On May 13 the Evanston Public Library sponsored the first of two forums about “The Legacy of School Segregation” in Evanston. Morris “Dino” Robinson, the Founder and Executive Director of Shorefront Legacy Center, and Mary Barr, author of “Friends Disappear,” were the featured speakers. Evanston youth organizers representing the group Talking Whiteness moderated the forum. Heather Norborg, Lifelong Learning and Literacy Manager of EPL, made the introductions.  

The second forum, titled, “Visions for a Community School in the Fifth Ward” is scheduled for May 20.

Talking Whiteness, an Introduction

“We are part of a group called Talking Whiteness,” said Ilana Marder-Eppstein, which is composed of about 30 youth ranging in age from 16 to 27. The group, located in north Evanston, formed “to talk about anti-racism, whiteness and white supremacy within our context, in our lives in that area of the City,” she said.

Ms. Epstein, Blaire Frett, and another co-organizer Lydia Collins, grew up in north Evanston.  

Ms. Frett zeroed in on the vote on the 2012 referendum, which asked voters to approve funding to establish a new school in the Fifth Ward, and she shared a slide showing that voters who lived in north Evanston’s Sixth and Seventh Wards predominantly voted “no” on the referendum.

Ms. Frett said when they began organizing last year, one of the key points they looked at was “inequities in our education system.” A guiding question was how people voted on that referendum.

“What does that say, particularly about our community?  So, it was like a personal turning inward moment of looking at specifically the Sixth and Seventh Wards. Why is it that people voted this way? Can we have honest conversations about our histories, about our blind spots, about our own whiteness, and how white supremacy plays out in our daily lives, how we are complicit in it? “

She said the voting statistics were “frustrating and disheartening.”

Ms. Frett said the group hosted conversational stations along Central Street throughout last summer, with three posters and guiding questions for the dinner table to encourage people in north Evanston to discuss their whiteness and privilege. She said if they talked about the history of segregation in Evanston, and about where the community is today maybe that would change some minds and get some people in the Sixth and Seventh Wards to vote in favor of a Fifth Ward school.

A Short History of Segregation and Desegregation of Foster SchoolDino Robinson

Dino Robinson, founder and Executive Director of Shorefront Legacy Center, gave a short history of how Foster School became segregated during the period 1905 through the mid-1930s, and how it was desegragated in 1967.

“I will start and introduce you in the lens of the history of Foster School, which I think addresses a lot of things that we are anticipating on covering this evening,” said Mr. Robinson. “Foster School I use as the symbol of how Evanston formulated its segregated practices in the City of eight square miles.”

Foster School was established in 1905 and Ellen Foster was its first principal, he said.  She was a trailblazer in many ways and ran for Superintendent in 1918. Her platform challenged real estate agents and banks about segregated neighborhoods. “She said, ‘If you are to move forward with segregated communities, you will have a profound impact on neighborhood schools that would be virtually impossible to reverse.’ She lost the election. But I think throughout its history, her words actually were foretelling what happened in Evanston,” said Mr. Robinson.

The original Foster School, circa 1905 (Shorefront Legacy Center)

In 1905, the Fifth Ward was more of a diverse community. Foster School was predominately white with an all-white faculty. But by 1945, the student body was nearly 100% African American. “So that was really telling how fast Foster school became a symbol of segregated practices in Evanston.”

In 1900, Mr. Robinson said there were 737 Black people in Evanston, and according to the census the Black people pretty much lived everywhere in Evanston. But, by 1930 the Black population was pushed into one area of Evanston that is now known as the Fifth Ward. He said this was done through Jim Crow policies, primarily through redlining, real estate agents, and banks’ refusal to make mortgages available to Black families.

He added, “They started segregating beaches, segregating public facilities, and with comments, telling Black people that ‘you should know your place, don’t challenge the system.’

By 1940, the area shaded red in the above map was 95% Black, and 84% of Black households in Evanston lived in the area.

“That started the rest of bringing a segregated school system in Evanston. Foster School became that symbol. By 1925, there was an addition put on the building. They added a theater and additional classrooms in anticipation of expanding the K through 5 to a K through 8, trying to keep as many Black students in one school in the City of Evanston as much as possible. Some students were not matriculating to the middle schools in the surrounding areas.

“Neighborhood schools are really developed by housing patterns, and Jim Crow and redlining also played a part in this. Because that area in the Fifth Ward was the area where most of the Black population was pushed into, creating de facto segregation where the area is made up of one group of people, that neighborhood school then becomes literally a segregated school by default because of the housing the surrounding it.

“But to further that into enforcement, the City of Evanston oftentimes redrew the school district zones to make sure as many Black families went to the Foster School or were zoned for the Foster School,” said Mr. Robinson.

As an example, he said, if a Black family moved onto a block that was predominantly white, the boundary would be drawn around that Black family’s house so that Black family’s children would have to go Foster School, but all the other families on the block would go to the local neighborhood school in that area.

