes”:Village residents call meeting for Saturday Night to discuss “Invasion”. . . Demanded property list. . . If Black men are revealed as purchasers means of ousting will be considered. “It is expected Mr. Barker will be invited to the meeting Saturday night and asked to explain what guarantee he has that the village will remain white.

May 6, 1916 (Chicago Defender)
“Demands Right to Choose Seat”:Evanston, IL, May 5—John Smith, who was arrested after he had refused to take a seat to which he was directed in an Evanston movie show, today prepared to make a fight against the “Jim Crow” rules which are enforced in a number of similar places. . .

The Crisis Magazine, established in 1910 as the official organ of the NAACP, reported some activities in Evanston. Of note, the August, 1918 issue (Vol 16, No 4), published a roll of 26 members in Evanston. The April 1919 issue (Vol 17, No 6) published a roll of 59 members in Evanston. By the end of 1919, the Crisislisted a total of 11 active chapters of the NAACP in the State of Illinois and included Evanston, Illinois.

June 28, 1919(Chicago Defender)
Professor A.C. McNeal was the principal speaker at the NAACP meeting, held at the Emerson Street Y . . .. Dr. W. F. Garnett was master of ceremonies. Prof. W.W. Fisher was elected president of the NAACP and Mrs. Elizabeth Croford [sp] Williams secretary.

The Evanston chapter worked toward making an organized impact within Evanston with efforts to show formal structure:

April 30, 1921 (Chicago Defender)
“Mrs. G. DeBaptist Ashburn spoke at the “Y” Thursday evening in the interest of the NAACP and reorganized the branch in this city.

Though the early charter members of the Evanston NAACP are not clear, it is noted that within the combined early newspapers and publications, several names had appeared. Among them were the following:

Dr. William F. Garnett
Hellen W. Garnett
Rev. Horace Graves (Ebenezer)
Rev. E.H. Fletcher (Mt. Zion)
Dr. Isabella Garnett
Dr. Arthur D. Butler
William H. Twiggs
Prof. W.W. Fisher (served president, 1919)
Elizabeth Croford [sp] Williams (secretary, 1919)
Dr. R. M. Young (served as president, 1921)
W.M. Tate (V.P. 1921)
S.C. Nichols (secretary, 1921)
J.E. Moor (asst. sec., 1921)
J. Malone (treasurer, 1921)

By 1924, This Evanston chapter dissolved. However, a renewed interest in chartering a new Evanston branch NAACP was reported in the November 10, 1927 issue of the Evening News Index.

“Colored people of Evanston May Join Association: Plan to Organize Unit at Sunday Meeting”. . . Evanston colored citizens let by I.G. Roberts and Albert C. Ivole [sp], will meet at the Emerson Street Church to organize themselves into a unit of the NAACP. . . Three years ago, the Evanston unit disbanded, and Monday evening the group will make plans to apply for a new charter.

Then in November, 1928

“Negro Association to Launch Member Drive at Meet Tomorrow”:Tomorrow the Evanston branch of the NAACP, which has recently been organized through the efforts of E.D. Seals, will launch a drive for members. . . The Rev. William J. Weaver, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal church of Evanston is president of the Evanston Chapter.

A few of the members mentioned in articles after the new charter include the following:

E.D. Seals
Gertrude O’Neill (program chair)
Rev. William J. Weaver (president, 1928)
Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr (his father was involved with the original Niagara Movement)
Daisy Sandridge (former 5thward alderman)
Robert Pettitt (president, 1935)
LeJune Fisher
Claude Cephas

The work of the Evanston Branch NAACP has since been uninterrupted after its new charter in 1928. The early activism of Evanston’s Black community rose to fight against Jim Crow. Today, the Evanston Branch NAACP continues its advocacy for modern Civil Rights. The Evanston branch has had about 25 presidents, and a legion of executives and board members. The past known presidents are as follows:

