Dino Robinson, founder of Shorefront

The “Undesign the Redline” exhibit, created by Designing the WE, will be on display on the second floor of the Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., through Oct. 20. The educational exhibit highlights some intentional and systematic practices that promoted racial housing segregation in the 1930s and shows the continuing impact that they are still having today. 

Morris “Dino” Robinson, Founder and Executive Director of Shorefront Legacy Center, prepared three panels showing the history of redlining and housing discrimination in Evanston.

At an opening reception for the exhibit held on Aug. 26, Evanston Mayor Stephen Haggerty said, “There were intentional systematic actions that were taken to create the redlines. We talk about Evanston being a special place, but it hasn’t come without some really sad parts to our history to become the City that we are.

“If it took intentional and systematic actions to create redlining and other forms of discrimination that we’ve had, it’s going to take systematic and intentional actions on all of our parts to undo,” said the Mayor. “People in this community are very, very committed to working on that effort. Lots of people are in this room right now and there are so many others in this community working on doing that.”

Jane  Grover, Chair of the City’s Equity and Empowerment Committee, said, “Some version of ‘Undesign the Redline’ has been in New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The exhibit, or some version of it, has been at a lot of really great places, and it is thrilling to have it here.

“I am especially delighted for this particular part of the exhibit, which Dino Robinson has designed and installed here for us, and this is the Evanston version of the redlining history. This map kind of says it all. We’re still living this legacy. We’re still living the repercussions of the redlining that happened in Evanston.”

Mr. Robinson said, “This exhibit helps explain how a permanent or long-standing African American community was developed when in 1900 there was no such thing as a black community, a Jewish community, a German community, a Polish community. Everybody lived everywhere. From 1900 on, through the present day, there was a concerted effort to move ethnicities into certain parts of Evanston.”

Developing a Segregated Town

Evanston’s first African American residents arrived in the 1850s, and by 1880 there were approximately 125 African Americans in Evanston. The number grew to 1,100 in 1910, 6,026 in 1940, and 9,126 in 1960. 

Unlike many suburbs that sought to exclude African Americans altogether, leading members of Evanston’s real estate establishment played a role in the growth of Evanston’s African American community, said historian Andrew Wiese in an article about segregation in Evanston published in the Journal of Social History in 1999. 

He theorized that Evanston was different in this respect from other suburbs because it was already home to a well-established African American community by the time of the Great Migration of African Americans from the south to Northern cities. In addition, he says African American workers supplied labor that was in demand by white elites in Evanston, and they had personal ties with white families all over town.

There was a major caveat, though. Mr. Wiese says, “Evanston’s white real estate brokers apparently developed a practice of informal racial zoning. In effect, they treated a section of west Evanston as open to African Americans, while excluding them from the rest of town.”

In his book “A Place We Can Call Our Home,” Mr. Robinson says that in 1900 African Americans were dispersed throughout Evanston, and many lived along Evanston’s three railroad lines, which he says were the least desirable areas to live in the City. He said the majority lived in an area bounded by Orrington Avenue on the west, Simpson Street on the North, Dodge Avenue on the west, and Greenwood on the south. Land to the west of Dodge Avenue was generally undeveloped, he said. 

In the next four decades, the black population in Evanston grew by 5,000 people, and black Evanstonians were systematically segregated into a triangular area of the City, essentially bounded by the canal on the north and west, the Metra tracks on the east, and Church Street on the south.

The supply of housing for black households in this area grew by the transfer of existing housing from white households to black households and the construction of new housing in the vacant areas west of Dodge. By 1940, the triangular area was built up and was 95% black.

Mr. Robinson illustrated the racial change that took place, saying that Foster School opened in 1905 as a predominantly all white school on Foster Street, near Dewey Avenue.  By 1940, he said, the school was almost all black, taught by an all white teaching staff.

“They redlined an entire community into one area, where they used to live all over Evanston,” Mr. Robinson said. “Then you have a de facto segregated school and a de facto segregated community.”

Some of the more blatant methods used to segregate black Evanstonians and to limit their housing to the triangular area included the following:

• Real estate brokers developed a practice of informal racial zoning. In effect, they treated a section of west Evanston as open to African Americans, while excluding them from the rest of town;

• Evanston banks generally refused to loan money to enable Black households to buy homes on blocks that were not viewed as “acceptable” for Black people; Black people who owned vacant lots near the lake were denied loans to build on their properties, and were eventually forced to sell them;

• At times, white homeowners recorded racially restrictive covenants that provided that their homes “shall not be conveyed, leased to, or occupied by anyone not a Caucasian (servants excepted).”

