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When the McGaw YMCA decided to celebrate its 125th anniversary last year by honoring the legacy of the African American Emerson Street Y, many of its former members began to share their memories – not dormant, but not always shared with the entire community.
The yearlong celebration engendered an award-winning documentary “Unforgettable,” (a nod to the fact that Nat “King” Cole visited at least once) public art on light poles that commemorates that Y and its surroundings, and now, an honorary street name for the segment of Emerson Street between Oak and Sherman avenues.
On Sept. 25, community and civic leaders turned out for the dedication of the street sign and, it seemed, for a public validation of their experiences and memories of the Emerson Street Y, which, McGaw Y executive director Bill Geiger said, helped make Evanston the community it is today.
Robert Reece said, “As a teenager in the 1960s, I walked through the doors of 1014 Emerson. It was a place where I was comfortable, a place where we were safe. … It closed in 1969, but it holds unforgettable memories for families who gathered here.”
The Emerson Street YMCA was built with community spirit and community money. Although the McGaw YMCA had been in operation in Evanston for almost 20 years, it was serving only the white population in 1907 when James R. Talley asked that African American youth be allowed to participate in programs and use the services there. The Y declined the request but Mr. Tally, undeterred, brought together a small group of religious leaders from Evanston and a set of volunteers to organize their own spiritual and recreational outlet for young African American men. Organized activities were held behind Mr. Tim Harland’s blacksmith shop, located at West Railroad (now Green Bay Road) and Foster Street, where they continued for several years. Two Evanstonians involved with the Evanston YMCA, Dr. Dwight J. Harris and J.E. Scott, supported Mr. Tally’s efforts.
Morris “Dino” Robinson, historian of the African American communities along the North Shore and founder of Shorefront Legacy Center, said, “As I look at this day, I think of July 5, 1914. A crowd of 400 attended the opening of the Emerson Street Y. A group of community leaders got together and started baseball games. James Talley helped lay the cornerstone.”
Mr. Robinson, whose “Gatherings” documents the history of the Emerson Street Y, said he had been working on that project – and the public art pieces now on display on the Emerson Y block – since 2005. “These memories are now passed to subsequent generations,” he said.
Retired Mayor Lorraine Morton said, “In a name is a heritage, and so I view this [honorary street] sign as a heritage that all children in the City of Evanston will know about the Emerson Street Y.” On a more personal note, she recalled how she met her future husband at one of the functions there.
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl echoed that thought, saying, “I hope this [honorary street] sign will remind us to make new memories for all the children of Evanston.”
In 1969, a national push to desegregate led to the closing of the Emerson Street Y. Mr. Reece became the chair of the board of the newly integrated McGaw YMCA, the first African American to hold that position. The building was demolished in 1980.
The afternoon sun on the now-vacant square that was the Emerson Street YMCA burnished memories for some; for others, it etched in their minds the knowledge of an unforgettable community.