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

— By Carrie Moea Brown

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.

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.

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.”

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.


Lawrence B. Brooks: Filming Social Change

—By Carrie M. Brown

Larry Brooks on site filming of the story of Fred Hampton of the Chicago Black Panthers
Larry Brooks on site filming of the story of Fred Hampton of the Chicago Black Panthers

In the main studio of Evanston Community Media Center Larry Brooks’ breaks through the darkness and approaches the podium. Silence falls within the filled room following the showing of his 1967 film The Integration of the Foster School.

He proceeds to explain to those in attendance his motivations behind the film’s creation. Though shaky on many of the particulars, it is clear Brooks’ early passion for film remains very much alive today.

Brooks recalls the difficulty he had breaking into the filmmaking industry over the years. “You know, I remember a guy telling me once that they just didn’t hire blacks to do these kinds of jobs,” Brooks says.

It all began in 1959 when he was denied entrance to a photography class at Evanston Township High School.

“It was because of the racism of the times,” Brooks, a lifelong Evanstonian says.

“I was really fascinated with wanting to tell stories

Not to be deterred he enrolled the following year, the only Black student in the class. But Brooks’ passion for film goes back to his early childhood when his mother took him and his brother to regular movie outings.

“I just remember being more into the visuals than the storytelling,” Brooks says. “Movies kind of like fascinated me. I thought, ‘Well this is something I’d like to do.’”

His interest in film soon turned into an interest in photography and Brooks began pursuing a career as a photojournalist. High school graduation found Brooks’ eager to break out of Evanston.

“I wanted to get out of Evanston,” Brooks says. “I mean it was a place where everyone knew what everyone else was doing and I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing.”

After graduating from high school he worked odd jobs, saving up money to buy camera equipment. It was the height of the Civil Rights movement and Brooks and his camera were there to capture it all. It wasn’t long before his work caught the eye of editors at Johnson Publishing and his photos appeared in Jet Magazine.

Brooks enrolled at Columbia College and received a draft deferment. It was there that he began to learn the fundamentals of media communications.

“I was fascinated with the visual medium—photography, television and film,” Brooks says. “I was really fascinated with wanting to tell stories.”

Brooks says that at the time Columbia was a fledgling school that occupied four floors of a building in Chicago. He studied alongside some of media’s biggest players, including Pat Sajak of Wheel of Fortune fame and Bob Sirott whom Larry used as the commentator for his student film on Foster School. It was at Columbia, like many times before in his life, that Brooks found himself to be one of few blacks. Brooks said that while he grew up in Evanston he feels he grew up “mentally and spiritually” in Chicago, and especially during his years spent at Columbia. And it was also there that he produced the now highly regarded documentary on the desegregation of Foster School in Evanston for a class assignment.

“It was an interesting thing they were doing with reverse bussing,” Brooks said. “Because I always thought of the Foster School as being black.”

Article from District 65 newsletter, “School Outlook” in 1968
Article from District 65 newsletter, “School Outlook” in 1968

The 16mm black and white film is set at the beginning of the 1967 school year as several white students board a bus to desegregate School District 65. Hailed as an important historical document, Brooks says he was simply a student making a film he thought was important.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” He said. “I mean, I took two years to put 20 minutes together.” After completing the film, he was ready to make his career move.

“But then there came a major road block,” Brooks declares. “And that was the US Army!”

Brooks was drafted into the Army in the early 1960’s. During his tour, he served as a television production specialist. He worked producing Army training tapes at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. After his time in the service, he looked for work.

Larry Brooks, Stage Manager at Channel Two News, c1972, as Stage Manager, on set with then Texas Governor John Connelly. The Governor was in the limousine with J.F. Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1963
Larry Brooks, Stage Manager at Channel Two News, c1972, as Stage Manager, on set with then Texas Governor John Connelly. The Governor was in the limousine with J.F. Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1963

Brooks’ college film helped land him a job at ABC Television in Chicago after graduation. He worked both as a stage manager and in the film department.

“It’s like any other job that you get at a station,” Brooks says. “You get a job and you’re welcome, then you are not welcome.”

It was the 1970s and Brooks went on to work at all the major networks in Chicago [CBS, NBC, WLS and FOX] building up his skill set as a stage manager and assistant director. Meanwhile, he created his own production company, BrokComm [formerly Brooks Communications] where he produced corporate videos for companies like Motorola and SBC. But Brooks’ break into the corporate video world was not an easy one. Contracts were hard to come by.

“You know, when you are black you don’t get very many projects.” Brooks said.

In the 1980s Brooks began work with the Ebony Showcase, a show featuring famous Black entertainers. During that time he worked with greats like Luther Vandross and Gladys Knight.

With his extensive network experience Brooks says, “I wanted to prove to myself that I could direct.”

His years of experience afforded him many industry contacts. It was one of those contacts that tapped Brooks to run the video and photography department for the city of Chicago in 1982 where he remained until 1989.

“It’s amazing to think I did all this stuff,” muses Brooks.

Much of the work he did as a freelancer. “It’s just the nature of the business. You freelance a lot,” he says.

One such stint he spent as a field producer and cameraman for a New York based company, Worldwide Television News, that represented foreign media from Italy, Russia, Australia and the UK.

Larry Brooks, 2004.
Larry Brooks, 2004.

At age 60 Brooks shows no signs of slowing down. He still holds fast to his dream of owning a television series. In 1997 he came close with Journeys with Jazz, a series he produced in conjunction with a cruise promoter specializing in jazz cruises. The weeklong cruise featured largely American jazz musicians. In the future Brooks hopes to do more work with the Journeys with Jazz series. In the meantime he offers this advice to aspiring filmmakers:

“Tell a good story,” he says. “If you have a good idea, pursue it.” Inspiration, says Brooks is all around us.

Now, he is in the process of planning a follow-up documentary. He wants to locate the children he featured in his original documentary and find out how the integration affected the direction of their lives.

Note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of the original Shorefront Journal, Vol 6, No 2. “The Integration of Foster School” was reissued in partnership with Shorefront and aired on cable access, Evanston Community Media Center throughout the month of February and March 2005. Larry Brooks passed in 2006. His work as filmmaker and photographer is housed at the Shorefront Legacy Center.

Photo credits: First three, courtesy Larry Brooks. Last, ©Evanston Photographic Studio in the Shorefront photographic archives.