• South of Church Street, white homeowners formed the West Side Improvement Association “to preserve [the neighborhood] as a place for white people to live.” As part of the plan, they formed a syndicate to buy homes that were at risk of being sold to a black family. 

Black families were also displaced from neighborhoods that were located outside the west side of Evanston. In 1919, the City  passed a zoning ordinance that zoned almost every block where black people lived outside of the west side of town for commercial use.  As these areas were converted to commercial use, “black families were dislocated to the west,” said Mr. Wiese.

The effect of all these practices was stark. “Between 1910 and 1940, there was not a single area of African American expansion outside of west Evanston, in spite of black population growth of almost 5,000,” said Mr. Wiese. “To the contrary, public and private actions reduced the number of African American housing units outside these boundaries.”

By 1940, Mr. Wiese said 84% of black households in Evanston lived in a triangular area on the west of town, bounded on the west and north by the canal; on the south by Church Street; and on the east by the Metra tracks, with the exception of one small node (Garnett Place) that extended east to the “El” tracks. The area is shown on the map below.

This area was highly segregated; it was 95% black. Beyond these bounds, black families lived in a few pockets of older homes purchased before 1900.

Mr. Wiese said, though, black Evanstonians “were almost as likely to own their own homes as middle class and elite whites.”

There were several factors that supported black people’s ownership of homes in Evanston, said Mr. Wiese. First, there was a substantial amount of vacant land west of Dodge Avenue within the triangle. More than 400 new homes were built in this area between 1920 and 1929.  

Second, Mr. Wiese found that some white members of Evanston’s and Chicago’s real estate establishments and some financial institutions from Evanston and Chicago provided mortgages and construction loans to black people who were building or purchasing homes in the triangular area and on Garnett Place.

Third, black households used a variety of means to obtain home ownership, including do-it-yourself building of their own homes. Many of these homes started out with rudimentary structures and were later added onto.

Many black households also shared housing costs with extended families or rented rooms or apartments for extra income. In 1920, about 30% of black households in Evanston included multigenerational and extended family members. The percentage grew to about 50% by 1940.

As in Chicago, segregation had the effect of limiting the supply of housing available to Black families in Evanston. This resulted in overcrowding and higher housing prices. 

Mr. Wiese summed up the racial transition in Evanston through 1940 as follows:

“Ironically, evidence suggests that racial segregation in Evanston facilitated black suburbanization. Although the development of residential segregation in the suburb testifies to the unease local whites felt about black migration, the establishment of clear geographic limits to black community building appears to have calmed white fears. Race relations in Evanston were structured by a high degree of inequality that favored (and flattered) local whites and minimized conflict through patterns of paternalism and deference symbolized by the relationship of domestic service. Separated as they were by income, occupation, and power, as well as clear geographic barriers, such as railroad tracks and a wide sanitary channel, African Americans posed little threat to the social status or perceived property values of Evanston’s economic elite. Meanwhile, as workers, they provided services that were in high demand. As a result, the dynamics of local race relations combined with the aspirations of black southerners to shape a housing market that both supported black home ownership and accommodated the growth of a large black community in an otherwise affluent and white suburb.”

The HOLC Redline Map

A centerpiece of the Evanston portion of the “Redesign the Redline” exhibit is a map prepared in 1940 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), an arm of the Federal Loan Bank Board. See map below.

The HOLC prepared this and similar maps for more than 200 cities in the United States to show the risk of making mortgage loans in different neighborhoods in Evanston and each other city. The process took into account the age and quality of housing, the racial and ethnic makeup of the neighborhood and other factors.

Areas were given one of four grades: “A” areas – shaded green – were deemed “homogeneous” and in demand as residential areas; “B” areas – shaded blue – were “still desirable;” “C” areas – shaded yellow – were characterized as old and at risk of an “infiltration of a lower grade of population;” and “D” – shaded red – had detrimental influences and as “undesirable population or an infiltration of it.”

Black neighborhoods “were invariably rated” in the D category, said researchers Kenneth Jackson and Jacob Krimmel. 

HOLC’s map of Evanston  rated the segregated black triangular area of Evanston in the “D” category. The area shaded red in HOLC’s map is roughly the same as the segregated black triangular area defined by Mr. Wiese.