Mr. Robinson showed a photo of a class at Foster School in 1933 that was virtually all Black. Even though a class at Foster School was almost all Black by 1933, it was still impossible for Black teachers to teach in the City of Evanston up until 1942, he said.   

Despite this, “There was a growing Black community that was pretty much self-sufficient,” said Mr. Robinson.

The presence of Foster School “built a tight-knit community, where families, teachers, and children, students always had this sense of belonging, networking, and support structures that were needed.” He said he heard from people who grew up in the neighborhood and who attended Foster School “extol the virtues of how important that school was to them, the network was for them, and how they were supported as a community and as a family.”

Mr. Robinson said there was a fire in Foster School in 1958 and this precipitated the first idea of moving toward integration. After the fire, he said, students at Foster School were sent to other schools in the District “divided off by grades.” But when the Black students were sent to other schools, they “were separated from the school.” As an example, he said when students went to Haven, they had their classes in the basement or in the library. In addition, because there were no lunchrooms at the time, when schools closed for lunch, Black students would have to find their own way home for lunch or sit outside until the schools opened up again.

After Foster School was rebuilt, the School Board considered how to integrate the schools.

Mr. Robinson said the School District looked at ways to integrate Foster School in a new unique way by turning it into a magnet school and busing white students to the school for an experimental program. At the same time, many Black students who had attended Foster School as their neighborhood school were bused to other schools in the District, and this integrated those schools. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Foster School became known as Martin Luther King Jr. Laboratory School.

Mr. Robinson said the process was not fully explained to Black residents in the Fifth Ward. He said white families were given brochures explaining the laboratory school to attract and encourage them to send their children to the laboratory school. Black families in the Fifth Ward thought they would be involved in that sort of a process, not knowing that the white students who were coming in would replace and move Black students out of the school. Often Black families were not notified of this until closer to the school year, he said.

He said the King Lab School program moved to Skiles Middle School in the late 1970s and is now known as King Arts School. Currently, he said students in the Fifth Ward are divided into attendance areas of five schools: Kingsley, Lincolnwood, Willard, Dewey, and Orrington.

District 65 school attendance-areas 1965.
District 65 school attendance areas 1967

“And that really broke up the community,” said Mr. Robinson.  

“It divided up the student body, divided up parents who are actively involved in the PTA, who to this day feel they don’t have a voice in the same way about what happens to their students.”

Mr. Robinson added that when the school day is over, a lot of students from the Fifth Ward board the bus and go back to their neighborhoods to have after-school activities in their neighborhood community centers, while other families who live near their schools are engaged in after-school activities at their schools.

He said these are some of the effects of having segregated housing patterns.

Mary Barr, A Look at “Psychological Integration”

Mary Barr, an assistant professor of sociology at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky, is the author of “Friends Disappear: the Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston.”

“I believe that Evanston is poised to do the right thing, that it always has been poised to do the right thing, that there is possibility there. But unfortunately, this City has fallen short of its promise. So, we’re going to look at that today,” said Mr. Barr.

In 1965, the City of Evanston hired Gregory Coffin to desegregate the schools, she said.  During his tenure, he said many times that the schools would never be fully integrated until there were integrated residential neighborhoods. “And I think that it’s important to understand that segregated schools are rooted in segregated neighborhoods, and Evanston… has very distinct Black and white sections of town.”

In 1960, the majority of the Black population lived on the west side in what is frequently referred to as the Fifth Ward, said Ms. Barr. So Evanston schools were no less segregated than schools in cities in the south. It’s just that segregation was accomplished by different means. Southern cities had Jim Crow laws or de jure segregation that literally made it illegal for Black and White children to go to school together. In Evanston, Black and White children went to separate schools because the District was organized according to a neighborhood school model that created de facto segregation.

By the early 1960s, Evanston “basically was not complying with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that mandated that schools desegregate. And so, Evanston Black civil rights groups, including the NAACP, and the Foster PTA, basically threatened the City with a lawsuit.”

In 1963, Oscar Chute, the Superintendent of District 65, formed an advisory committee to study the problem, continued Ms. Barr. A year later, in 1964, the School Board voted to end de facto school segregation in the elementary schools. And in 1965, a Citizens Advisory Commission on integration was developed to create a student reassignment plan. The District hired Dr. Coffin in the summer of 1966 to implement the desegregation plan and he “hit the ground running, he had lots of ideas, he was, you know, ready to go.”

The broad outline of how the District desegregated its schools was outlined by Mr. Robinson.  

Ms. Barr focused on a few other issues. Students who were bused to school had to stay at the school for lunch and they needed a place to eat their lunch, she said. And if other children did not stay for lunch, the bused children would end up having to eat lunch by themselves.

The School Board was aware of these issues, “yet they voted five to two against an all-inclusive lunch plan for the fall of 1967,” said Ms. Barr. She quoted the remarks of two of the Board members who voted against the lunch program. One said, “I’m not in favor of snack lunches for everyone. The fact that some children have no adequate supervision at home at noon is a personal problem, not a District concern. The fact that the five school lunch programs will be segregated should have been thought of when we considered breaking up boundaries.”