Dr. William F. Garnett, 1918?
Prof. W.W. Fisher, 1919
Dr. R. M. Young, 1921
Rev. William J. Weaver, 1928
Robert Petitt, 1935
William Wright (dates uncertain)
Clarence Mason, Sr. (dates uncertain)
Lula Harper-Jackson (dates uncertain)
Rev. J. Rayford Talley (dates uncertain)
Dr. Samuel McDonald (dates uncertain)
Charles Worthington (dates uncertain)
William Pyant (dates uncertain)
Dr. Warren F. Spencer, 1957-63
Andrew L. Cooper, 1964-68
Carl E. Davis, 1969-76
Edna Summers, 1977-78
Coleman Miller, 1979-84
Joseph E. Hill, 1984-89
Bennett J. Johnson, 1990
Rev. John Norwood, 1991-92
Coleman Miller, 1993
Hecky Powell, 1993
Fred Hunter, Jr., 1994
Bennett J. Johnson, 1995-2002
George Mitchell, 2002-16
Rev. Michael Nabors, 2017 –

While this is just a summary of the Evanston Chapters, spanning nearly 100 years, there is still much discovery needed, especially for its early local history. Let’s make this happen.

 

Notes: Oral presentation first delivered at the Evanston Chapter, NAACP Installation Ceremony held at Unitarian Church of Evanston, Sunday, January 22, 2017 written and researched by Dino Robinson, founder of Shorefront. The article was modified for formatting

 

Reflections on Shorefront

— By Katherine D’Antico

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Katherine overseeing the re-boxing of the Melvin Smith Collection – over 15 feet of documents

I was fortunate enough to discover Shorefront through a recommendation from Dominican University professor. The professor thought Shorefront would be a good candidate for my practicum since it was in my hometown, Evanston, IL. I did not realize this archival repository was within walking distance down Ridge Ave. I was unsure what to expect and was instantly impressed how Dino meticulously organized myriad collection—considering this is a one-person operation. I conducted one hundred and twenty hours for my practicum at Shorefront Legacy Center during my final semester at Dominican University. Shorefront ascribes to preserve and collect local African-American material from organizations and individuals within the Northshore.This repository provides a wonderful and invaluable educational resource to community members who might be unfamiliar with these materials.

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Prepping a re-boxing task

My responsibilities at Shorefront consisted of the redistribution of the Melvin Smith and Graves family collections. The materials were comprised of photographs, ephemera, and copies of the Concern Citizens Commitment newsette. The most challenging aspect I encountered during redistribution, was determining the appropriate number of boxes and sizes. I selected twenty-six letter and legal size to accommodate fifteen folders per box. The process enabled me to implement skillsets gained from coursework in a real-world setting. I think archival repositories like Shorefront should be established to promote minority communities/collect and preserve individual and family histories This experience increased my comprehension of how an archival repository gathers, preserves, and provides accessibility through a physical and digital presence. It was enjoyable working to overhear Dino expound to various tour groups the functions of Shorefront and witness their engaged and enthusiastic reactions. I also enjoyed the opportunity to work individually; a commonality in the archival community.

I would encourage Dominican University School of Information Studies (SOIS) graduate students seeking or contemplating practicum locations to utilize Shorefront for their research needs. Students archival experience will be enhanced by a growing repository that is evident, when visiting, this is a passion project.

Shorefront Update #010

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First three publications under Shorefront Press

Shorefront’s 2017 year was filled with activities, avocation, national forums and new partnerships. New acquisitions, the 5th installment of the Black History Month Lecture Series, participation with institutions from around the country and engagement with the schools have increased Shorefronts visibility and discoverability.

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Shorefront Archives

As an active collecting repository, new items added to the archives come from former alderman Delores Holmes, former School District 65 superintendent Joseph Hill, OPAL, Jack and Jill North Shore Chapter, items from the Graves family and campaign materials from Evanston’s April ward and mayoral elections. In addition, Shorefront has conducted over a dozen oral history sessions.

Shorefront recently partnered with the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, MA to digitize 93 documents from the Edwin B. Jourdain Jr. collection housed at Shorefront. The documents will late be uploaded to a digital repository portal and eventually ingested to the UMBRA Research site. UMBRA specializes on important documents related to the African American communities across the country.

In partnership with the Evanston Chapter NAACP, The African American History and Genealogy Consortium and the Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti, three community wide panel discussions were shared at the 5th Annual Black History Lecture Series event. Held on three consecutive Saturdays, scholars and community members shared their knowledge. All three sessions were filmed and archived at Shorefront.

