For the past few years of Black History Month at Dawes Elementary School topics have ranged from hip-hop activists to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. But for 2022, the school is keeping it local and teaching classes on the historic contributions of Black Evanston.

“We’ve tried to go beyond just Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. … It’s just the understanding of our school that that’s how we celebrate in February,” said Kim Hamilton,  a Dawes fourth-grade teacher who is co-chair of the school’s African American Achievement Committee.

On Friday, Feb. 25, Dawes students will wrap up their annual Black History Month lessons by sharing what they learned about the contributions of Evanston’s Black community with the public, using a virtual educational technology called Padlet.

This year, every grade level at Dawes picked on a topic related to Black Evanston to work on. The fourth graders at Dawes focused on the history of the first Black hospital in the city, the Community Hospital of Evanston. 

Evanston’s segregated hospital history

Evanston Hospital and St. Francis Hospital, the two main hospitals in Evanston over the past century, were notoriously unwelcoming to Black Evanstonians and, for the most part, did not accept Black patients, who received at-home care or were forced to travel to Chicago for treatment.

To support the burgeoning Black Evanston community, local Black physicians Dr. Isabella Garnett and Dr. Arthur Butler turned their house at 1918 Asbury Ave. into the Evanston Sanitarium in 1914, the precursor of what became Evanston Community Hospital.

The Evanston Sanitarium served Black Evanstonians by offering surgery, “delivering babies and administering anesthesia” and providing general health care to Black residents of the North Shore from 1914 to 1980, according to this Shorefront Journal article. By 1930, the Community Hospital of Evanston opened as an 18-bed hospital, the “Penn House,” at 2026 Brown Ave. It expanded to 56 beds by 1952. 

Hamilton said that the hospital stayed open until approximately 1980 because, by then, with integration, Black people were able to receive treatment at general hospitals, and so community hospital staff ended up transferring to the larger hospital to work. 

Dawes Elementary School student Tomiyah Malone, 9. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown)

“I didn’t know Evanston had this much history, “ said Tomiyah Malone, a fourth grader at Dawes. She and her classmates were tasked with using a map to measure the distance between the sanitarium and other community landmarks. The sanitarium site is 3,050 meters from Dawes Elementary School, Malone told a reporter from memory. “It seems cool because they are the first people [in Evanston] to run a Black hospital for Black people.”

“I’m feeling pretty proud,” Hamilton said.

The Evanston Sanitarium was designated a city African American heritage site in June 2020, and “the house is still standing,” Tomiyah said. The Community Hospital of Evanston is now Hill Arboretum Apartments, a one-story apartment complex for disabled people in Butler Park.

Teaching Black history in a public school

Hamilton has been at the school for 14 years and says that within the last 10 years, Dawes students have been “sharing Black history with each other.”

The Dawes tradition, she says, is picking a Black History Month topic for the entire school each February and then challenging teachers in each grade level to creatively include that topic in the curriculum as it stands. 

“We’re not asking them to create a special Black History curriculum, we’re saying, ‘What are you already teaching that you can include Black history into it?’ And so sometimes we’ve had things where writing curriculum included the topic, math [and] measuring the distance was included [as well].”

This year, the fourth grade class decided to demonstrate their knowledge using maps and poetry, while other grades tried artwork or videotapes.

The African American Achievement Committee has existed for more than 15 years and was created to address curriculum at the school, which has a student population of about a third African American, a third Hispanic and a third white.

Fourth grade teacher Kim Hamilton is co-chair of the Dawes African American Achievement Committee. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown)

“We don’t always see our faces in books, especially for children,” Hamilton said. “We’ve had to even create our own. It’s improving. But I can tell you over 10 years ago, it was a lot less than it is now. And so a group of teachers decided to get together and say, ‘How can we address it?’”

The committee meets every six weeks on a weekday morning and has one teacher from every grade level. The six teachers also invite parents to come to meetings. 

The committee also has hosted a free after-school chess program to encourage African American students to participate in competitive chess. The group has introduced more than 100 Dawes students to the board game. Northwestern University representatives also visit Dawes each February, and “they bring their African collection and share with the kids.”

A hallway at Dawes Elementary School. About a third of the school’s student population is Black. (Photo by Debbie-Marie Brown)

Hamilton said being able to talk honestly about history as a public school teacher is something that she does not take for granted: “This is part of the history of Evanston and the beauty of Evanston. … Don’t hide that. Celebrate that and tell the kids so that they can feel grounded.”

Black History Month during the pandemic

Before the pandemic, Dawes would put its students’ Black History Month projects on display in the auditorium and would invite families to visit school during the day to peruse the kids’ efforts as they walked around the space.

To accommodate coronavirus restrictions, the school went virtual with its display last year and is doing the same this year using the same online tool: Padlet. 

This will be the school’s first Black History Month celebration that looks specifically at Evanston.

“That pride of ‘This is my city. Not their city, my city’ – that makes a difference in our achievement of our children,” Hamilton said. “So … so yes, we need more of this.”

Debbie-Marie Brown

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

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  1. Such a lovely article about a school I hold dear to my heart-where I once taught. Our gallery walks as described was one of my favorite events & captured such student pride to share Black History displays. I was lucky enough to work with Ms. Hamilton & the Dawes team who are true champions for kids. Bravo.