The film “Evanston’s Living History,” produced and directed by Craig Dudnick and released in 2008, is both the story of Evanston’s African American population and the story of how Evanston became the city it is today. A number of Evanston’s most celebrated African American residents who were extremely active in the Evanston community over the past century were interviewed in depth in the making of this film. It is an invaluable resource for anyone hoping to understand this City, and, with its illuminating photographs, the United States as well.
The film begins with a short account of and comment on slavery, given by the film’s narrator, distinguished Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary professor of Christian history Larry G. Murphy. The story proper begins with the business acumen and success of Anthony Crawford, a former slave emancipated in 1865 in Abbeville, S.C.
Doria D. Johnson, historian, and Eleanor Jean Frazier Moore, great-great-granddaughters, and Phillip Crawford, great-great-grandson, of Anthony, tell the story of the catastrophic event that caused the family’s exodus, almost en masse, from Abbeville to the City of Evanston.
Oct. 21, 1916, was a business day, and the local cotton-growers were lined up to sell their cotton at a good rate. News came late that the price would go down the very next day, and the limit on time meant some farmers would have to take a lower rate. Anthony Crawford, the patriarch of his family and elder statesman of the black community, was told to get out of line and give up his place to a white man. He refused. The result: He was arrested, and upon his release, beaten by a mob, stabbed, dragged around town tied to the back of a buggy, and lynched. After his death, the Crawfords were horrified further to find they were to be run out of town: The Crawford family – all of them – were “to quit Abbeville, S.C. by Nov. 15.”
“Big Momma” and Grandpa George Crawford decided on Evanston. Between 1910 and 1920, then, about 6,000 people left South Carolina – from the cities of Greenwood and McCormick as well as Abbeville. Byron Wilson says with a laugh, “If you ever get three African Americans together [in Evanston],” and you want to say something negative about a black Evanstonian, “don’t – because someone there will be related to the person you’re talking about.”
Evanston, though, was not an easy place to live at first, according to statements by older Evanstonians. Joe Burton recounted how, when he was a newspaper boy, he refused to walk up five flights at Marshall Fields – where all the employees were white – to deliver a five-cent newspaper. He rode the elevator. “People backed up from me like I had the plague,” he said, the tone of hurt audible even after all these years and changes in Evanston.
Rosetta V. Strong Gradford, who was born in 1917 and came to Evanston in 1937, says, “Evanston was fine, but we didn’t have any blacks working at stores. … only mopping and janitorial.” She remembered when they did something about it, too: “We decided we needed somebody in the bank since we were
putting our money in it, too. My sister and Ms. Johnson were the first black tellers.”
Mary S. Harvey says, “When we first came, it was very difficult. …We knew that they didn’t like us and we stayed away as much as we could. … We treated them like we wanted to be treated. We treated them like people. And finally they accepted us.”
The late Rose Jourdain told the story of how her father, Edwin Jourdain Jr., became the first black alderman of Evanston. Mr. Jourdain had graduated from Harvard in 1921 and came to Evanston to attend the Medill School of Journalism. He was asked by several African Americans to go to City Council to express the objections of the black community to a certain proposal. After his success in this matter, they asked him to run for alderman. He agreed in 1931. Mr. Jourdain’s campaign was opened by black civil rights activist and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois. Lawyer and ACLU leading member Clarence Darrow came too. Ms. Jourdain says, “He [Edwin] won the election, but the Council called to tell him he was not the alderman. And he said, ‘I’m running again next year.’”
She continues, “Many white people were so disgusted they too joined in the campaign.” Eventually, Mr. Jourdain had to be recognized as the City’s first black alderman.
Others of Evanston’s well-known African American residents interviewed in “Evanston’s Living History” speak of the challenges they faced. Mr. Price fought for this country in World War II and dealt with bigotry in the armed forces. “I had a section of 48 men. We were messed with all the time. … During the Bulge, we evacuated half a million gallons of gas to keep the Germans from getting it.” And yet, he says, company punishment continued. He started drilling the men in all their spare time so no one could find fault with them. When he came home he created the award-winning drill team at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center.