Poster_2017Lecture one was Abbeville, South Carolina to Evanston and the Long Road to Recognition and Reconciliation. Lecture two was Pan-Africanism: Cuba and the Fight Against Colonialism. Session three was The Black Vote: What Just Happened—and What Do We Do Now? Sessions were held at Sherman United Methodist Church and at the Evanston Levy Center and was attended by over 175 participants.

The new traveling exhibit “Legacies” has grown from 10 to 15 panels. For 2018, Shorefront will produce five new panels. The growing, multi-panel focuses a snapshot of historic and contemporary residents and organizations throughout the North Shore. In 2017, the panels were displayed at the Evanston History Center and soon at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center.

During the 2017 Evanston NAACP installation of new officers, Shorefront presented an interesting early account of the local chapter activities utilizing newspaper headlines and the community members engaged in fighting early Jim Crow in Evanston.

Shorefront is in its second-year grant cycle with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), “Museum Grants for African American History and Culture” and as a collaborating partner with the “National Leadership Grants for Libraries”. The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums. To learn more, visit www.imls.gov.

With the “Museum Grants for African American History and Culture”, Shorefront officially launched Shorefront Press — our publishing arm. Three books have been published: The Dream Dancers: New England Preservers of the Dream 1620-1924, by Spencer Jourdain; True Colors: Evanston Through Our Eyes, by ETHS 2017 Senior Studies students; and Edwin B. Jourdain Jr: The Rise of Black Political Power in Evanston, Illinois1931-1947, by Dr. Sherman Beverly. All of these books are available at Shorefront, Squareup Market and Lulu.com.

With the “National Leadership Grants for Libraries”, Shorefronts partnership with the Amistad Research Center, the South Asian American Digital Archive, Mukurtu, and the Inland Empire Memories Project of the University of California-Riverside was completed. As partners, we assembled a series of four forums where Evanston for the host for the third forum in May, 2017. All Forum activities are archived at www.diversifyingthedigital.org.

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Families come in to both donate items and research their family legacies.

Shorefront and its activities is supported by membership, contributions and grant support. Shorefront is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit historical organization dedicated to collecting, preserving and educating people about Black history on Chicago’s suburban North Shore. It is publicly supported through grants, contributions and membership. The Legacy Center is open to the public for research initiatives.

William H. Gill: Publisher, Businessman, Churchman, Public Servant

—by Rhonda K. Craven

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William H. Gill. Photo c1949

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.

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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.

Church and Business Directory Staff
“Church and Business Directory” Staff

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 images-2Gill 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

 

The Nile Club—The Social Evolution of a Black Veritas

— By Spencer Jourdain

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Charter members of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Sigma Chapter. Edwin Bush Jourdain, Jr. (seated center) elected as its first president. Edward “Ned” Gourdin is standing in back row second from left.

. . .

Throughout his college years, Edwin B. Jourdain Jr. (Gint) enjoyed engaging in every aspect of university life available to a black student. He loved to attend the university orchestra and glee club concerts, carefully storing away the events’ ticket stubs, and was a big fan of the football and baseball teams and the famous Harvard crew. He attended each of the occasional receptions, or “teas,” for students with Harvard faculty and on rare occasion with President Lowell, where he would recall the gracious conduct of Mrs. Lowell toward all students regardless of color. Gint’s frank confidence, gracious manners and impeccable New England speech compared favorably with any of the Porcelain types. Leo Hansberry would later observe that Gint had clearly mastered the very culture that excluded him and thereby was able to see both its good and bad points in an objective way—the trait of a fine anthropologist.

Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr. “Gint”

By the autumn of 1920, the senior year of the Class of ’21, the collection of black students at Harvard and nearby universities had, in its own separate Darwinian evolution, produced an impressive roster of brilliance, epitomized in the Nile Club participants. The older black graduate students of the Nile Club had proved themselves as formidable intellects and had become admired mentors for the black undergraduate students. Such earned veneration was not new to Charles Houston. He had graduated from high school at the age of fifteen as one of the most outstanding graduates of legendary Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. At Amherst College, Charlie had graduated Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian in 1915, and he had rendered admirable military service in World War I. Harvard Law School professor, and future Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, said that Charlie Houston was one of the most brilliant students of any race ever to study under him at the Law School. Houston received his LLB in 1919 and went on to earn his Doctorate of Jurisprudence from the Law School in 1923. Houston would go on to become Dean of Howard University’s Law School and the architect of the NAACP’s legendary Legal Defense Fund.1 He and Gint would remain lifelong friends and sometimes collaborate on civil rights issues.