Recollections of Samuel R. Johnson, Jr., A Second Generation Barber

—by Janet Alexander Davis and Thelma A. Walker

Sam Johnson with son and grandson in background
Sam Johnson with son and grandson in background

If you grew up in Evanston, then you probably remember numerous businesses on the Westside that were Black owned. Although many businesses stayed in place for many years, if one business left, another would take its place.

Although it’s been a trying time for tens of thousands of Americans during the latest recession, family-owned businesses have grown and increased in numbers, a clear indication of “reversing the trend of mega-businesses wiping mom-and-pop stores off the map.” Many entrepreneurial, like-minded people, along with the increased use of the Internet and modest priced website creation, have enabled people to market their own services and products. This has had a huge impact on reducing the costs associated with going into business for oneself. According to Forbes:

. . .family businesses account for a staggering 50 percent of the gross domestic product of the U.S., and it is not just in small storefronts or website businesses: 35 percent of Fortune 500 companies are private companies that are controlled by families. . .

. . .family companies are responsible for 60 percent of the jobs in America and nearly 80 percent of new jobs created.1

It has been reported, though, that a significant number of those business owners feel this trend will not last to the next generation to do it themselves. There is a fear by some that the next generation will not have the ability in many ways or the resources to keep a family business going. Only about 13 percent are passed on to the third generation.2

Generational businesses bring to mind Sam Johnson’s ability, consistency, dedication and discipline to maintain his business for 55 years. Sam has a fantastic memory with details that helps one look back on his life, when Black people lived with each other no matter their stature, supported each other economically and spiritually, friends bonded and the family thrived. We spent a delightful time with Sam reminiscing about his early childhood on Chicago’s Southside to his transition to Evanston, to learning the barber business and now, to his five-plus decades in the profession.

Sam's first clipper
Sam’s first clipper

Samuel Johnson comes from a long line of barbers. His life’s path had been decided long before he entered the world on September 13, 1932 at Cook County Hospital, born to Samuel Johnson, Sr. and his wife Florence. He was the second oldest son born into a family of six kids—four boys and two girls. They were raised up in the church and all the boys would grow up to be barbers. Sam, who was called Junior, moved around, working at various shops on Chicago’s Southside and Westside, before arriving in Evanston in 1947 to work at Charles Peter’s shop.

He was a Southside kid with skills to survive the bustling metropolis that was and still is Chicago. As a Boy Scout, he enjoyed the camaraderie at the troop meetings on 39th and Indiana Avenue. And, he could never forget the South Side Boys Club on 40th and Michigan Avenue. With fondness he credited the Club with saving his life, “If not for the Boys Club, I’d probably be dead today.” He remembered the Bud Billiken Day Parade, where he saw his first National Guard and fell in love with the military. He confessed that he later forged his parents’ signatures, faked his age and signed up for the military. Stationed at Fort Benny, GA, in an all-black National Guard troop, the unit was never called to serve, despite the riots and tumultuous times of the ’50s and ’60s.

But this place, this Evanston, it was different. It was the ’50s, Sam was starting high school, and he was a good basketball player. He went to the coaching staff at Evanston Township High School (ETHS), because he had basketball skills and wanted to join their team. Unbeknownst to Sam, football was the popular sport there. “I don’t play football, but I’m a good basketball player.” Sam said, “Therefore, in my freshman year, I didn’t play sports because I was a basketball player.”

When football season ended, Sam tried to get on the basketball team, but was told by a coach, “We have our quota boy. . . go to the Black Y.” Well, Sam went to that YMCA, where George Edens, Kenneth Walker, Red Greene and a white boy that hung around them. “Last time I saw him, on 63rd and Cottage Grove, heroin had got him.” Sam said.

They would play scrimmage games. This group stuck together and a basketball team was formed at the Emerson Street YMCA. The next year, Sam approached ETHS coaches again, and they still wouldn’t let him play basketball, so he joined the football squad. This sophomore team was undefeated for five weeks. Just a few years ago, that same team was inducted in the 1952 ETHS Hall of Fame. It was an honor that was long overdue, but the recognition was much appreciated.

Sam looked back on the past, “You couldn’t go beyond Ridge Avenue”, the language of the times when Black people would say, “Let’s go up east and that would mean Asbury and Emerson” or “We’re going down Davis Street— you knew though— just not to be too long.” Sam went on to say, “When I got to Evanston, movie houses were open to Blacks, but sitting for us was only in the balcony. Our Black alderman, Edwin B. Jourdain of the 5th Ward, put an end to that when he refused to sit in the balcony, and then we started sitting downstairs, too. And Coolie’s Cupboard, you could work there, but you could not eat there.”

His memories continued, “Back then, in Evanston, a 15-year-old kid didn’t need a car. You walked everywhere. . . to Clayton & Marks on Dempster and Dodge. Another spot was Fanny’s Restaurant, later known as Fanny’s World Famous Restaurant, at the corner of Simpson and Ashland. Your mode of transportation was your feet.” Sam went on, “I remember when Fanny got married to Mr. Lazar. That was the best spaghetti— maybe I was just hungry— but it was just good.” We later discussed who cooked the best fried chicken and who worked there. “One thing you can say about Fanny’s second-generation business,” (her father previously ran a candy store) “they hired a significant number of Black people from the community, until the day they closed.”

When remembering Church and Dodge, he sadly stated, “We didn’t have businesses west of Dodge. Jack Moss’ store on Emerson was around where now stands the Jacob Blake Senior Building on Emerson. Back then, Moss’ store was the business Black people went to. On Church St. was Montecello’s snack shop/ice cream counter, a white-owned barber shop, a clothing business and Mrs. Powell’s record shop. All were on the south side of Church St. On the north side of Church St. was a flower shop, the animal hospital, a pool hall, Mr. Gibbs’ gas station, Norm’s Grocery, Bill Matthews’ gas station and auto repair shop, Charles Peters’ barber shop and Mr. Runge’s grocery store.

Church Street Barber Shop
Church Street Barber Shop

Sam’s start in the barbering business came by way of his good friend Charles Peters who owned a barber shop near Mrs. Powell’s business. Back then, once you were a sophomore in high school you could attend barber school. So, in 1950, Sam took that step by attending the Illinois Barber College. “In those days, everyone graduating out of school and completing their apprenticeship became a Master Barber. Today, Registered Barber is the distinction you receive, no matter what.” Sam went on to work under Charles and completed his apprenticeship and all the required steps to become a Master Barber. In the future Charles would impact Sam’s life in a huge way.