Ms. Barr quoted the second member of the Board: “These things will snowball. We will see the expansion of this program in short order, and it will be a baby-sitting burden on the top taxpayer, teacher, and administrator.”

So, the individual schools had to put together a lunch program at their schools, said Ms. Barr. PTAs basically threw together these lunch plans, got people to volunteer and staff them, and set up card tables and folding chairs.

“I think it’s important to understand that the school lunch program called for a deeper commitment to integration than maybe people were ready for,” said Ms. Barr. “And the School Board wasn’t willing to go that far. And it wasn’t until the 1969-1970 school year, two years after the schools integrated, that the School Board accepted some responsibility, just a little bit. They provided some funds to the schools so that the schools could hire staff and not rely on volunteers to oversee the kids while they were eating.

“So integration really came at the expense of Black children. Black children lost their neighborhood school. They lost Foster School. They went to school with white children, but they continued to be alienated. Busing made it really difficult for them to become an integral part of the school they had to leave. As soon as the bell rang, at the end of the day, they had to hop on the bus and go back to their neighborhoods. They weren’t really able to participate in after-school programming. And they weren’t really able to just hang out and play with their friends. Again, they had to leave pretty much right away.

“Also, without cafeterias, without proper lunch programs, Black children, the bused children ate by themselves in these ad hoc spaces in gymnasiums or basements or wherever, while their white classmates went home for hot meals.”

Ms. Barr also discussed what she called psychological integration. “Dr. Coffin understood that true integration would require more than just racially balanced student bodies. So he went a step further. His goal was psychological integration and to do that he hired and promoted Black teachers and administrators. And he overhauled the curriculum to include Black history and culture.”

Dr. Coffin said, “If you are not aware of the deeply embedded white racism which pervades the curricular materials used in schools throughout this country, thumb through a child’s schoolbooks, look at the illustrations, read some of the texts, not just the reading book, but the arithmetic word problems, the science book experiments, the history book heroes, the inventors, and discover it’s all white, not just white people, white situations, white institutions, white frames of reference, and white is right conclusions.”

To fix this problem, the District overhauled and fixed the curriculum, it received a federal grant to hold summer institutes during the summers of 1967 and 1968, and it created new educational materials and manuals that contained lesson plans on how to teach about different aspects of Black history and culture.

“By the summer of 1969, District 65 was well on its way to integration,” said Ms. Barr. “The schools were racially balanced. There were lunch programs operating in all elementary schools with paid staff. There was an increased number of Black teachers and administrators. There was a new curriculum. Black and white friendships were made. And importantly, whites did not abandon their schools by fleeing Evanston or sending their kids to private schools as was happening elsewhere.”

Despite his accomplishments, the School Board voted to fire Dr. Coffin in the summer of 1969, said Ms. Barr. He had one year left on his contract, “so what they were doing, in effect was saying that his contract would not be renewed in June of 1970. The Board announced that it would begin a search for a replacement immediately.”

In February 1970, the Board gave reasons, which were mostly personal, said Ms. Barr. “They didn’t like Coffin’s leadership style. They said he was moving ‘too far too fast.’  They claimed that that none of this had anything to do with the integration plan. But remember, they had voted against programs that would have enhanced the plan, like the school lunch program.

“Well, a good portion of the community was outraged – Coffin’s defenders. Defenders said that he was fired, not because he was failing, but because he was succeeding. According to an editorial published in the Chicago Today newspaper, the School Board wanted to reshuffle bodies. Gregory Coffin wanted to reshape minds and people didn’t like that. The Board was willing to mix kids, but it bristled when Coffin presented resource manuals endorsing Black power.”

Dr. Barr said supporters of Dr. Coffin “organized boycotts and rallies, they signed petitions. I mean, there was a big outcry from the community.” As a result, the School Board agreed to postpone Dr. Coffin’s firing until after the April 1970 School Board election.

Two groups assembled candidates. The first group of candidates, called the “Citizens for 65” said if they won, they would keep Dr. Coffin. The second group, called the Community Education Committee (CEC), said they would uphold Dr. Coffin’s firing, but the candidates in this group all said they supported integration.

The election was held on April 11, 1970, and there was a high turnout. “The people knew that there was a lot at stake in this election. Unfortunately, CEC defeated Citizens for 65,” said Ms. Barr. The vote was 13,565 to 12,823. Dr. Coffin was removed as Superintendent almost immediately and was kept on as a consultant until his contract ran out.

Ms. Barr said the election “really divided the community and people were really angry and passionate about this issue.”

She said that the firing of Dr. Coffin is “an embarrassing story for the community. The Coffin story goes against the dominant narrative that the City really hangs on to so tightly of racial equality.”

The second forum, titled, “Visions for a Community School in the Fifth Ward,” is scheduled for May 20.


For more detailed articles see here, here, and here.

Larry Gavin

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...