Retired Chief of Police William Logan Jr. and retired Fire Chief Sanders Hicks tell stories of the challenges they met starting out as black men in what was then white territory. “When I came back to Evanston,” he says, “there was a lot of discrimination. There were only six or seven blacks in the [police] department, and we worked in the black community.” He was appointed chief of police in the 1980s. After his retirement from the police force, he served as director of safety at Evanston Township High School.
Lorraine Morton was the first African American schoolteacher placed outside Foster School – at Nichols. As a teacher, and later as principal at Haven School, she served as an alderman in the Fifth Ward. When a student of hers, Marvin Walker, asked her to run for mayor, she did and she won – “a black and a Democrat,” she said. “It showed that Evanston as a community was not all tied down in racism.”
The film grew out of the close relationship between Craig Dudnick and the woman who advised him, Viola Hillsman, whom Mr. Dudnick met as a student at Northwestern, and whom he later cared for after her husband died and she fell ill. Mr. Dudnick says of Ms. Hillsman that “she was a woman of great faith and humanity, as well as my friend and teacher. That time with her changed my life and inspired a documentary about the community to whom she was devoted.”
Mr. Price, who died in 2009, says of Evanston, “It’s the greatest city in America.”
The film is available for purchase on DVD at http://www.evanstonhistory.com.
“Evanston’s Living History” describes how Evanston’s black community coalesced between the 1920s and the 1980s, with its members leading the fire department, the police department and ultimately the City itself. The short documentary by Craig Dudnick, four years in the making, premiered last year. Some of the living historical figures in the film attended an encore presentation on July 17 at the Evanston Public Library.
After the film former Mayor Lorraine Morton, retired Police Chief William Logan, retired Fire Chief Sanders Hicks and longtime Evanstonian Byron Wilson responded to questions from the audience, many of which focused on present-day education and the importance of family.
Discipline developed and fostered in the home and high expectations from teachers, panel members said, are keys to success.
Ms. Morton, having been a teacher in Evanston for decades after arriving from North Carolina, said, “If I had a remedy, I wouldn’t be [just] sitting here coming from North Carolina, I didn’t see the misbehavior there that I saw when I came here. … It seemed that there wasn’t the control of the children here. Also, in the South, all parents said, ‘You have to go to school.’ If a parent came to school it was to say, ‘How can we help the teacher?’ What I’m hearing is the opposite: People are berating the teachers when their children do wrong.”
Mr. Logan said, “I really believe that family is an important part of a student’s achievement.” He said he was told by his father what grades he was expected to earn, and he “always appreciated that.” He added that his father’s expectations were “higher than what the school expected.” He related two incidents from his time as a student. As an athlete at Evanston Township High School, said he once told a friend he was often deliberately hit by pitched balls. “He told me, take your time and limp to first, then steal second.” He also told of a typing teacher at ETHS who believed in him and how that class served him well when, in the armed forces during the Korean conflict, he handled intelligence documents.
After Mr. Logan retired from the police department, he became head of safety for Evanston Township High School. “At ETHS, seven out of eight times when there was a disciplinary hearing for a student, no mother or father would be at the hearing,” he said. “Often, though, there would be a grandmother,” he added.
Mr. Wilson said, “None of us is born knowing how to live. We need to learn how to live. You are taught how to live. You need discipline from parents – no laying of hands on kids, but control, deportment [that will carry over] when he goes to school.”
Ms. Morton said, “Teachers and parents have to make kids know they can [learn and succeed]. … I give credit to the teachers who were motivated to see that their children were successful. All teachers must be motivated and the supervising personnel should be looking at [the question], ‘Did these children progress?’”
Ever the champion of children, she concluded, “I’m not going to give up on the children.”