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As a young woman, Madelyn Brenda Ducré wanted to go to Hollywood and become an actress.
Her goals changed.
Instead, Ms. Ducré, affectionately called “MD,” had “a different calling: trying to get fairness and justice and equality for the people around her,” said Mitzi Gibbs, Ms. Ducré’s daughter and the City of Evanston’s Property Tax Assessment Reviewer.
Evanston City Council members paid tribute at their Aug. 10 meeting to Ms. Ducré, who died Sunday, Aug. 2 after waging a brave fight against mantle cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
A frequent speaker at City Council meetings, Ms. Ducré would sometimes scold aldermen, sometimes praise them, mixing in history and current events as she pressed her case for action.
“She was an incredible advocate in our community and her voice will be missed,” said Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, “And she was equal opportunity – I mean, she came after everybody. She didn’t discriminate.”
Mayor Stephen Hagerty noted that Ms. Ducré, “had the conviction, she was passionate, and she was feisty and she was also entertaining. When she spoke to us, I didn’t always agree with her, but I always enjoyed listening to her.”
Ms. Ducré’s colorful and occasionally fiery appearances before the Council were only the tip of her public career, which dated back to the late 1960s.
Born in Bonfouca, La., on May 26, 1943, she was the fourth child and eldest daughter to the late Joseph Leroy Ducré and Mary Pearl Morgan Ducré.
She grew up in a family and culture still in the Jim Crow era, that, she once wrote, were “very suspicious of anyone and anything, especially any form of government. They were even suspicious of segregation, desegregation and integration.”
She moved to El Paso, Tex., at age 18 to take care of some cousins, and also to study to become a model, the family said.
During that time she had been inspired by the singer Billie Holiday and wanted to go to Hollywood to become an actress, they said.
She ended up living in Evanston, however, after coming here for a modeling job and meeting Donald Gibbs Sr., her future husband.
They were married on July 27, 1963, eventually moving to a home at 1929 Foster St. Later divorce3d, Ms. Ducré lived at the house until her death.
In her new City, Ms. Ducré became involved in the Head Start program, School District 65 and District 202, and later the City of Evanston and the Evanston Police Department.
Loss of Foster School
But it was the closing of Foster School, in September 1967, early in her time in Evanston, that proved a true watershed moment, Ms. Ducré suggested in a later interview.
“As a young parent,” she wrote in a recollection piece in 2011 in the Sentinel, the paper published by the local NAACP, “I remembered being very frustrated for my children. I wanted my children to walk to their neighborhood school. Their safety was very important to me, of course, and I wanted my children to have the chance to form those special relationships and to bond together with other children in their neighborhood.”
“To me it was common sense to keep Foster School open as a K-5 school. This school was located next to a City recreational facility. The building could have been a catalyst to promote true integration with before and after school activities and other events for students and parents.”
Ms. Ducré’s own sense of the importance of education was strong, a fact she demonstrated to her family, enrolling in classes at Northeastern Illinois University and graduating with a double bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and sociology in 1999 at age 56.
“She went on to volunteer at the Cook County juvenile center,” Ms. Gibbs said. “She fought hard for justice, fairness and equity for many Evanston residents. She would often be seen at the courthouse, observing hearings and lending her support for the local youth and citizens.”
A Greater Role for Residents in Complaints Against Police
Another Evanston activist, Betty Ester, met Ms. Ducré during that time, accompanying Ms. Ducré as she made her rounds at the Skokie courthouse, questioning attorneys and others about what she had seen in the courtroom.
Ms. Ducré was concerned about “the unequal treatment of African-American youths in the court system,” Ms. Ester said.
Ms. Ducré, in a later letter recalling the events, also raised concern that “our children, the victims, then and now, did not feel comfortable or safe to make complaints either directly or indirectly against the EPD.”
In 2005, Ms. Ducré, Ms.Ester and a group of parents and residents took their concerns to the City Council’s Human Services Committee, requesting that the group appoint a special committee to look into how young blacks were being treated by police.
As part of their research, the group took note of the number of complaints lodged against the Evanston Police Department that came back unfounded, with police holding final say whether a complaint would be upheld.
The concerned citizens proposed establishing the Citizens Police Advisory Committee (CPAC), to work with the City, ensuring greater accountability and transparency from the police department, Ms. Ester said.
When aldermen balked at accepting the group’s proposal in whole, Ms. Ducré, Ms. Ester and the parents vowed to continue working nonetheless created their own group, the Citizens’ Network of Protection (CNP).
CNP, which is independent of the City, assists residents with legal issues such as filing complaints against police and holding educational programs promoting police accountability. For nearly a dozen years, CNP was the only group playing that role until Mayor Stephen Hagerty appointed a Citizens Review Police Commission this past June, following widespread protests over the George Floyd incident.
In general, Ms. Ducré was outspoken on the need for Evanston to address racial questions, recalling her own experiences during the City’s fight against segregation in the 1960s. In a forum on race, also in 2011, Ms. Ducré said she thought such meetings were important because, “we have a race problem and we need to start discussing it, talking to each other about it.”
She argued that officials drew the line too narrowly in their view of diversity as having different races of people living together.
“I look at diversity as being opportunity,’’ she said.
After news of the George Floyd incident and the protests that followed his death broke, Carolyn Murray, a fellow Fifth Ward resident and activist, recalled receiving a text from Ms. Ducré, then in the late stage of her illness.
“We need to do something, we need to protest,” she urged.
Ms. Murray said in her interactions with Ms. Ducré she spoke not only about the wrongness of an action, “but the dynamic that powered the wrong.”
At the Aug. 10 City Council meeting, Third Ward Alderman Melissa Wynne was among the Council members paying tribute.
“I thought of her as a poet,” she said. “She was so powerful in the way that she spoke to all of us. And you’re right, Alderman Braithwaite, none of us were spared. And I appreciate so much, so much of what she said to us, and the powers with which she expressed herself.“
Ms. Ducré’s daughter Mitzi said her mother brought similar qualities to their home and neighborhood.
“MD’s house was open to all and filled with love, warmth, wisdom, truth and a dose of direct advice, whether you wanted it or not. She always made time for everyone and provided a supportive and fighting hand with issues in the community. She worked tirelessly to provide opportunities for her children and grandchildren. She would proudly boast about all of her family.”
She said her mother received a second opinion from Northwestern Memorial Hospital about her disease last September, going into the hospital for treatment. She showed improvement for eight months, until July. Though her energy level had dropped, she continued to watch City Council meetings and take notes, close to her final treatment in July, her daughter said.
Ms. Ducré is survived by five children, and a grandson, Donald J. Gibbs, III, whom she adopted after the death of his father, her first born son Donald Jeffrey Gibbs Jr., in 2005, Ms. Gibbs said.
The family has established a Go Fund Me fund, the Madelyn B. Ducré “MD” Legacy Fund in Madelyn’s name.
“To further Madelyn’s quest for equity and justice, we plan to continue her legacy and support all people in Evanston because she wholeheartedly believed that CommUnity!” Ms. Gibbs wrote.
The family is also hoping to hold a memorial tribute for Ms. Ducré on her birthday, May 26, next year, Ms. Gibbs said.