It took only six years after coming to Evanston in 1955 for Albert Gaskin (1934-2010) to launch a business still going strong today. One of the so-called Abbeville posse of black immigrants to Evanston from South Carolina, he found work washing dishes at Fanny’s Italian restaurant on the west side. After a hitch with the army, a few semesters at Kendall College and some coursework in real estate, he launched his own realty company.
In 1961 he founded Albert Gaskin & Co., primarily to serve the housing needs of local African Americans. In 1969 he applied to join the Evanston-North Shore Board of Realtors and became its first black member.
“He was a quiet, distinguished fellow,” recalls long-time realtor Reed Mitchell Hagee, whose father John M. Mitchell sponsored Mr. Gaskin’s membership. “It was great to have him on the board. Too bad at the time some people thought you could only be white to sell to whites and had to be black to sell to blacks.”
By the end of the 1960s, Mr. Gaskin had moved to Marina City in Chicago, expanded his company to serve a broad client base and started exploring other realty ventures and venues although he always kept his real estate offices on Main St. in Evanston.
Around 1969 Mr. Gaskin spotted a Lincoln Park neighborhood ripe for a turn-around, so he and his long-time partner, Robert Bachand, bought an apartment building there. To do so, they ran into prejudice that required a charade with Mr. Bachand, a white man, posing as the buyer and Mr. Gaskin pretending to be his real estate agent. They lived in that building for 27 years, with Mr. Gaskin often gardening out front. The last time he was mistaken for the hired help, “we sold the building and moved to Edgewater,” said Mr. Bachand, a Chicago-area teacher and counselor.
Albert Gaskin served on the board of the Evanston-North Shore Board of Realtors and the Chamber of Commerce, which saluted him for “outstanding service” in 1975. He belonged to the local branch of the NAACP, which gave him a community service award in 1988. He also belonged to the Kiwanis and to the Chessmen Club, which honored him with a certificate of merit in 1976.
Over his 49 years with Gaskin Realty, he hired and trained scores of sales people who continue to work on the North Shore. He said he found working in real estate allowed him to literally and figuratively “open doors” for others. At various times, he also ran the Gaskin Tax Service and an insurance business.
Although Mr. Gaskin was graduated from the Illinois School of Real Estate and the Realtors Institute, he never received a college degree. Working at Fanny’s, he’d been saving his money to attend Tuskegee Institute, but just after a letter of acceptance to Tuskegee, he received another letter — this one from the draft board. He entered the U. S. Army in 1956 and spent most of his two-year stint in Germany. When he got back, he shelved his dreams of college. He liked to say he took a mentor’s advice to fill the need for “a good, honest real estate broker” in Evanston’s black community.
This detour from college might have spurred his enduring interest in helping young African American men succeed. He became active in the Chicago Area Project working against delinquency through self-help programs. In 1972 Governor Ogilvie appointed him to a three-year term on the Illinois Corrections Juvenile Division Advisory Board. In 1976 he established a scholarship for black male graduates at Evanston Township High School.
When Albert Gaskin himself was in high school back in Abbeville, he was president of the class, recalls classmate Fran Wilson. “In the sixties when I came to Evanston, he found me my first apartment. He was a good man. I can still see his smile.”
“He was a self-made man,” says Judi Smith, office manager at Gaskin Realty. “Whatever he needed to do, he taught himself. Whether it was typing or shorthand, whatever, he figured it out.”
“He was old school, a stickler for doing things right,” says Cardigan Shipman, the firm’s managing broker. Mr. Shipman interviewed at Gaskin in the early 1990s. He had found out about Mr. Gaskin by contacting the National Association of Real Estate Brokers to ask about African American realtors on the north side of Chicago and Evanston. He received only two referrals. One was Albert Gaskin.
“He was a rarity in this business,” said Mr. Shipman and admitted he found the boss “intimidating” at that first meeting. He wound up taking a job with another company, but the next time he had a chance to work with Mr. Gaskin, he grabbed it.
“Cardigan has been like a son to us,” Robert Bachand says. “He is the one Albert chose to take over the firm.”
Albert Gaskin passed away July 1 after four years of fighting prostate cancer. Scores of friends and colleagues came to the open house held last Wednesday at Gaskin Realty on Main Street, and a memorial service was held Sunday at the Chicago History Museum.