Sam repeatedly emphasized, “My father didn’t give me this shop,” proud that he didn’t get a handout. Sam’s father was a barber, too, and starting in 1932 he opened six barber shops in Chicago from 44th to 95th Streets. In addition to those locations were shops on Madison and Damen Avenues. Before moving his family, Sam’s father came to Evanston around 1945 and opened a shop here as well. It was the Church Barber Shop located at 1812 Church St. Sam’s insight into his Father was stated simply, “He didn’t stay in one spot long.”

“My good friend Charles Peters was with the First Church of God in Evanston. He was moving to Anderson, Indiana, home of the headquarters of Church of God. He said, ‘I know you don’t have any money, but I am going to the Evanston Credit Union and borrow some money and you’ll pay them back.’ That’s how I became the owner of the barber shop, with No Money!” Sam said with pride, “Starting a business was beautiful then, because we shopped in our community, supported the businesses completely. There were four grocery stores and a meat market within a block. It’s different now.”

History of the Westside is full of businesses owned by Black people. But, there was one problem that affected anyone who wanted to buy a house on their own — they couldn’t, even if they had cash. A Black physician, Dr. Penn, had cash and couldn’t buy a house then, not even on contract. A Contract purchase or Contract for Deed arrangement is where it is seller financed. You put down a hefty down payment then make monthly payments until you’ve paid the seller off. There can be problems with this type of financing, but many people took this as an option in order to own property of their own.

The other way early Evanston residents could buy was if their employer financed a deal to help them. Eventually, Dr. Penn did purchase a property on Emerson near Brown Ave. Another case was Dr. Elizabeth Hill who had cash, but couldn’t buy either. Eventually, as times changed, she bought two homes next door to each other on Darrow near Lyons. Dr. Hill conducted her business on the first floor of one of the homes where she saw patients. Our professionals resided in the neighborhood with all of us. Maybe, because of the discriminatory practices of housing then, way before desegregation, we lived with each other. It was the norm. “Now, I rarely see Black doctors living among us on the Westside,” Sam lamented. “Integration affected housing choices in a big way.”

Wall of history
Wall of history

Since I’ve always wondered what it was like to have basketball and football stars visiting the barbershop for service, we queried Sam about it. During the Michael Jordan era, we asked who was the most impressive sports figure to come to the shop? Sam replied quickly that he never liked it when stars came in because you had to lock out your regular customers. “Where are those stars now?” he asked. “My customers are still coming in today.” Sam said B. J. Armstrong read The Final Call newspaper, but he could not take it to his house in the north suburbs. Scotty Pippen came in, too; he was a regular. “There was gossip, but we’ll just leave that alone.”

He shared much about living on the Southside of Chicago and living side by side with well-known entertainers such as Billy Eckstine, Nate King Cole, and Olympian Jessie Owens. “I saw Joe Louis every day. Everyone knew each other. No one was better than the other. Today some of us tend to honor and put athletes on pedestals. In earlier years, we played together, lived together, and financially supported our own. There has been a drastic change in how so many of us look at each other.” Sam is a modest man and I know he won’t take credit for what he deserves, credit for being an example of what character building, consistency, dedication and love of people looks like.

Sam had strong opinions about the beauty business and work ethics specifically. “I don’t know what you guys do in the beauty shops, but it seems the way it works now is, they have sponsors and don’t have to work as much as in earlier years. In the old days, you came to work five days a week. Nowadays, some salon owners and beauticians only work 2-3 days a week. I had a beauty shop next door for many years; many of them didn’t come to work.” He continued, “In the early years, we had policy being run in the back; that’s how I made it. That was illegal, then. Today, the government says it’s a state lottery— and that’s legal!” Sam hates the lottery. “It hurts watching people in wheel chairs, who can hardly breathe, spending their money on the lottery.” Another irritation Sam brings up is “the boys wearing their pants down.” I don’t think they know where they got it from. I wonder, you mean you’ll follow someone’s lead that’s incarcerated?” It saddens him, because he raised six sons and a daughter, and knows how challenging it can be to reach and properly guide our young people.

Thelma, Sam and Janet
Thelma, Sam and Janet

Drawing a near close to our time with Sam, we wanted him to share some nuggets of wisdom and life lessons with us that he has learned over a business career that has spanned 60 years:

What did you learn from your mother and father? Love your neighbor. Treat them all the same.

What do you enjoy most about the business? I love people. I tell my grandson Brian, love everybody; shake everybody’s hand.

What’s your greatest success? Religion and a belief in God.

If you could give business advice, what is the one mistake you would warn not to make? Make sure to have money. You need money to go into business. The rent will kill you.

If you were 15 years old today, what would you say to yourself? Invest in the stock market and real estate. Buy a house; back then we couldn’t do it. Get a passport and own a tuxedo.

How did you manage home life and business responsibilities? I spent too much time in the barbershop versus my home life. We only ate together on Sundays.

What should a barber never do? Myself, I would never talk religion or politics to a customer. Talk sports; do not talk about personal stuff.

What’s it like working with your sons? It’s hard because the advice goes in one ear and out the other. They’re adults. I have to respect that.

Finally, what are your words to live by? Time flies, so enjoy. Love your neighbor. First you must love yourself, and then you can love your neighbor.



1, article, 5 Steps To Create A Viable Succession Plan For Your Family Business, Michael Evans, Contributor (8/28/13), and

2Black Enterprise – Wealth For Life, Article name 5 Mistakes To Avoid When Hiring Relatives, by Carolyn M. Brown, Posted April 17, 2014.

Photos in order of appearance:  Photo of Sam Johnson, his son and grandson by Richard Foreman for Shorefront’s “Portraits of a Community” exhibit series, 2010. Clippers, Storefront and Wall from Shorefront Archives. Photo of Thelma, Sam and Janet by James Davis, 2015.

Interview conducted by Janet Alexander Davis and Thelma A. Walker on July 22, 2015.

“Somewhere There’s A Child A-Crying”: The Early Life and Activism of Dr. Iva Carruthers

—by Doria Johnson


High School photo of Iva Johnson
Evanston Township High School photo of Iva Johnson, c1960

When asked about what it means to be an elder, Iva Elaine Carruthers responded, “How do I facilitate the next generations’ understanding of what its call is?” The answer seems to have undergirded her life. A self-described mother/activist, her involvement in the lives and wellness of children, the collective community, the Black church, the academy, international human rights campaigns for equality and justice, calls and actions related to reparations, and race and gender-deconstructions solidifies her as a critical voice across 20th and 21st century America, and beyond. Respected globally, Carruthers activism is considered critical to naming, documenting, and dismantling supremacy and uneven power and discrimination that oppress people and causes revolutionary movements. Iva’s activism did not happen in a vacuum, she comes from a line of women who also refused to accept unjust treatment.