HOLC also prepared a description of the area shaded red in the Evanston map it prepared. HOLC said: “This neighborhood houses the large negro population living in Evanston. It is somewhat better than the average negro district for this class of population. Here live the servants for many of the families all along the north shore. There is not a vacant house in the territory, and occupancy, moreover is about 150 per cent, for most houses have more than one family living in them. Sales have been very good where liberal financing terms are available, but on other sales mortgage financing is virtually impossible to obtain. This concentration of negroes in Evanston is quite a serious problem for the town as they seem to be growing steadily and encroaching into adjoining neighborhoods. The two family structures are in most cases converted singles and they likewise are overflowing with occupants; these buildings are rented as unheated units. The number of persons on relief in this district is probably heavier than in any other area along the north shore. Altho the area is unattractive to other than the class of occupants already here, it is difficult to say that the section is declining, for it is in constant demand because of the limited number of areas available for negro occupancy in the north shore towns.”

HOLC’s description highlights several adverse economic impacts of segregation. It severely limited the supply of housing available to black people, which increased overcrowding to the point where occupancy was 150%. In addition, the demand for housing and the steadily growing population meant that the black population was, in HOLC’s words, “encroaching into adjoining neighborhoods.”

While researchers debate how the HOLC maps were used and whether they were distributed outside the agency, Mr. Robinson says they were prepared by people in the real estate industry, and they knew about them. Jacob Krimmel and other researchers conclude that HOLC’s risk ratings have had a long-term impact on the housing stock, investment and economic activity in an area.

Other researchers, including Amy Hillier and Jennifer Light, say that HOLC’s maps were provided to the Federal Housing Administration and that the FHA may have been influenced by HOLC’s maps when it created its own maps. FHA’s first Underwriting Manual required FHA’s branch offices to create maps that designated areas, A, B, C or D. Areas that were designated as D were deemed ineligible for FHA mortgage insurance. An HOLC map for Chicago and an FHA map prepared at about the same time are strikingly similar.

From its inception in 1934, the FHA actively promoted racial segregation. It encouraged the use of racially restrictive covenants that prohibited “the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended.” (FHA Manual, 1936, Sec. 284(3)(g)). This policy remained in place until at least 1947.

FHA’s 1936 Manual instructed its valuators to consider the “possibility or probability” of a neighborhood being “invaded” by “incompatible racial and societal groups,” in deciding whether to issue mortgage insurance in an area. (FHA Manual, Sec. 233) If racial change was likely, the neighborhood would be given a negative rating and deemed unacceptable for FHA mortgage insurance. Similar provisions remained in place until 1947, at which time the FHA substituted more veiled language, which remained in place until the late 1950s.

The FHA also taught its valuators that if black people entered a neighborhood, housing values would go down.

FHA’s policies and practices were widely publicized and distributed to people in the housing and mortgage lending business. It is generally accepted that they had a significant influence on the housing market. 

While evidence of FHA’s practices in Evanston is limited, a 1962 Olcott’s Land Values book produced by the FHA in the Contract Buyers League case showed that portions of Evanston were circled in red, indicating that the areas were not suitable for FHA mortgage insurance.

A study of all open FHA mortgage insured loans in the Chicago area in 1970 showed that there were only 8 open loans in all of Evanston for the years 1960-1961: one in census tract 18 (0.55% black), 2 in census tract 23 (44.5% black), 1 in census tract 24 (1.8% black), and 4 in census tract 30 (0.3% black).

For more information on FHA’s policies, see “The Federal Housing Administration’s Role in Segregating and Cutting Off Mortgage Financing for Black Families in Chicago, 1934-1960,” available at evanstonroundtable.com.

Segregation in Evanston Continues Between 1940 and 1960

Between 1940 and 1960, the black population in Evanston grew from 6,026 to 9,126, or by 3,100 people. Because the segregated triangle was already overcrowded in 1940, much of the growth in the black population between 1940 and 1960 took place by expanding the areas in which black people lived, primarily by expanding to the south. This growth took place through a “block-by-block transition in white neighborhoods adjoining the historic black core,” said Mr. Wiese.

The racial transition is show on the accompanying map below.

• Census tract 19, the core of the segregated black area in 1940, was 94.3% black in 1960, but due to the total growth in the black population, it contained 63% of the black population in Evanston, down from 84% in 1940.

• The increase in the black population was accommodated by increases in the black population in census tracts 23, 25 and 22, which were 43.5%, 15.8% and 7.2% black, respectively, in 1960. 

• In 1960, 85% of the black population lived in census tracts 19, 23, 25 and 22.

As of 1960, Evanston remained a highly segregated town. In 1960, it had a segregation rating of 87.2, using a segregation index created by researchers Karl and Alma Taeuber.  A segregation index of 100 would mean that all blocks in the city were 100% white or 100% black.

The table below gives the segregation index for Evanston and, for comparison purposes, three other cities for the years 1940, 1950 and 1960.

