On March 12 Morris “Dino” Robinson, founder of the Shorefront Legacy Center, shared his knowledge, love of history and pride to a group of eager listeners at the Levy Senior Center. This talk was the first Levy Lecture of 2019 on the topic “North of Chicago: African American Communities.” The Shorefront Legacy Center’s mission is to “collect, preserve and educate people about Black history on Chicago’s suburban North Shore.” Mr. Robinson’s presentation was a way for him to share his knowledge with a new audience.
Black Americans have lived in North Shore communities for nearly 150 years, not always with open arms, Mr. Robinson said. In 1813, the Illinois Territory prohibited free Blacks from immigrating. Five years later, Illinois abolished slavery through its constitution, although Blacks living in the area prior to June 1, 1819, were required to register their names and provide proof of their freedom in order to move about freely.
Illinois also copied the State of Indiana’s “Black Codes,” which documented the customs of slavery and forced Blacks “to be permanently assigned to the families for whom they worked,” Mr. Robinson told his audience. Black people were treated like property, and it was legal for their services to be traded, bought or sold among Whites.
The codes listed rules of what Blacks could and could not do and stated the terms of punishment (such as the number of lashes) for infractions. Any subsequent freedom had to be purchased from and granted by the designated head of the assigned family. These practices continued in Illinois until 1848.
Through Shorefront, Mr. Robinson has amassed an impressive collection of Black history documented with oral and video interviews, ephemera related to businesses and community events, photographs, maps and personal recollections in letters and diaries. He finds church records are also a good resource for documenting dates and events, especially if oral histories are uncertain about specific details. The earliest Black presence on the North Shore dates to 1860 in Lake Forest, with the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This church was active through 1920, when the congregation moved or disbanded. The building was razed during the 1970s.
By the 1880s, Blacks were living throughout the North Shore, especially in Lake Forest, Glencoe and Evanston. After 1900, there was a surge in Black population growth. Many people migrated from the South to join their relatives who lived here, spurred on in part by the lynching of Anthony Crawford in Abbeville, S. C.
Black residents in Evanston lived in all parts of the City. They built homes, churches and businesses, which in turn supported civic clubs, social groups and community organizations.
Some of the businesspeople and entrepreneurs Mr. Robinson highlighted represent a Who’s Who of Black America. A few of the prominent individuals in the Evanston community were Andrew Scott, a soldier in the Civil War who went on to found both Second Baptist and Mt. Zion churches; Josephine Taylor, a founding member of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church and a successful businesswoman; Henry Butler, owner of Butler Livery and one of the major employers in town; William Twiggs, a barber, printer, and Corresponding Editor for the Afro-American Budget; Thomas Doram, MDV, the second Black veterinarian in the United States; and Isabella Garnett, a nurse who founded the Evanston Sanitarium and Nursing School.
Despite signs of a thriving and successful Black middle class, Mr. Robinson said, systemic segregation and redlining policies between 1900 and 1930 “purposefully moved” the Black population to one particular area, the least desirable part of the City, now known as the Fifth Ward.
Other ethnic groups, including Germans, Italians and Jews were also relegated to live in specific areas, he said.
Without a loyal community nearby, the Black-supported hospital, library, YMCA and schools eventually closed. Segregated housing led to segregated schools. To prove his point, Mr. Robinson showed the audience two class photos from Foster Elementary School. In 1912 the students were ethnically diverse, but by 1933 there were hardly any White students.
The audience at the Levy Center listened attentively and peppered Mr. Robinson with questions throughout his presentation. Several Black attendees added personal stories to Mr. Robinson’s narrative, sharing poignant remembrances of when they and their siblings attended Foster School or attended events at the all -Black Emerson YMCA.
Wrapping up his talk, Mr. Robinson said it was his goal “to present a cohesive picture of Black American history in this part of the country, knowing our views are not monolithic.”
It is a story that is still being told, and because of resources like Shorefront, the details are being saved for posterity.