Born in 1945 in Jim-Crow’s Chicago Provident Hospital to Lois Banks Johnson and Tuskegee Airman William H. Johnson, but raised on Evanston’s Westside, Iva’s grandparents, Iva and John Banks, migrated from Little Rock, Arkansas in 1923, following John Banks’ father who came three years earlier. Lois Banks, Iva’s mother, was born in 1918, and thus started school at the increasingly all-Black Foster School. By the time Lois had reached the end of grade school, her mother was employed in an industry that almost 80% of Black women belonged—domestic service work for white families.

Many migrants had to shed their southern-gained college training or professions to earn a living in the north in the one industry were they were guaranteed steady work. Relegated to service work, they reproduced the labor they would rather perform for their own families and children, while also freeing white women from chores so they could go and work outside the home, and a few years later could compete with white men in corporate and industrial industries.

The all-white teaching staff at Foster had designed curriculum that would anchor another generation of domestics by providing in-school training for girls, with teachers bringing their laundry in for the students to wash, iron and fold with district supplied washing machines and ironing boards. Iva Banks, along with other Foster School mothers, formed together to object the plan and forced the school to abandon the domestic-service curriculum. As the president of the PTA, Iva Banks stood to be an example for ‘the next generations’ understandings of what its call is”.

When young Iva Johnson was about in the sixth grade at Foster School a white teacher hit her during a physical encounter. Iva hit the teacher back and told her to “never put her white hands on me.” This ‘insubordination’ was penalized by the school by several actions including ordering a series of tests, which ironically determined she was ‘too smart’ to be at the ‘separate but equal’ school. Thus, she was ‘punished’ to a mostly-white school, Haven, where she would be more ‘intellectually challenged.’ Iva describes it as a punishment on one hand because she was removed from her cohort and friends, but on the other hand, she excelled academically, which was not the intended outcome from school administrators.

At one point at Haven she and other students practiced for an awards ceremony where Iva experienced heart palpitations. The white school nurse advised her mother, Lois, that Iva was indeed on drugs. Offended, Lois pressured school officials enough so that the nurse was fired. These local, seemingly unrelated micro-aggressions were the fuel that fed the larger, national fight for African American civil rights and power, and women and mothers were often central to these successful efforts.

Iva says her father, William Howard Johnson, made her believe the world was her stage, and her mother said she would always defend her right to discover it. The environment was affirming and thus, her father gifted her one of the most important books of the 20th century, “The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy” by Gunnar Myrdal. Myrdal Her father was president of the NAACP when Dr. King visited Evanston, and so her environment was affirming for her to excel, have confidence, while being instructed on how to become a change-agent.

At ETHS Iva flourished and excelled academically, while also reconnecting with her friends from Foster School. Close to graduation in 1963 the murder of four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama shook the world. Attending a school assembly where the administration refused to acknowledge and publicly join the students in mourning, Iva and other students began beating on lockers, in an act of civil disobedience. Not caring about disciplinary actions Iva began to demonstrate her inability to accept the current world order where her people were often discriminated against, the victims of violence and death simply because of their ethnicities.

Also at ETHS, some of Iva’s friends were involved with many bourgeois Black Evanston clubs, some which held cultural events designed to showcase that African Americans could and did embrace the social style and events that white elite Evanstonians enjoyed. In the backdrop was an early 20th century cultural phenomenon of Black artists belonging to the “New Negro” movement where classical education was embraced more than the more ‘embarrassing’ folk culture like blues musicians and music. Iva was asked to join a cotillion, where young women of high school age are feted at an elaborate ball while escorted by worthy young men. Those invited mostly considered themselves part of the Black Evanston elite, because their social positions were obviously elevated over others who did not receive invitations. These balls were elaborate affairs where class, gender, class and economics all were central to the guest list and design.

Iva openly refused to continue this reproductive tradition by participating in one activity she felt did not truly illuminate and celebrate Black cultural production. Instead, she embraced African-centered culture and traditions. She upset some of the elite club members because she refused to participate in reproductions of others and desired to learn more about the genesis of her people and their preferred practices and traditions. There would be a Black Power movement and Black Arts Movement that would soon follow framed by her beliefs. Iva was involved with many of the key players of these movements, which centered and articulated “Black is Beautiful” as its mantra. From there on, Evanstonian Iva Johnson would remain a force in many liberation movements around the globe.

While in college at the University of Illinois, Iva met Ralph Wells, a Northwestern graduate who excelled at both athletics and scholarship. He and Iva married, causing her return to the Chicago area where she graduated from the University of Illinois Chicago, and had her first son Chris. Wells, a Marshall High School graduate, was a well-respected scholar athlete who would go on to be the first Black manager for R.R. Donnelly and Sons, a publishing giant headquartered in Chicago. Ralph Wells, unfortunately, died in a tragic boating accident eleven months after Chris was born, but his legacy lives on. Iva reflected on his philosophical heritage by adding that she has his copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” which indicated his commitment to understanding issues surrounding race and liberation. Fulfilling a promise made to her parents and Wells, Iva finished her PhD in sociology from Northwestern University.

Iva Caruthers and mother, Lois Johnson
Iva Caruthers and mother, Lois Johnson

Her philosophies, writing, teachings, leadership and vision would and still does affect human rights around the globe. Keeping young people and mentoring central along the way, and subsequently earning a Masters in Theology, Carruthers has affected many lives around the world.

On Creativity and Discovery with Dr. Charles Johnson

—by Carrie Brown

Charles Pad TV show, c1970
Charles Pad TV show, c1970, courtesy Elishiba Johnson

In the 1920s there was a war going on in Evanston, Illinois. Only it wasn’t the kind involving heavy artillery. It was a battle between milkmen and William Johnson, dubbing himself “Evanston’s First Milkman,” was right in the thick of it.

. . .he found his place writing stories and illustrating comics

He came to the Chicago suburb by way of South Carolina as part of the Great Migration of blacks to the North seeking something better. Eventually William Johnson found it and turned his attention from the milk wars to the construction business, founding Johnson Construction Company in the 1940s. Black owned and operated, they constructed apartment buildings and other structures all over Evanston including Springfield Baptist Church.

