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Some 15 years ago everything Dino Robinson had gathered about the history of Evanston‘s black population fit in a single small box.
His three file folders of inanimate material grew into an extensive chronicle of the lives of African-Americans on the North Shore – an archive so large it is upsizing to a 1,500-square-foot space at Family Focus.
By summer’s end the Shorefront Legacy Center will give a treasure trove of rescued documents and dreams some room to stretch and breathe.
Along the way Mr. Robinson developed a passion for black history that spawned Shorefront, a quarterly journal and not-for-profit agency. It also led to educational outreach and youth internship and training programs – all centered on the history of African-Americans from Evanston to Lake Forest.
The future Shorefront Legacy Center is currently in the hands of a construction crew. They are transforming the vacant room once used as a costume room for the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre into an exhibition gallery and and library/research room that will open a vast array of archival material to the public. The build-out should be finished by the end of June, says Mr. Robinson. After several months of moving, the Shorefront board plans to host a grand opening in late summer.
There should be a lot to see and learn. “Families are turning over items that have been with [them] for decades and, in some instances, over 100 years,” says Mr. Robinson. “Local people are responsible for the growth of the archives from a mere three file folders to more than 40 cubic feet of materials, documents, photos, invitations, club minutes, church histories, obituaries and garments related to organizations.”
More than 3,000 family images and 1,100 obituaries are in the collection, along with articles like recently acquired gloves, pins and sashes from the Prince Hall affiliation of the Masonic Lodge and Eastern Star.
It will be a relief, Mr. Robinson admits, to move the documents and artifacts out of his home. There it was available to researchers only by appointment and was threatening to crowd out his graphic design business.
Now employed as production coordinator at Northwestern University Press, he estimates he devotes an average of 80 hours a month to the organization he has nurtured for 10 years.
It was the publisher of the now-defunct Clarion newspaper who set him on his path, he says. In 1995 the publisher “badgered” him, Mr. Robinson jokes, to write some articles about African-Americans in history.
Finally agreeing, Mr. Robinson headed for the Evanston Public Library and the Evanston Historical Society. But the kind of information he wanted seemed to be “scattered” or buried in “discouraging statistics” – percentages for poverty, high-school dropouts, domestic workers, the unemployed.
“That doesn’t paint a picture of the community,” he says.
He set out to capture a clearer image. His newspaper column, which debuted in January 1996, disappeared within a year with the demise of the Clarion. But he had begun “talking to the [African-American] community,” he says, seeing how “their eyes lit up” as they talked about their past.
In 1999 he founded Shorefront as an entity to collect and preserve the history of North Shore African-Americans. To “keep [the work] in the public eye,” he says, he created the Shorefront journal, where people could tell stories in their own words.
He had already assembled an advisory board. But when he solicited their suggestions for a name for the new organization, he says they all included the term “African-American.”
He found the names tedious. “Shorefront” came from his dad and struck him as just right. It is short. And “the one-word name allows us to modify the mission,” he says, noting that “African diaspora” more accurately describes a suburban black population made up of people from countries as diverse as Haiti, Jamaica and Belize than does “African-American.”
With its echoes of “storefront,” he says, the name also lands the organization where he wants to see it: “somewhere between ‘academic’ and ‘homegrown.’ We want academic credentials without being boring.”
That never meant settling for mediocrity. From the outset Mr. Robinson says he used his design expertise to set Shorefront apart from other African-American periodicals he describes as “more like newsletters. The look of [Shorefront] became a sign of our high standards.”
Until 2002 he resisted suggestions that they incorporate as a not-for-profit, imagining himself trapped under a “mound of paperwork.” But after leading a committee on incorporation for a Chicago group, he says he mirrored the process to move Shorefront to 501(c) (3) status.
Operating out of a mission that calls for collecting, preserving and educating, Shorefront has hosted interns, often Northwestern University students, as writers for the journal.
Legacy Keepers, a free six-to-eight-week program for middle schoolers, puts disposable cameras in the hands of young people and helps them learn to document their history with images and interviews.
Mr. Robinson says that earlier, he and the board twice turned down chances to rent space at Family Focus. They wanted to be sure Shorefront “established its own identity,” he says. And they were concerned that the available space was not accessible.
By now the organization has “a better sense of identity,” he says. And Family Focus has plans to install an elevator that will provide easy access to the second-floor Legacy Center.
When settled in the former Foster School in a historically African-American neighborhood, the Shorefront Legacy Center promises to record the historic heartbeat of a community that has always pumped life into Evanston and the North Shore.