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Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre presented “Black Evanstonian History Makers Up Close” at the Lorraine Morton Civic Center in February. Community members and visitors had the opportunity to be be a part of conversations with two Evanston history-makers who forged a better path for our community, Bennett Johnson and Gerri Sizemore. Dino Robinson, production coordinator at Northwestern University Press and founder of Shorefront Legacy Center, moderated the conversation.
“You name it, he was there. Name any prominent person in the Civil Rights movement; he shook hands with them and worked with them,” said Mr. Robinson in his introduction of book publishing executive Bennett Johnson. A 1946 graduate of Evanston Township High School, Mr. Johnson attended Paine College in Georgia, Roosevelt University in Chicago and the University of California at Los Angeles, where he earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees. When he returned to Chicago, he worked alongside civil rights activists such as Harold Washington, novelist Frank London Brown and U.S. Rep. Gus Savage on crucial issues such as political action, social equality and economic justice.
After encountering discrimination during his early elementary school years in Evanston schools, Mr. Johnson began a life dedicated to promoting the political, business and literary power of the black community.
As a grade-school student Mr. Johnson lived at 570 Milburn, across the street from the Evanston Lighthouse in a house owned by his father’s employer. Although the house was just three blocks from Orrington School, Mr. Johnson and his two sisters were not allowed to attend the all-white school, despite appeals made by his father and his father’s employer.
“We had to go to Noyes School … over a mile from where we lived. We would pass white kids gong to Orrington. So my first reaction as a 6-, 7-year-old kid was, ‘If I was white, I’d be alright.’ Then I thought about it and I said, ‘No, we’ve got Joe Louis, We’ve got Marian Anderson. We’ve got Paul Robeson. They [white people in the community] don’t know who we are. I’m going to teach them who we are.’ I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Mr. Johnson.
He joined the Evanston chapter of the NAACP at the age of 12 and soon began working toward increased minority representation in politics. While at Roosevelt University, Mr. Johnson helped organize a sit-in at a nearby restaurant that refused to serve his friend and fellow student, future Chicago mayor Harold Washington. In 1958, he was among those who started the Chicago League of Negro Voters, an independent political organization aimed at supporting black candidates in Chicago elections.
In 1961, Mr. Johnson became a founding partner of Path Press, Inc., the first black-owned book publishing company in the U.S. In 1966, he acted as a liaison for the historic meeting between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Elijah Muhammad, the head of the Nation of Islam. Mr. Johnson has also worked at Third World Press and served as the first President of the Evanston Minority Business Consortium, Inc., a group that works to create sustainable and profitable relationships between minority business enterprises and major buying organizations.
An Evanston resident for more than 50 years, Ms. Sizemore has a rich history of working and volunteering in Evanston.
“How many people have not met or seen Gerri Sizemore at events in Evanston – not only there, but partially or fully organizing them? That’s her,” said Mr. Robinson in his introduction of Ms. Sizemore.
Ms. Sizemore’s extensive volunteer efforts include serving as asst. treasurer of the Foster Senior Club, Second Vice President of the Evanston Branch NAACP and Auxiliary President of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Tech. Sgt. Wm. B. Snell Post 7186. She also serves on the boards of the Forrest E. Powell Foundation, the Levy Senior Center Foundation and the Warren “Billy” Cherry Scholarship Fund. Ms. Sizemore is a trustee at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, an honorary board member at the Shorefront Legacy Center, and has formerly served on the boards at North Shore Village and Evanston Youth Job Center.
In the workplace, Ms. Sizemore overcame significant barriers that existed for African Americans and helped pave the way for the success of those who followed her.
“I was the first black grocery checker on the North Shore, back in 1962. … High Low [Foods] hired me, and I was treated very badly, being the first,” said Ms. Sizemore, who was required to wash shelves and work as a grocery bagger, while white checkers were trained on the cash register soon after they were hired.
“They specialized in 10-cent canned goods. Everything you can think of, they sold it in a can. And they sold a whole chicken in a can for one dollar” said Ms. Sizemore.
She was trained on the cash register only after letting her boss’s niece know that she was going to talk with the NAACP, which helped facilitate her hiring.
“They had mystery shoppers who would come through my line to see if I was charging the right price. They also told me I could not check out any of my relatives or friends. … But yet I would see the white checkers checking out their parents,” said Ms. Sizemore.
By the time she left High Low Foods, she was raising a young family and working as a trainer for all the other checkers.
“So that was a major accomplishment for me to persevere and just kind of hang in there. And I kind of think I made it better for other black checkers,” said Ms. Sizemore.
In 1966, she began a long, successful career working for the United States Postal Service, where she worked for 37 years before retiring.
But Ms. Sizemore said her best achievement is “raising three great children,” who all have college degrees and now have children of their own.
“Well, they achieved the grandchildren, I didn’t,” said Ms. Sizemore, who is known throughout the community for her warmth and benevolent humor.