In time William Johnson convinced his extended family back down south to make the move and join him. Among them his nephew Benny Johnson who, trading hunting and farming for life in the city, eventually went on to join the company.

The work of the Johnson Family left an impact beyond the physical structures they built. Exposure to that type of creativity and industry left an indelible mark on Benny’s son Charles Johnson who would go on to become a noted writer, literary critic, scholar, philosopher and recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant.”

Panel in the "Evanstonian" ETHS paper, 2/27/1966
Panel in the “Evanstonian” ETHS paper, 2/27/1966

It started early for Dr. Johnson. Born in Evanston in the late 1940s, growing up on the 1300 block of Dodge Ave. and attending classes at Evanston Township High School he found his place writing stories and illustrating comics. Teacher Marie Claire Davis was an early inspiration, and in 1965 he published his first work as an illustrator for a magic company in Chicago. Dr. Johnson went on to establish the Marie Claire Davis Award for promising young writers at ETHS. Awarded for the past 15 years, he sees it is a chance to preserve her legacy and foster creative writing among Evanston youth.

Like his Great Uncle before him, Dr. Johnson set out on his own his journey – only his took him the route of early pioneers headed west – to the Pacific Northwest. Arriving in Seattle in the 1970s after a drive cross-country from New York where he studied Philosophy at Stony Brook University, he took a route familiar to many in the area. Rounding the bend along I-5 Highway from just south of the city, Seattle is suddenly laid out ahead. On clear days, the mountains are out (local speak for fully visible in the distance) and the city’s sky scrapers and Space Needle stand boldly as the Alaskan Way Viaduct snakes along Elliott Bay which is dotted with ferry boats and cargo ships. Having just been appointed to the English department at the University of Washington, it was the first time Dr. Johnson had ever been west of the Mississippi River and taking in the view “took my breath away,” he said.

Though he’s called Seattle home ever since, Dr. Johnson still regards himself a transplant. He is only now beginning to set his stories in the Pacific Northwest. His Midwest roots run deep and his stories are largely set in the places that have had the greatest influence in his life – Evanston and Chicago.

Middle Passage, 1990 winner of the National Book Award for Fiction
Middle Passage, 1990 winner of the National Book Award for Fiction

Along the way he’s amassed a body of work that includes fiction and non-fiction, on everything from philosophy and religion to race and children’s books. Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture and Spiritual Practice was published last fall. Along with his daughter Elisheba he’s also co-authored a series The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder about a scientific whiz kid who uses his smarts to solve problems.

Now Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, Dr. Johnson reflects back on his days in New York, noting the difficulty he sometimes had with writing fiction. Upon arriving in Seattle the floodgates opened and he’s not had writer’s block since.

There’s a certain freedom that comes with setting out on life in a new city. It’s a chance for exploration and reinvention. On his visits home to Chicago, Dr. Johnson remarked on feeling the need to be “on” – living with a sense of tension that’s often associated with quicker pace of city life up North. Returning to Seattle he says the “tension fell away like an article of clothing.”

His book The Words & Wisdom of Charles Johnson captures the spirit of the Pacific Northwest through the eyes of an artist noting “its geographic diversity, its breathtaking scale…” For Dr. Johnson it’s the perfect setting for creativity. The climate is temperate enough to offer the bounty of the great outdoors, yet when the weather is gloomy one can lock away and create. Dr. Johnson said of Seattle in a 2008 piece for Smithsonian Magazine, “it is the ideal environment for nurturing innovation, individualism and the creative spirit.”

He urges consideration of how Seattle came to be, populated by pioneers – people heading west to get away from something. It fosters a spirit of independence particularly among artists. It is a city of neighborhoods, where people are friendly yet laid back and sometimes distant – he acknowledges it’s perhaps a throwback to the Germans and Scandinavians who settled here. People leave you alone if you want to work, but if you have the urge to socialize there’s plenty enough for that.

He’s counted some of the countries most celebrated writers as friends including Playwright August Wilson, and Snow Falling on Cedars author David Guterson. Dr. Johnson describes “rich exchanges” with Wilson in cafés in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. It was a chance for the two men to share ideas, books and films that inspired them.

In a city with such a small African-American population – latest census figures put the percentage of blacks at 8% – Dr. Johnson says it is quite easy to navigate and connect with others. It is a small, but rich and connected community of black artists and professionals. Yet, “it’s not about being black and being an artist. It’s about being an artist,” he says.

As Dr. Johnson puts it if you stay here long enough you start to feel you’ve been here forever. “It’s an easy place to live, work and create,” he says. Recalling the words of writer Jonathan Raban, he says you adjust the city like a pillow until it is comfortable enough for you.

For Dr. Johnson there’s nothing more enjoyable than the creative process. He says creativity is about two things: problem solving and discovery. Surely his Great Uncle William Johnson in those early days in Evanston would have agreed.


Note: Photograph of “Charles Pad”, courtesy of Elisheba Johnson.

The Chessmen Club of the North Shore

— By Shorefront staff

2013 Chessmen members
2013 Chessmen members

An organization of service, like others before and after, came to life from the concerns of two community members, Andrew (Andy) Rodez and William (Bill) Logan, Jr. These two high school friends who shared similar lifelong experience, and later both followed their carrers as police officers, established The Chessmen Club of the North Shore in 1958. In 2008, The Chessmen celebrated their 50th anniversary and Logan, to this day, is still an active member.

To say that both Rodez and Logan had similar backgrounds would not be a stretch in truth. They both have shared many of the same firsts: Both Logan and Rodez were the first African American Police Chief in their respective communities, Logan in Evanston, Rodez in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

Founder, Andy Rodez
Founder, Andy Rodez

Rodez attended Evanston Township High School and played on the football and track teams. He received a football scholarship and attended Virginia Union. After graduation, Rodez served two years in the Army during the Korean War. After his tour of duty, he returned and played professional football for the now defunct Chicago Cardinals for two years. He later joined the Evanston Police Department.

We wanted to be role models

Founder, William Logan
Founder, William Logan

Logan also attended ETHS and played football and basketball. He received a football scholarship and attended Western Illinois University. After two years, he was drafted into the U.S. Air Force where he served in Korea and Japan for four years. After his tour, he also joined the Evanston Police Department.

In 1957, the Evanston Police Department teamed both Rodez and Logan to patrol the Historic Black community in Evanston. It was during this time that they began to think about ways to engage and provide services to the community.