After 1960

In July 1964, after several visits by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Evanston, and after a number of marches and demonstrations, a Community Relations Commission (a subcommittee of City Council) began to explore the possibility of open housing in Evanston. In September 1964, the Commission found that more than one-half of white respondents preferred to live in a neighborhood that was 100% white; 72% of black respondents preferred to live in a neighborhood that was half black and half white. The Commission also found that some real estate brokers were refusing to list properties for homeowners who wanted to sell on a nondiscriminatory basis and some declined to represent black home buyers. The Commission concluded that housing was the most troublesome issue facing the City, and it drafted a proposed fair housing ordinance, said Mary Barr in her book “Friends Disappear.”

A group of homeowners and a group of real estate brokers quickly formed to oppose the proposed ordinance. The homeowners argued the ordinance violated their First Amendment right to determine with whom they would deal. The brokers argued that fair housing would accelerate a shift of neighborhoods from all-white to all-black and cause property values to drop.

In the next two years there were continued demonstrations in support of open housing, but continued opposition. In June 1966, City Council passed an open housing ordinance by a vote of 10-8, but it was vetoed by the Mayor. A year later in October 1967, Council passed a stronger housing ordinance by an 11-7 vote. The ordinance prohibited brokers from discriminating or accepting discriminating listings, but it did not cover property owners, financial institutions and real-estate agencies.

After Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, about 3,000 Evanston residents marched from Emerson Street and McCormick Boulevard through the downtown area and gathered at Raymond Park for a memorial service. One pastor urged an immediate passage of an effective and comprehensive housing law.

In April 11, 1968, Congress passed the federal Fair Housing Act, prohibiting discrimination in housing on the basis of race. On April 29, 1968, with 200 people packed in Evanston City Council’s chambers and another 600 outside, City Council passed a fair housing ordinance by a vote of 15-1 that was stronger than the one adopted in 1967, but which still had limitations. 

In June 1969, the fair housing ordinance was made stronger, and it  beefed up the powers of a Fair Housing Review Board.

While adopting the fair housing laws was a major step forward, housing discrimination did not end in Evanston.

Going Forward

At the installation of the “Unwind the Redline” exhibit on Aug. 26, Ms. Grover urged everyone to visit and study the exhibit. She added, “I’d like us to think about a couple of things as you view this exhibit:

“First, how did this happen? This was intentional. This was done to Evanston. This was done to our families in Evanston.

“Second, how do policies and practices today reinforce the history of redlining in Evanston? … How do we undesign Evanston’s redlining? It’s going to take, as Mayor Hagerty said, some intentional affirmative actions on our part to make it happen.”

Mr. Robinson suggested that community members consider what other communities are doing to get ideas. He said, “It’s very important to know that you have to put policies in place and actually act on them. The families in the Fifth Ward want action, not talking points. Talking points go back 50 years.”

He added that where decisions are being made, “We need people who are affected to be at the table to participate in making those decisions.”

The exhibit is sponsored by Enterprise Community Partners and the City’s Equity & Empowerment Commission, and provided in partnership with the Evanston Community Foundation, YWCA Evanston/North Shore, Shorefront Legacy Center, Northwestern University, and the City of Evanston. 

References: Aaronson, Daniel, et. al., 2017, rev. 2018, “The Effects of the 1930s HOLC ‘Redlining’ Maps.” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Working Paper, no. 2017-12; Barr, Mary, 2014, “Friends Disappear, the Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston,” 2014, pp. 164 – 193; Gavin,  Larry, 2018, “The Federal Housing Administration’s Role in Segregating and Cutting Off Mortgage Financing for Black Families in Chicago, 1934-1960,” pp. 6-16, 30-55;Hiller, Amy 2003, “Redlining and the Howeowners’ Loan Corporation.” Journal of Urban History, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 394-420; Krimmel, Jacob, 2017, “Persistence of Prejudice: Estimating the Long Term Effects of Redlining,” The Warton School of Pennsylvania, pp. 1-39; Light, Jennifer, 2010, “Nationality and Neighborhood Risk at the Origins of FHA Underwriting,” Journal of Urban History, vol. 35, no. 5, pp. 634-71; Robinson, Jr., Morris E., 1997, “A Place We Can Call Our Home,” pp. 11-14;  Taeuber, Karl and Alma Taeuber, 1965, Residential Segregation & Neighborhood Change;  Wiese, Andrew, 1999, “Black Housing, White Finance: African American Housing and Home Ownership in Evanston, Illinois, Before 1940,” vol. 33, no. 2, Journal of Social History, pp. 429 -60; and Wiese, Andres, 2004, “Places of Their Own,” pp. 61-65,118.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...