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Lecture Notes: Evanston's black history finds its voice



"Black history is undervalued across the board," says Morris "Dino" Robinson, a graphic designer pressed into the history business. Robinson was researching his family's background in the mid-90s when the publisher of the Evanston Clarion, a monthly newspaper, asked him to write an article about African-American history in Evanston for Black History Month. "I didn't think I was the right person to do it," Robinson says. "And I assumed something comprehensive had already been written. When I looked into it, I found it hadn't." Robinson agreed, on the condition that it be a regular feature, not a onetime effort that wouldn't do the material justice. The paper gave him a column (without pay), and beginning in January 1996 he wrote about subjects like the Emerson Street YMCA, founded because the Grove Street YMCA (now the McGaw YMCA) didn't admit blacks.

"Separate facilities were needed in Evanston to conform to the racial codes for the White and Black populations," Robinson wrote. The new YMCA was built in 1914 at 1014-16 Emerson with about $10,000 raised by door-to-door solicitation in the black community and matching funds from the Y. Fifteen years and one addition later (when Evanston's black population was about 5,000, according to census figures) it had an indoor swimming pool, ballroom, meeting areas, and rooms for rent, and served as many as 9,000 people (some probably from other communities). African-American students at Northwestern, barred from university housing, lived at the Y, and black Evanston Township High School kids, shut out of everything from the school's prom to its sports teams, danced and played there. The Y eventually offered job training, classes, clubs, counseling, and entertainment, including acts like Nat King Cole. "Of all the columns I wrote," Robinson says, "that one got the most response. So many people said Emerson Street Y changed their lives."

After the Grove Street facility was desegregated in 1963, YMCA administrators decided Emerson was redundant; it closed in 1969. "The intention was that the people who had gone to Emerson would now go to Grove, but they didn't feel welcome there," Robinson says. Most of them wound up at the Foster Center (now the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center, named in part for Evanston's first black alderman, Edwin B. Jourdain Jr.), a park district facility with fewer resources than the Y had. For a while the former Y building was home to a Hare Krishna temple; in 1980, over protests from black residents, the city tore it down. The Northwestern/Evanston Research Park now occupies its site. According to Robinson, this was just one instance in a pattern of disregard by the city for buildings of historical significance to the black community. Another was the 1992 demolition of the Rudolph Penn mansion at 2026 Brown Avenue, which was part of the Community Hospital complex (founded because both Evanston and Saint Francis hospitals refused to admit blacks). The handsome residence was designed in the 1920s by Walter T. Bailey, an African-American architect, and built for Penn, a doctor; Bailey also designed the Mount Moriah Masonic Temple, built in 1929 at 1231 Emerson and still standing.

The Clarion went out of business in '97. By then Robinson had a clutch of columns documenting history that wasn't easily available elsewhere. With $200 of his own money and contributions from people in the area, he collected them in a self-published paperback, A Place We Can Call Our Home, a chronicle of the black community in Evanston from 1850 to 1930, now available at the Evanston public and school libraries. The next year, with additional information, he published Through the Eyes of Us, an annotated time line that runs from 1850 through 1998, and packaged it with a CD of interviews with his sources (some now dead). In 1999, looking for a way to get information out faster, he established a nonprofit organization to publish a quarterly magazine of news and history, Shorefront Journal. Shorefront has put out 14 issues so far, growing from an initial 4 pages to the present 24, and now underwrites some of the research it publishes. Along the way, Robinson was elected board president of the Evanston Historical Society. He'll speak on Saturday, May 31, at a free history showcase that includes Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, who edited Writing Out My Heart: Selections From the Journal of Frances E. Willard, 1855-96, and David Bridges, author of The Best Coal Company in All Chicago and How It Got That Way--a history of the business started by his forebears. It begins at 2 at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington in Evanston. Call 847-866-0300 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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