“Why did we start the Chessmen?” Logan said. “We saw community problems for our Black youth. Blacks could not join the YMCA on Grove Street, there were difficulties for Black youth to receive grants and scholarships. We wanted to be role models.”

They wanted to provide services like other organizations have in the past and present. “Like the Norshore Twelve did for many years” Logan said. As a result, both Rodez and Logan started The Chessmen of Evanston, committing themselves to their community and to giving back to others to improve their lives.

Chessman logo

Rodez was an avid chess player. The name of the Chessmen and its symbol, the “Knight,” stems from the game of chess and for Rodez, it represented dignity, power and strength.

Looking forward to fulfilling some of the needs of the community, they pursuaded some close friends and other African American men to join or support the organization. These men were coaches, scout masters, tutors and counselors; in addition to being full-time entrepreneurs, corporate executives, law enforcements officers, consultants, teachers, administrators and physicians. With similar ideas, these first members came together to address the many community issues, especially for Black youth.

The charter members were: Andrew Rodez and William Logan, Jr. (founders), Edward Connally, Woodrow Cannon, Zeltee Edwards, Warren Howlett, Julius Mackey, Adolph Moragne, Emmett King, David Norris, Dr. Charles Thomas, Henry White, Robert White.

95% of  funds raised go toward scholarships and food baskets

With committed and community minded men in place, the Chessmen Club was established in 1958, ready to provide service to the Evanston and North Shore communities. Throughout the last five decades, the Chessmen Club has grown and matured. The mission of the club has remained the same – service to youth and elderly of the community. Their activities have ranged from raising monies supporting local youth groups, to providing scholarships and related financial support to deserving college bound youth, presenting civic awards to outstanding citizens and donating food baskets to the poor and elderly.

1968 Scholars
1968 Scholars

The Chessmen Annual Civic Award Ball was inaugurated in 1958. Through this event, the organization has been able to increase their funding pool with ticket sales, auctions and private donations. Additional financial support is obtained from corporate donations, golf outings and support from membership. Ninety-five percent of the funds raised go toward scholarships and food baskets.

2003 Scholars
2003 Scholars

In 1980, The Chessmen replaced the Civic Award Ball with the Annual Scholarship and Community Services Benefit. “The annual gala was initiated to give recognition and honor to individuals and organizations that we felt had contributed most towards the betterment of our community,” Logan said. “This includes adults and youth for their extraordinary contributions to the community.” In 2000 the scholarship dinner for recipients and parents was incorporated into the already existing community wide Unity Scholarship program.

The Chessmen awards are both a symbol of good citizenship and inspiration for raising consciousness and community giving now, and for the future. “It is held as an honor by community members who have given their time, money and dedication for the welfare and pride of Evanston.” Logan said, “This is what the Chessmen are all about!”

After more than 50 years of service, the Chessmen Club has had more than 80 members representing the organization. Today, new and younger members are becoming more involved in the Chessmen.

“I know that today, Andy Rodez is looking down and smiling for the Chessmen Club is carrying on his dream of commitment, dedication and giving back to the North Shore Communities,” Logan said.

Note: This revised article  originaly appeard in the printed Shorefront Journal, Volume 8, Number 4, 2008.

Sources: Notes, photographs and discussions with William Logan, Jr., with additional sources in the Shorefront archives. 2013 group photo members: President: Keith Terry, Vice President: Hon. Peter C. Braithwaite, Secretary: Ngozi Watts, Esq., Treasurer: Leonard English, Asst. Treasurer: Jim Davis, Founder & President Emeritus: William “Bill” Logan, Members: Rev. Dr. Gessel Berry, Adrian O. Brewington, Dudley Brown, Jr., Omar A. Brown, George Dotson, Neil Davidson, Harvey L. Echols, M.D., Carl Hampton, Darryl R. Henderson, Rodney A. Harvey, Fred Hunter, Marty Long, Jabari Porter, Robert “Bob” Reece, Hon. Scott Rochelle, Esq., Markham W. Thomas, Andre Wallace, Sr.

Now. . .”Everybody Knows” Patti Drew. . .in “The Butler”

Patti Drew c1969
Patti Drew c1969. Shorefront archives.

—By Dino Robinson

Pretty little thing let me light your candle ‘cause baby I’m sure hard to handle now. . .

Patricia E. Drew belted out these lyrics for the song, “Hard to Handle,” in 1968 when she was 20 years old. . .with an attitude. Then, it just about summed up her lifestyle. Today, she is just trying to handle her life. After several years climbing the ladder in the world of music, she found out how fast life could tumble even for one with all of the talent in the world. However, local residents who knew her then, are rediscovering her voice in the new movie Lee Daniels’, The Butler starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Patricia (Patti) lived part of her childhood in Nashville Tennessee before coming to Evanston with her parents and five sisters in 1956 to start a new life, part of which was for Patti and her sisters to obtain a better education. Her father worked for the city of Wilmette. Her mother worked as a domestic. Her mother’s job later proved to be a turning point in Patti’s life as well as the lives of her sisters.

Patti entered the sixth grade at Nichols Junior High her first year in Evanston and later went to ETHS. She held several jobs during her teen years. At 15, she earned $3.00 an hour folding towels at a local towel company. She baby-sat for the people her mother worked for, worked as a nurses’ aide at Presbyterian homes in Skokie, as a counter girl at a soda fountain shop, and other odd jobs.

Reflecting on her experience growing up in Evanston, Patti saw the city as one with a lot of prejudices: in the schools, work, and in general:

“People here were nice, nasty. If you could picture a person being nice but nasty to you at the same time. They would look at my parents, my sisters and me and say, how could you have money to buy stuff? How could you go into Weibolts and buy nice things? How dare you come into this store with your little Black girls and buy nice things. How dare you.”

“There were places in Evanston that Black people didn’t go. We just didn’t go. If we were not going to be treated nice, why go. You knew where to go, you knew what street to stay off of. You didn’t go into Skokie at all. One might be picked up by the police just for being there. I didn’t want to be treated badly. So we started going into the ‘Loop’.”

Patti’s family first attended Mt. Carmel Baptist church, then transferred their membership to Bethel A.M.E. Church, both in Evanston. “Every Sunday we had to go to church. If you didn’t go to church, you couldn’t go anywhere. We were involved in the choir, the youth choir, the adult choir, or the senior choir, and we went to a lot of youth-related functions.”

I’m so alive, cause you are near. . .

