The somber thread of black oppression permeated a town hall meeting on reparations, a conversation some deemed “transformative;” some, “continued;” and some, “overdue.”
The meeting organized by Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simons and facilitated by the City’s Reparations Subcommittee in collaboration with the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), attracted several hundred people to the First Church of God, 1524 Simpson St., on Dec. 11.
Ald. Simmons, with help from Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey, persuaded the Evanston City Council to agree to create a Reparations Fund and pledge $10 million to it over 10 years. The money would come from the tax revenue on recreational marijuana sales within the City of Evanston.
“I saw residents, City Council members, stakeholders and parents working toward equity, and we were not moving the needle,” Ald. Simmons said. “We continue to have the achievement gap, the opportunity gap and an income gap of $46,000 and a life-expectancy gap of 13 years between the richest and poorest census tracts. … We need to move our efforts beyond apology and ceremony.”
Monté Dillard, Pastor of First Church of God and a member of the Reparations Subcommittee of the City’s Equity & Empowerment Commission, said, “We are tasked to look at all things through the lens of ‘How does this specific item affect Evanston?’ … We have to go where the work is taking us, and our work always took us to disparities [such as] able-ism and sexism. We recognized that if you’re black and have that issue, it’s even worse.”
Morris “Dino” Robinson, founder of Shorefront Legacy Center, gave a history of Illinois and Evanston, where, though slavery was abolished, Jim Crow and Black Codes thrived – stifling the black economy, restricting access to public education, and shunting an entire population into a limited area on the City’s west side.
“One way to determine where black people lived at the time is to look at where black churches were located, because the churches were built near their congregations,” Mr. Robinson said.
The three earliest African American churches in Evanston were established in the 1880s. Ebenezer A.M.E. Church was established in 1882, and the congregation eventually built a church the next year on Benson Avenue between Clark Street and what is now called University Place. After a fire, it was relocated to its current location at 1109 Emerson St. Second Baptist Church was built in 1882, at 1717 Benson Ave., where it remains today. Mount Zion Baptist Church was built in 1894 at 1113 Clark St.
Mr. Robinson added that many black people lived along the City’s three railroad lines, the least desirable areas to live in Evanston; there were other pockets of black people scattered throughout Evanston, including on Dempster Street near Judson Avenue; South Boulevard near Chicago Avenue; and Sherman Avenue near Lee Street.
As the black population grew by more than 5,000 people between 1900 and 1940, they were systematically segregated into a triangular area of the City, essentially bounded by the North Shore Channel 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 through 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 95% black.
Foster School opened in 1905 as a predominantly all-white school on Foster Street at Dewey Avenue. By 1940, Mr. Robinson 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.”
During the same time period, black people in Evanston were segregated in other ways. The two local hospitals began to turn away black people after 1900, with some exceptions, and the Evanston Sanitarium was established in 1914 to serve black people.
The YMCA barred black people in 1914, and Evanston’s black community came together to form the Emerson Street YMCA.
Boy Scout troops barred black youth in 1914, and black residents formed their own troop in Evanston.
Many restaurants, hotels and stores did not serve black people. All but one City park forbade black children from using the playground equipment. Evanston movie theatres required black people to sit in the balcony.
Jim Crow was flourishing in Evanston.
Housing became highly segregated through the actions of brokers, lenders, builders and white homeowners. Real estate brokers would not sell a home to black people in areas that were not designated as open for black people,
Evanston banks generally refused to make mortgage loans to black households seeking to buy homes on blocks that were not viewed as “acceptable” for black people. As an example, black people who owned vacant lots near the lake were denied loans to build on their properties, and were eventually forced to sell them.
White homeowners at times recorded racially restrictive covenants that provided that their homes “shall not be conveyed, leased to, or occupied by anyone not a Caucasian (servants excepted).” These were effective until 1948, when the U.S. Supreme Court held them unenforceable.
(A longer history of discriminatory practices in Evanston, “Developing a Segregated Town, 1900-1960” by Larry Gavin can be found at evanstonroundtable.com.)
Panelists for the town hall meeting were Dr. Iva Carruthers, General Secretary, The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference; Kamm Howard, National Co-Chairperson of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA); Attorney Nkechi Taifa, Civil Rights/Human Rights Advocate, Pastor Dillard and Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste.
As Second Ward Alderman, Lionel Jean-Baptiste brought reparations to the City Council in June of 2002. At the Dec. 11 meeting he spoke of the inhumanity of slavery – slave-traders, who kidnapped people from their home countries and exported them as property; and slave-owners, who shackled and whipped them and at every turn tried to destroy their language and culture. “Don’t let anybody tell you that we submitted,” he said. “We resisted.”
The first victory, he said, came with Simon Bolivar in the early 1800s, followed, more than a half-century later, by the American Civil War.
“[Evanston] Alderman [Edwin] Jourdain continued the fight. … One of the things about Evanston is that we have built alliances that have fought against segregation. So today it is not an accident that we find an alderman, Robin Simmons, who is a symbol of the fight that has been waged by Alderman [Delores] Holmes and others.
“So we come here together – we’ve come here to say, ‘The fight must go on.’ Those who have suffered need to be healed. … Those who have been harmed have to be around the table so we can help find the others.”
Reparations, Judge Jean-Baptiste said, “is a process, not an event.”
Reverend Dr. Michael Nabors, President of the NAACP Evanston/North Shore, also called out Evanstonians who have been leaders in and advocates for civil rights: George Mitchell, Elsie Liddell, Gerri Sizemore, Katherine Bridges, Hecky Powell and Bennett Johnson.
“Dr. King said, ‘We are living in the emergency of now.’ A long overdue idea has come to pass.” He said there are “white racists in the White House and on the federal benches. It is our duty to let this light shine … and deal racism a crushing blow.”
“This is a moment of transformation,” said one of the panelists. “There is a tendency to commodify people who don’t look like you. This is a global transformation. The burden of enduring pain is the first thing. We have to tell the truth so we can walk together on a path of transformation that leads to justice, that leads to transformation. …”
The keynote speaker was film actor and director Danny Glover, a member of the National African American Reparations Commission and U.N Ambassador for the Decade for People of African Descent.
“It is you, the City of Evanston, who will be remembered that you stood up in the face of condemnation for the humanity of all people. … It is the idea of freedom that we step into. … We’re talking about this, and it has to be our commitment, our sole commitment, as human beings.”
Mr. Glover spoke of the millions of people of African descent who are living in poverty and the high murder rate of African Americans in Brazil and said, “We are talking about reparations for African descendants every single place. We have to be prepared to talk about reparations in terms of other things happening today, such as gentrification and environmental racism. … We have to nurture our children so they will take on the battle and continue the battle to tell the truth – the truth about ourselves.
“There are those who say we don’t deserve this, and we have to raise our voices.”
Mr. Glover concluded his speech with the words of a spiritual, which the audience then took up, “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”