Exterior of the Emerson Street Y. Photo courtesy of Shorefront Image Gallery

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On May 22, the McGaw YMCA will honor the legacy of the Emerson Street YMCA as part of its year long celebration of 125 years in Evanston.

The Emerson Street Y was a department of the Evanston YMCA that served the African-American community from 1909-1969. Located at 1014-1016 Emerson Street, the building was considered an anchor to Evanston’s black community. During a time when African-Americans were widely discriminated against, the Emerson Street Y was a place – perhaps the only place aside from church – where African-American youth and teens felt welcomed and supported. Adults also used the Emerson Street Y as a meeting place. It was critical to the existence of many black social and civic organizations.

In 1969, a national push to desegregate led to the closing of the Emerson Street Y. The building was eventually demolished in 1980.

While a few African-Americans it welcomed the closing because it symbolized for them racial prejudice, others felt resentment and sadness for the loss of what many believed was the glue that held their community together so tightly.

James R. Tally started programs for Black youth

Founded in 1885, the Evanston YMCA at 1000 Grove St. took pride in serving its youth, but it did not serve the African-American population.

In 1907, a graduate from the Hampton Institute in Virginia, James R. Tally, moved to Evanston with his wife, Addie B. Mr. Tally approached the Evanston YMCA representatives about the possibility of young African- American men’s participating in programs and utilizing the services at the YMCA. After being turned away, the determined Mr. Tally organized a small group of religious leaders from Evanston and a set of volunteers to organize its own spiritual and recreational outlet for male African-American youth. Organized activities were held behind Mr. Tim Harland’s blacksmith shop located at West Railroad (now Green Bay Road) and Foster Street. They continued there for several years.

Mr. Tally’s efforts did not go unnoticed. Two members of the larger Evanston community who were involved with the Evanston YMCA, Dr. Dwight J. Harris and Mr. J.E. Scott, believed there was a need for a facility that specifically serviced the African American community.

“These two philanthropists brought Mr. Tally back into the mix,” says Dino Robinson, founder of Shorefront, an organization dedicated to the preservation of historic African American contributions within Chicago’s North Shore communities. “With money raised by both the white and the black communities, the YMCA purchased a building at 1014-1016 Emerson Street from Northwestern University. Mr. Tally, charged to set up and run it as an African American branch of the Evanston YMCA, became the first Black employee of the Evanston Y.”

Emerson Street Y becomes cornerstone of the community

By the mid 1920’s, it was evident that the building at 1014-1016 Emerson Street needed to expand. The branch had to turn away hundreds of young men competing for the eight available dorm rooms. African American men attending Northwestern University were not allowed to live in on-campus dormitories and often looked to the Emerson Street Y for housing.

A push to improve both the Evanston Y as well as the Emerson Street Y raised an astounding one million dollars. Of that fund, $100,000 was slated for the Emerson Street Branch expansion.

On December 16, 1929 the opening of the new, larger Emerson Street Y signified the beginning of its heyday. Activities, assemblies, and organizational meetings continued to increase. Boys and girls played basketball, took swimming lessons, and attended dances. The lower level housed a café and barbershop. The Emerson Street Y also attracted local music talent such as a young Nat Cole (not yet Nat King Cole), Duke Worthington and Blues musician Billy Wright.

“During the 1950’s, the Emerson Y was the place to be,” says Robert Reece who grew up in Evanston and is co-chairing the Emerson Street Y May 22 event with his wife Patty. “We played pool, checkers, basketball and we made lifelong friends. Some people even met their spouses there.”

 

Past Evanston Mayor Lorraine Morton met her husband at the Emerson Street Y.

 

Retired Evanston Police Chief Bill Logan spent many days at the Emerson Street Y as a boy. He says it was the Y’s staff that made the greatest impact on him.

 

“They were role models for me and for others,” says Mr. Logan. “They taught us about teamwork, sportsmanship and they cared about us. They’d ask about our parents and how things were at home.”

While activities continued to grow behind the doors of the Emerson Street Y, in the boardroom plans for the integration of the Evanston YMCA were taking shape.

Desegregation leads to closing of the Emerson Street Y

During the civil rights movement, YMCAs throughout the nation began to address the issue of desegregation. The Evanston YMCA followed suit and in 1957 it implemented its desegregation plan beginning with the fourth grade level, with each consecutive year desegregating each of its age groups. By December 18, 1963 the Evanston YMCA fully desegregated its facilities with the 7th and 8th grade levels.

Throughout the years, there was also continued concern about the Emerson Branch’s financial stability, which may have contributed to the closing of the Emerson Street Y.

While the intent to integrate and encourage African American youth to participate fully in the activities at the Evanston YMCA was apparent, the transition wasn’t simple. African Americans were met with certain racial insensitivities.

“Was it welcoming?” poses Mr. Robinson. “Well, the teen room was renamed the Plantation Room and a new family fundraising event was introduced called the Aunt Jemima Pancake Breakfast. No, it was not welcoming.”

On March 15, 1969 the Emerson Street Branch was officially closed.

The building at 1014-1016 was used as a storage warehouse for years. Around 1971, it was leased out to a local chapter of the Hare Krishna. By 1979 the Hare Krishna were forced to vacate the building due to too many building code violations. The City of Evanston condemned the building and used it for fire emergency training, eventually tearing down the structure in 1980 without fanfare or much attention.

Today the Evanston YMCA, renamed the McGaw YMCA in 1984, strives for a diverse membership and has made progress.

Mr. Reece who was the first African American to serve as the Chairman of the Board of Directors at the McGaw YMCA says he has seen many changes in his lifetime.

“The McGaw Y looks to me the way the world should be,” says Mr. Reece. “Today, there is a cross section of every social, racial and economic level possible.”

 

The May 22nd celebration will honor the Emerson Street Y’s rich 60-year history and its trailblazers with dinner, dancing, and a silent auction. The event will be held at the McGaw YMCA and will debut “Unforgettable Legacy” an Emerson Street YMCA film by Evanston filmmaker Susan Hope Engel. It features Evanston leaders and community members whose formative years were shaped by the people and programs that was the Emerson Street Y.

“This celebration is our chance to share the story of the Emerson Street Y to all of Evanston,” says Mr. Reece. “It was where leaders were born, where organizations began, where athletic teams grew and where we were taught to serve our family, community and country, all values that continue to resonate throughout the City today.”

Shorefront Seeks Emerson Y MemorabiliaDino Robinson, founder and director of Shorefront, says he is interested in receiving memorabilia from the Emerson Street Y. Shorefront Legacy Center is located in Room 206 at 2010 Dewey Ave. in the Family Focus building. The mailing address is P.O. Box 1894, Evanston, IL 60204. He can be contacted by e-mail at shorefront@me.com or by phone at 847.864.7467.