Growing up Patti says she wasn’t always the nice girl on the block. “We had a club called the Latin Ladies, the tough girls on the block. We wore black scarves tied around our head, black jeans and black shirts and we hung around a group of boys called the Latin Lovers. Of course my mom wouldn’t let me wear these clothes so, as teens do, we snuck the clothes out of the house and changed into them later. But in reality, I was a loner and did things on my own.”

Patti’s music interest started in church. Her grandmother in Tennessee had insisted that she and two of her sisters, Loraine and Erma, sing in the church. In Evanston, her paternal grandmother heard them singing and had them sing in her church. The girls would sing around the house and entertain their dad and guests with songs. Their mother found the opportunity to have the girls heard by a much bigger audience.

“My mother worked for a guy who was a distributor for Capitol Records,” Patti reminisced. “She happened to mention one day that she had three girls who could sing. By this time, we were popular in the church and they were always asking us to sing. My mother was asked to bring a tape for her employer to hear and to see what he could do.

The Drew-Vels (Patti, Erma and Lorraine) with Carlton Black
The Drew-Vels (Patti, Erma and Lorraine) with Carlton Black. Shorefront archives.

So we went there one day to have my mother’s employer, Maury Lathauwer, hear us, and leave a tape for him. He took the tape to producer Peter Wright. The tape had a song called, “Tell Him,” written by Evanstonian Carlton Black. Peter Wright liked it. They pressed it, and that’s how we got our start.”

The group became known as the Drew-vels and featured Carlton Black on many of the songs. Signed by Capitol records in 1964, they pressed six songs. One of the group’s first live performances was at the Regal Theater in Chicago. They also recorded two songs on the Quill label without Patti, while Patti recorded four songs on the same label as a solo act.

From 1967 to 1970, Patti Drew was a solo act on the Capitol Records label. Her sisters often sang backup. On one album, Fontella Bass (“Rescue Me”) was Patti’s backup singer. Patti recorded over 12 45’s and four albums, toured the U.S. and South America, appeared on  both Soul Train while it was still being filmed in Chicago, and on American Bandstand on September 7, 1968, where she sang “Working On A Groovy Thing”. Peter Wright became her agent and moved her onto the Playboy Club circuit for two years. Patti’s list of hits and her live performances had a loyal following in the early Soul Music movement. Critics raved about her powerful voice. “The album, “Working on a Groovy Thing,” was a hot record. The Fifth Dimension picked up the title song and adapted it to their style.”

Patti sang locally at the 1623 Club in Evanston, and at the PussyCat Lounge, the Backroom, the Caraville and several other spots around Chicago.

Then in 1971, the bottom fell out. “The culture of music performers at that time was fast, stressful and demanding,” Patti said, “and it was easy to get caught up in if you were not careful. I was supposed to perform with James Brown and meet with Hugh Heffner of Playboy who wanted me to pose and I missed them both because of my habit. . .By that time, it was either give up the drugs or the singing, and I was not strong enough at that time to give up the drugs. I was strung out. I ended up in rehab. Four months later, I came home. My singing career was over.”

Even though Patti has since been a subject in numerous articles and books like the Record Exchanger magazine and Doo-wop, The Chicago Scene, Patti’s desire to sing has all but left.

“When I got to that place where I just wanted to get high instead of doing my job, I knew it was over,” Patti said, “I just wanted to leave that life in the past. People are now coming to me saying that the oldies are coming back. No way, I won’t do it. It’s too much work. Plus, I don’t have the chops anymore. I had fun though. . .I had a lot of fun performing. I never thought I would end up with nothing.”


In the many interviews with Patti and I, she wanted her story to be a life lesson in that, no matter how successful you may be, bad decisions can quickly leave you with nothing. Patti did continue to sing at local engagements from time to time but retired completely by the mid 1980s. In April 2007, EMI Records released “The Best of Patti Drew, Working On A Groovy Thing.” Comprised of 22 tracks from her solo career and three tracks as part of the Drew-Vels – including both the original “Tell Him” and the re-recording as a solo artist. She does not receive any royalties for any of her work.

On the North Shore, Patti is the talk of the town as it was a pleasant surprise to hear her voice on the song, “Tell Him” written by Carlton Black, in Lee Daniels, The Butler. I spoke with Patti again on August 22, 2013 and she shared, “I plan on seeing the movie this weekend. . .”

Sources: “Everybody Knows” Patti Drew was first published in the printed version of Shorefront Journal, Volume 4, Number 3, 2003. Shorefront oral history tapes: Patti Drew, recorded January 2000 by Dino Robinson. Additional information originated through various informal conversations between Patti and Dino throughout the years. Photos from the Shorefront Legacy Center archives, music collection, Patti Drew. Top pull quote  from “Hard To Handle”. Second pull quote from “Working on a Groovy Thing”. Video © Dick Clark Productions, Inc.  17 second clip used with permission from a 30 second video provided by Dick Clark Productions, Inc. to Shorefront.

James S. Burton: Following the Trail of Tears

—By Dino Robinson

James Burton "Wolf Rider"
James Burton “Wolf Rider”

Every once in a while, a person gets a chance to do something that impacts on not only his or her own spirit, but on the spirit of hundreds of others as well. James. S. Burton had such an opportunity and fulfilled a promise he had made more than thirty years ago.

Better known in the Evanston community as Mr. “B” while employed at Family Focus, James Burton was born in Abbyville, South Carolina. His parents, William and Willie Burton, came to Evanston in 1943 with James, age two, in tow. His father worked for Phillips Petroleum towing cars. An accident while on the job a year after they arrived cost William Burton his life. James was three. His mother worked for Better Cab Association then for Best Taxi as a dispatcher. While growing up in Evanston, James Burton had many of the normal activities of most of the kids his age. These shaped his young outlook in life.

“Growing up [in Evanston] was fine.” Burton remembers many decades later. “I really didn’t realize a lot about Evanston because we were confined more or less to the west side . . . I went to Foster School and graduated in sixth grade . . . Foster was a good Black school.”

He had a paper route by the age of eight and continued it until he entered high school. He joined the Cub Scouts and transitioned into the Boy Scouts as he got older. Bible study classes at Second Baptist church, which he and his family attended, was a must in his household. He recalls the positive influences of people such as Mr. Bouyer, the physical education teacher at Foster, Mr. Fleetwood at Foster Field, and Mr. Brownlee had on his daily activities.

After Foster, Burton attended Haven school, then went to ETHS where he was active in sports. He recalled an incident during that time involving the football team.

