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“Everyone knows of the Harlem Renaissance, but there was a Chicago Renaissance as well,” said Dino Robinson of Shorefront Legacy Center. “It lasted longer – it started earlier and ended later – but then we had Jim Crow set in and everything got shut down.”
African American residents of the North Shore took part in that Renaissance. Shorefront Legacy Center, which Mr. Robinson founded, is dedicated to keeping that legacy, and other important moments in local black history, alive.
The center records and preserves experiences of African Americans who have lived all along the North Shore, but concentrates mainly on Evanston, Glencoe and Lake Forest, towns which historically have had the largest number of black residents.
Many of those African American residents originally came to the North Shore to be domestics, so their ancestors consequently might not attribute much significance to their experiences, Mr. Robinson said. But, he pointed out, compiling these details helps paint a larger picture of the region’s history.
“Just because they were domestics, it doesn’t mean they were uneducated,” he said. “You have to ask, ‘what were their interests? Where did they go to church? What social clubs did they belong to?’ Any document that supports that information is valuable.”
The goals of the center, Mr. Robinson said, are to provide reference materials, to exhibit materials depicting the relevance of the North Shore African American community and to maintain an archive that validates that presence.
The center’s holdings used to sit in Mr. Robinson’s basement until the move into the Family Focus building in 2008. “It’s like organized hoarding,” Mr. Robinson admitted with a laugh.
Besides an exhibition space and reference room, the center houses two archive rooms. Scholars and historians use the facility regularly, as do local students. Among the authors who have used the archive is Rachel L. Swarns, who in 2012, published “American Tapestry,” an expansive history of Michelle Obama’s family. “[Ms. Swarns] called about two or three years ago,” Mr. Robinson said. “It turned out that Michelle Obama’s grandmother lived in Evanston.”
A key part of Mr. Robinson’s job is persuading community members who might have valuable archival materials to open their homes so he might peruse them. Building a sense of trust with those families is, he said, of paramount importance. Some are reluctant, while others happily turn over bags and boxes filled with materials.
“We can’t tell the story if we don’t have the stuff,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to be willing to give those things away. But a lot of people like that their family history is stored here and you can come here in order to make better sense out of it.”
The center published a paper journal for many years. Recently, however, the staff decided it would be more efficient and less expensive to move the publication completely online. Mr. Robinson said additional benefits resulted from that decision.
“Our print publication really catered to an older crowd,” he said. “We spent a year retooling it. But since we went online, there has been an increased interest from the younger generations looking up information about their ancestors. Now it’s all about putting together a permanent record that you can find with Google search.”
The print publication was not entirely discontinued, however. The Center now publishes an annual compilation of its online articles.
Mr. Robinson, who has lived mainly in Evanston since he was in the eighth grade, said he works “as many hours as I can” with the archives. “I work here nearly every Saturday, and it always seems to be interweaving with my daily activities.”
Despite the mission of the archive, he eschews the term “African American History.” “African American history is a part of American history,” Mr. Robinson said. “The ‘bigger history’ says we can only include our history at its discretion – but if you edit out parts of history, you are going to come up with many holes.”
While it leads to very few days off, Mr. Robinson sees his commitment as part of a greater good. “We’re the only organization of this type north of DuSable that’s telling this story. People say to me, ‘I’ve lived here my whole life and I did not know any of this,’” Mr. Robinson said. “My goal is to make all this common knowledge.”
Shorefront recently relocated from the Family Focus building on Dewey Avenue to Sherman United Methodist Church, 2214 Ridge Ave.