Jesse Heslip would become president of the National Bar Association and a constant contributor to legal battles of the NAACP. He, too, would remain a lifelong friend of Gint’s. Jesse’s classmate at the Law School Class of 1923, Raymond Pace Alexander, would serve as counsel for the NAACP, president of the National Bar Association, honorary consul to the Republic of Haiti in 1938, and founder of a prestigious black Philadelphia legal dynasty.

The black students in the Class of ’21, Ned Gourdin, Leo Hansberry and Edwin Jourdain, had been at the chronological median of a rare black experience in the Nile Club and were now poised for further accomplishments. Leo Hansberry would get his PhD in anthropology, and as a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., would become one of the nation’s leading scholars on African history and culture. Leo would be honored by the founding heads of state of Ghana and Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah and Nnandi Azikiwe. A school of sociology at the University of Nigeria would be named for him.2 Graduating in 1921 with an MBA, the new degree from the graduate Business School, Norris Herndon would prove his ability as head of the nation’s largest black insurance company.

Ned Gourdin would go on to Harvard Law School to study under Roscoe Pound. Soon after graduation, he sailed for Paris to participate in the 1924 Olympics. Even though having an unusually low performance day, Ned would nonetheless win a silver medal in the long jump. (The fabled Paris Olympiad would produce the triple gold medal swimmer and later star of Tarzan movies, Johnny Weissmuller. The exploits of dash champions Abrahams and Liddell at the 1924 Olympiad would be depicted over a half-century later in an Academy Award–winning movie, Chariots of Fire.) Ned would become the commanding officer of the black Massachusetts 372nd Infantry, serve as a colonel in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, and retire in 1959 with the rank of brigadier general in the National Guard. In 1958, Ned would become Massachusetts’s first African American Superior Court justice,3 all in all, a bravura performance for a student who sometimes had to walk to his Harvard classes with newspapers stuffed in his shoes to keep out the winter cold.

Gint would be admitted to the Harvard Graduate School of Business, mindful of his father’s exhortations to go to a professional school to obtain some practical skills with which to face the difficult world of segregate America. He would carry with him an abiding interest in journalism, both as a writer and as a prospective publisher. Like Du Bois and Trotter, journalism would be an effective way to continue the fight for black civil rights and full participation in American society.

Washington, D.C.’s Dunbar High School, in a burst of brilliance, had produced in only a few decades a host of participants in the Nile Club and an alumni roster that would include Nile Club participants Allison Davis, Rayford Logan, Charles Drew, William Hastie, Montague Cobb, Sterling Brown, and Benjamin O. Davis. Dunbar (formerly the M Street) High School might have been aptly identified as a major source of the Nile.

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Spencer Jourdain’s book

There were only a dozen blacks throughout Harvard University and often fewer at other major colleges of the area. The journey to get there was so difficult that the Nile Club wound up being one of the most powerful assemblages of intellect imaginable. Gint would stand out in the memory of his college friends for his earnestness, easy grace, concern for others, and commitment to the black struggle for equality in which he had such deep roots. That year, several of the black students formed a Harvard Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. They included Charles Houston, Ned Gourdin, and Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr. The group elected Gint as their first president, and Charlie Houston served as the Chapter’s first treasurer. . .

. . .

Notes: This article is an excerpt of Chapter 13 from Spencer Jourdain’s book Dream Dancers: New England Preservers of the Dream 1620–1924, Volume One, available now at www.lulu.com.

Photo: Sigma chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, Harvard University. First chartered c1920. Photo part of the Edwin B. Jourdain collection, Shorefront archives.

  1. “Brown at 50, Fulfilling the Promise: Charles Hamilton Houston,” Howard University School of Law, http://www.brownat50.org/brownbios/BioCharlesHHouston.html.
  2. James Mohr, “Hansberry, Leo (1894–1965),” http://www.blackpast.org/aah/hansberry-william-leo-1894-1965.
  3. Ned’s life story and his portrait hung in honor in Old Suffolk County Courthouse: see, Daphne Abeel, “Edward Orval Gourdin: Brief Life of a Breaker of Barriers,” Harvard Magazine, http://harvardmagazine.com.