“Evanston Township was racially divided . . . I remember when the star Black athletes were demoted to second string during Homecoming in 1957 so that the Black players would not escort the white queen and princesses down the isle. They [ETHS officials] couldn’t tolerate that. So the players wanted to boycott the game. At the last possible minute.”

After high school Burton joined the Air Force and, after his tour, came back to Evanston in the 60’s. Nine months later, he moved to New York and pursued art, painting portraits for 14 years. After that, he lived in Los Angeles until 1979 when he came back to Evanston to take care of his mother.

A lot of people do not know what it is to be an American, white or black. A lot is taken for granted.

It was then that he began thinking about something his grandfather had asked him to do when he was 18; to travel the Trail Of Tears. The trail was a forced march of over 16,000 American Indians, including the Cherokee Nation, from North Carolina to Oklahoma between 1838 and 1839. More than 4,000 died on the way from hunger, exhaustion and sickness and many more died at the hands of American soldiers. Burton, whose ancestors include members of the Cherokee Nation, remembered the stories his grandfather, a Cherokee, had told him when he was a boy. His grandfather had asked him to follow this trail in reverse to return his great, great grandfathers spirit back to North Carolina. It was a daunting task, but more than 20 years after his grandfather’s request. James Burton began to think seriously about the promise he had made.

“Not knowing anything about the Trail of Tears, I started reading about it,” Burton says, “My older sister, Jeanne, and I both read about it, trying to find out as much as we could. That went on for years. Just thinking about what I had to do because I promised my grandfather I would do it, was daunting. When Jeanne died in 1983 in Los Angeles, I found that she had really dug into our heritage. I had promised her earlier that I would continue the research. I started working at Family Focus and that afforded me the opportunity to obtain what I needed; horses, equipment and the time to plan.”

In 1996, Burton was given the “Man of the Year” award from Forrest E. Powell Foundation honoring his involvement in the community. At that time, he made up his mind that this was the time to tell everyone what he had planned to do. Although he wasn’t taken seriously at first, his family supported him one hundred percent. “My aunt, who is Cherokee and very proud of it, was especially proud of me for doing this.”

Burton acquired two horses and did minimum training. This “green” training was purposely done with the intent of setting them free after the long journey. He also obtained a wolf for the trip. However, in considering the safety of the wolf, as well as the unpredictability of a “wild” animal, he decided the wolf would not be a part of the journey. Mr. Burton, himself, took on the name “Wolf Rider”.

On July 19th, 1999, James S. Burton departed, on horseback, from Family Focus Our Place at 2010 Dewey Avenue in Evanston on what would be the most important journey of his life . . . returning the spirit of his great-great grandfather to his home in North Carolina.

Mr. Burton took on the name “Wolf Rider”


His journey first started northbound to Wisconsin. However, being new to horseback travel, he soon found that he had over-packed and his horse was collapsing under the weight. In Wisconsin, Burton met a cowboy who saw the state of the horse and offered to teach him the proper way to pack and guide his horses. After two days, still on horseback, he turned southward toward the end of the Trail of Tears.

Leaving the urban environment, he found the rural area residents a bit apprehensive. However, as word got out about Burton’s journey, he began to encounter others who were supportive.

“People treated me very well. They came out to greet me. News people came out to see me. All through Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, I met great people and made new friends. The most asked questions or comments made to me in rural [white] America were a version of ‘You’re not what Blacks are like in the big cities as they’re shown on TV.’ They thought we were robbers, killers, drug dealers, people at the bottom of the barrel as depicted in the city newspapers.”

One such online outreach read as follows:

Trail of Tears Rider, Sat Jan 8, 2000 7:52 pm

James S. Burton is needing help to fulfill a promise to his grandfather and is riding the Trial of Tears backwards to Cherokee, NC. He is needing places to stay and help getting thru major cities and across major rivers. You can follow his progress and journals at: [dead link] He is currently at Rogers AR and will be going to Gateway, AR, north to Cassville and Monett, MO and turning east on Hwy. 60. To hwy34, south on hwy70 and needs help at the Cape and crossing the Mississippi River into IL. In IL he will take Hwy 146 to 91/161 south into KY then 641 south to Hopkinsville to 91/41 south/east to Cregfont, KY , south on 231 to Murfressboro, TN east on 70south to Dayton to Cleveland. East on 64/74 to 19 to Cherokee, NC. If you can help please email him. He is currently at Coyrun@… and will be here nest [sic] weekend RBrown9238@… Thank you!! (

During his travels, people showed Burton what being an American could be. It wasn’t something that could be told to a person. One had to live the experience. Burton says he believes “A lot of people do not know what it is to be an American, white or black. A lot is taken for granted.”

In Oklahoma, Burton met with the western Cherokee Nation. He describes people lining up along the highway, awaiting his arrival to touch him and his horses as he rode by. Later he learned that this was a spiritual touch, transferring their spirits to Burton for the travel. Not only was he to return the spirit of his great-great grandfather, he was to return hundreds of other ancestral spirits.

During his journey, he stopped in town after town, speaking about his traveling experience at schools and before organizations. Two students set up a website monitoring his travels and estimating his time of arrival in each town. Residents, police, firemen and travelers went out of their way to make sure his trip was as safe as possible, alerting him to weather conditions, bringing food, hot coffee and medicine.

In the final leg of his journey, he reached North Carolina where a host family took him in for rest and nourishment before he released his ancestral spirit not too far from where the family lived. On April 15, 2000 James S. Burton, walked up a small trail to the area of the original reservation and released his great-great grandfathers spirit along with those spirits others had passed onto him. After nine months, he had travel 3,600 miles on horseback, keeping the promise he made to his grandfather 40 years before.

In later conversations, Mr. Burton shared that he had planned on writing an autobiography about his experience. In his years after the journey, he had trained and passed through all rites to become recognized as a medicine man with the Cherokee Nation, and contemplated a new journey on horseback. His last vising was in August 2008. In January, 2009, Mr. Burton took his final journey to reunite with his ancestors. Family Focus staff and the community gathered together to hold a memorial service, attracting hundreds of people celebrating his spirit.

Note: For further reading, look into Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, by John Ehle. © 1988, Anchor Books. This article was taken from excerpts from an interview taped November 3, 2000 at Family Focus, Evanston and originally appeared in Volume Two, Number Three, Spring 2001 of Shorefront Journal (printed). Photo of James Burton from the Shorefront photographic archives. Map: