"Black Lives Matter" on Dodge Avenue in front of the high school. Photo by Steve Lemieux-Jordan

Current and past ETHS Boys varsity basketball players painted “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in bold yellow letters on Dodge Avenue between Church and Lake Streets on July 3.

ETHS alum (2002) Kudzai B. Mutasa helped supervise the street painting, which was underway by 7 a.m.

“I’m just happy to be a part of it, especially at this critical time,” Ms. Mutasa told the RoundTable. Her team, the farthest north, was in charge of painting “BLACK” in letters taking up nearly the full width of the street.

She became involved with the project, she said, because, “I went to school with one of the coaches. He knows I’m an artist and have a passion for Black activism and youth empowerment.”

Ms. Mutasa, currently a Northwestern Kellogg M.B.A. student, is one of several artists who assisted with the project, which was done in collaboration with the City of Evanston.

“I was excited about the project, the timing and the fact that this was led by students of the high school with support from coaches and staff,” said Alderman Peter Braithwaite (2nd).

“It was an easy role to play,” Head Basketball Coach Mike Ellis told the RoundTable on the day of the event. Coach Ellis said the plan for the painted message grew out of conversations he had with Elijah Bull, Jaylin Gibson, Isaiah Holden and Blake Peters – “four guys that have been in our program the longest, varsity basketball players since freshman year.”

“I’m an educator first. Teaching in the high school allows me to shape experiences for students – so they know what it means to be of high character, and give back what you can. Learning, looking, listening – what do we need to do, what can we do. This (street mural) is what these four guys came up with,” said Coach Ellis.

Inspired by the “Black Lives Matter” street art that first appeared outside the White House, the teammates worked with Coach Ellis and the ETHS Basketball coaching staff, ETHS administrators, City officials and professional artists to plan the street mural.

The entire ETHS Boys Basketball family over the past 10 years was invited to participate in painting the letters on the stretch of Dodge Avenue in front of the high school.

“Coach Rudy Meo messaged me on Instagram and told us about (the project),” said former ETHS (2016) point guard Trevon Marshall. A 2020 graduate of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, where he played basketball for four years, Mr. Marshall said the street mural was a “a perfect location, busy daily. Obviously a lot of kids go to this high school. It’s a good location for everybody to view it.”

The sun had not been up for more than an hour when rising ETHS senior and varsity basketball player Logan Talmage arrived to start work on the collaborative project.

“I think not only is it really good for the nationwide (Black Lives Matter) movement, but it teaches us as a team how to work toward an important mission like this, doing what we can,” said the student athlete.

Coach Ellis said the decision to put the message in support of Black lives on Dodge Avenue opposite the main entrance to the high school was based on the historical importance of the Church Street/Dodge Avenue neighborhood and the large number of people, both residents and visitors, who come to ETHS.

“When I came here (from Peoria) 10 years ago and learned about Evanston, there wasn’t a person who didn’t mention Church and Dodge, whether it be a success or a challenge…The location allows us the broadest reach. This is not just for Evanston. This is for our country,” said Coach Ellis.

The City reached out to Chicago artist Josue Pellot to coordinate the design, drawing and painting of the mural, which was done throughout a period of about 10 days before the painting got started.

“Artists volunteer to help manage each of three stations; each station is a word. They have a player as a captain, and he has his team,” Mr. Pellot told the RoundTable. The artist said that his murals are usually painted on walls that are about 40’ by 20’ in size, but “all the same rules apply. I really wanted to engage in a project of this scale and I’m happy to be behind it,” he said.

            Ms. Mutasa said the bright yellow paint used for the lettering is the same as that used for street-markers, and should last two to three years without re-painting. At the forefront of her station were ETHS Basketball alumni Matt Hall (2018), Nojel Eastern (2017) and Chris Hamil (2017). Like Mr. Marshall, all three alums knew right away that they wanted to be involved when Coach Meo reached out to them with information about the project.

“I just thought this is a great opportunity to bring the community together, and do something that shows inclusiveness,” said Mr. Hall, who is in the men’s basketball program at Ohio Dominican University, where he will be a junior this fall.

“I feel like it’s my duty to be a part of this. I want to be here to do everything I can to make a change. In order to make change, you have to partake in events like this, to make our voices be heard,” said Nojel Eastern, a guard in the men’s basketball program at Purdue University for the last two years.

Mr. Hamil, who will return to Rockhurst University as a senior in the men’s basketball program, said that he echoes Mr. Eastern’s words and that participation in the project is extremely important to him.

            Blake Peters said that he and his three teammates that initiated the project think it is important to utilize the platform they have as prominent athletes in the community. “Without Coach Ellis and the (ETHS) administration, it wouldn’t be possible, but we wanted to send a pretty big message,” said the rising senior, who has committed to the men’s basketball program at Princeton University in 2021-2022.

            Coach Ellis summed up the scope of that big message. “You can’t look the other way when you drive in front of our school. You’ll see that Black lives matter to the entire Evanston community,” said Coach Ellis.

            All participants were required to wear masks during the day-long event. Lunch, eaten outdoors at ETHS, was provided by Da Jerk Pit in Evanston.

            An unfortunate footnote to this story is that it appears someone tried to use white paint to destroy a portion of the Black Lives Matter lettering. “But the message was so big, so powerful it didn’t destroy the image or the spirit behind the message,” wrote Assistant Superintendent Dr. Marcus Campbell in a Facebook post on Saturday morning.

Heidi Randhava

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.