Beauty, Jazz and Dreams: Kathryn Wimp’s Musical Journey With Duke Ellington

— By Carrie Moea Brown

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Stage name, Kay Davis production shot while touring with Duke Ellington

As Kathryn “Kay” MacDonald finished up the last two songs in her performance in Chicago, her eyes fixed toward the back of the auditorium. In walked a man surrounded by what in modern terms is referred to as an entourage. The year was 1944, and within moments she recognized what others around her already did— Duke Ellington had arrived. She left her place on stage and joined those down in the audience; pushing to get a closer look, when she finally reached him she was greeted with a question…

…“Can you be in Baltimore next week?” Ellington asked.

A week earlier, she and a friend attended one of Ellington’s performances. On a whim she decided to head backstage and after brief introductions she sang a tune. When she saw that Ellington seemed to enjoy it —and feeling even braver— she invited him to an upcoming performance.

“I was crazy about the man and his band,” Kay (now Kathryn Wimp) said in an interview with Northwestern Alumni News in 2001. “He was the epitome of style and class.”

She was pleasantly surprised that he had taken her up on her invitation— and even more surprised when he offered her a job. “I went home and packed my little trunk,” she said. “And that was the beginning of my career.”

The Formative Years

Born Kathryn MacDonald, in Evanston, Wimp knew early on in life that she wanted to sing. When her father, a chiropractor and her mother a homemaker from Evanston moved the family Bushnell, Ill. (62 miles outside of Peoria) she left behind a rich family history that included her grandfather, William H. Twiggs. An active civic leader, Twiggs was ahead of his time in working toward success in Evanston’s Black community. In 2000, this publication reported that he arrived in Evanston from Davenport, Iowa in 1884. He went on to own and operate a barbershop and printing press. Today, a park located south of Canal between Simpson and Payne streets bears his name.

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Twiggs family c1912. Katherine Twiggs (Kay’s mother) far left

By the time Wimp arrived back in Evanston for high school her interest in music had piqued. “I remember singing ‘Trees’ in elementary school,” says Wimp by phone from her home in Florida. It was her first time singing in public. She also recalls that her father used to sing in a Catholic choir—and she credits that with being a major factor in her choice to pursue music.

In her last two years at Evanston Township High School, Wimp began taking voice lessons. The school was de-segregated because it was the only high school for students in Evanston, black or white. There, she was a student of Roy Schuzler, a music teacher at ETHS who happened to be a student of Northwestern University music professor Walter Allen Stults. The relationship she forged with Schuzler would prove beneficial when she enrolled as a voice major at Northwestern’s School of Music.

Back at ETHS, she joined a choir newly formed by the head of the music department. Wimp recalls walking into the rehearsal room to find the entire choir was Black. They were all perplexed, she says. The head music teacher, a white woman from Texas, explained that she thought forming an all Black choir was a good idea because she felt the Black students sang so well.

Wimp says they all walked out of the room.  And the notion of an all Black choir was soon dismantled.

There were other challenges that faced Blacks living in Evanston at the time. On Sundays she would go downtown with her two younger brothers and her parents to get ice cream, but they would eat it on the drive home because they weren’t allowed to sit in the parlor.

Once, when Wimp was a teenager she and a friend who was darker skinned attempted to eat in at a popular diner in downtown Evanston. The staff offered to serve the lighter skinned Wimp, but refused service to her friend. They eventually let them eat in, but according to Wimp they doused the food in salt. She and her friend cleared their plates and left. She proudly refers to it as their version of a sit-in.

Early Training

The first Black undergraduate to enroll and subsequently graduate from Northwestern was Lawyer Taylor. The Louisville-born Taylor enrolled at the age of 34 and graduated in 1903. Thirty-five years later Wimp enrolled at Northwestern’s School of Music majoring in vocal performance. Only six Black students were enrolled in the music program at the time and because of Northwestern’s policy at the time, students of color were not permitted to live in the residence halls.

“We used to drool over Willard Hall, which was right across from the music building,” Wimp said in 2001. “I had a good time at Northwestern, but there were those limitations.” Wimp says that the limitations placed on both Black and Jewish students forged a sense of unity. “We kind of bonded together,” she says.

But those years were not without controversy. In 1942 at Northwestern’s annual Waa-Mu Show, a showcase of the campus’ musical talents, Wimp sang a duet with fellow music major Jack Haskell despite the social taboos on cross-racial stage romance.

The Man and His Band

In 1943 Wimp graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in voice. The following year she received her Master’s degree. Then, the opportunity came to work with Ellington. One of her first experiences in Ellington’s band came when he taught her the simple melody to “Creole Love Song.” Within an hour she was onstage with him performing the song. The year was 1944. The place was Carnegie Hall.

“I sang, it got a wonderful ovation and then I got the heck off the stage!” she exclaims.

Her first recording with Ellington came about as he was teaching fellow band member Al Hibbler notes from “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues.” Wimp sat humming along off stage. Ellington asked her to join in humming. When he eventually decided to keep her on the track Wimp was less than thrilled.

“I called home crying,” she says. She wanted to be on the frontlines.

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Jet Magazine, Dec. 25, 1952

But there were plenty of opportunities to showcase her talent. The following year, in April 1945, President Roosevelt died. Ellington’s band was the only jazz band asked to perform for a national audience. One piece “A City Called Heaven,” was sung by Wimp. The years went on and according to Wimp band members came and went. Among those, the only still alive are Maria Ellington (of no relation to Duke), who later married Nat King Cole and gave birth to Natalie. She now resides in Florida. The second was Joya Sherrill who now resides in Great Neck, NY. But Wimp describes Ellington as a “genius” and says that even with constant flux of female band members he remained focused. She says, unlike many of his day he didn’t fraternize with female band members. In fact, he completely absorbed by his work.

“Music was his mistress,” she says. He was always at the piano. She even heard that later he bought a portable piano –presumably before they became a main stay– which he toyed with while on the road. She says he would stay up until all hours of the night “constantly composing” music.

The years between 1944 and 1950 were filled with high profile engagements, one-nighters and cross continental trips. Wimp describes life on the road as hard.

“It’s not that glamorous day after day,” she says. As time went on “I kept holding on hoping something dramatic would happen,” she says.

The band toured relentlessly, to the Palladium in England and with the Nicolas Brothers and Pearl Bailey in Liverpool, and seemingly everywhere in between. “It was quite an experience, very exciting,” she says. In 1947 the band toured California, Texas and Georgia.

It was a “whole different thing,” she says referring to race relations. She says they were bad, and despite their high profile they couldn’t even sit down in restaurants to eat. She recalls a frightening time in Macon, Georgia. The band had just finished a show and their manager, who was white, arranged a deal with a restaurant owner across the street from the theatre. Ellington and his band hastily made their way into the restaurant, so as to avoid any controversy. When a patron saw the band arrive he demanded to know why Blacks were being served.

The restaurant owner introduced Duke Ellington. And according to Wimp the angry patron answered, “I don’t care about no Duke Ellington!”

Before things could get any more tense, Wimp ran out of the restaurant and back to the concert hall where she set up a make shift hot plate. That night, she heated a can of Campbell’s soup over the sink in the ladies’ restroom.

Though things were rough at times, she and the band remained focused. But by 1950, after a four-week tour of Europe Wimp says, “I was tired. . . I got home and said, ‘That’s it,’” she says.

One night gigs and the relentless travel schedule began to take their toll. To this day she says feelings of fatigue remind her of those one-night summer gigs.

On the music of the day she says, “It escapes me.” But she is also encouraged by the recent resurgence of old standards from the likes of artists like Michael Buble, hailed as a modern day master of the music of yesteryear.

As for advice she gives to people aspiring to break into the music business. She says, “So much of what happens to you, no matter what you do is luck.”

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Kay Wimp, visiting relatives in Chicago viewing artifacts Shorefront found in her childhood home in 2006.

She parallels this with the story of a childhood friend from Evanston who also graduated from Northwestern’s music school. Ann DeRamus was Black and studied classical piano. She was considered a prodigy by most, but breaking into the world of a classical pianist as a Black woman proved to be difficult. She went on to become a social worker.

But, Wimp adds that today, “If you’re really serious about something, no matter what you do, trust and have faith that it will happen.” She adds, “Look at me. I never dreamed that I would be on stage with Ellington.”

 

Notes: The original article first appeared in the original printed version of Shorefront Journal, volume 7 number 3, 2006. Images from the Shorefront photographic collection, Kay Davis music collection.