John Nance (Photo: WTTW)

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John Nance, a 68-year-old former Evanston resident, was featured in the third installment of “FIRSTHAND,” a PBS documentary series about local segregation that went live on their website Feb. 22.

The series focuses on the firsthand perspectives of people facing social justice issues in the Chicago area.

Dan Protess, Executive Producer of the project, said FIRSTHAND puts a human face on social justice issues that impact Americans and Chicagoans. He said the reason for including Evanston in the project stems from the city’s reparations program, and the documentary enables viewers to see things through Nance’s eyes. “It’s one man’s story, but it touches on a larger story about segregation in Evanston,” Protess said.

A difference over decades

In Nance’s 10-minute episode, he takes viewers through a short tour of West Evanston and discusses his family history and the current reparations program in Evanston –  the first city in the country to institute a reparations program.

Nance’s family was part of the migration in the 1940s from South Carolina to Evanston. He explains how different it was to grow up Black in Evanston during the 1950s and 60s compared to now. The Black population of Evanston was condensed on the West Side due to segregation, yet West Evanston had strong roots in community-building and the Black business district on Church and Dodge Streets.

The video shows Nance getting a quick trim at the Church Street barbershop as he explains economic development in the city.

“The big problem wasn’t integration, it was economic development,” he said. “People on the east side could afford to buy into the west side and people on the west side, rarely, could afford to do the same. Integration without economic development means you can live anywhere you can afford to live, but you don’t have the means to live there.”

Nance noticed how Evanston began to change and decided to hit the road. He sent money home to his mother, who lived in a house on Foster Street. He returned later to find that his mother was sick. She had a brain tumor and Nance became her personal caregiver.

While taking care of his mother, the house on Foster Street became the center of a discourse of segregation. After his mother was admitted to a nursing facility, Nance was forced to leave.

“I wasn’t really astute on all the things that had to be done for property maintenance and taxes. Through not knowing the system, the property went into probate,” Nance said. He tried to buy the house but said the city wasn’t interested in his requests. 

“The city had helped us out before and they could have helped us maintain the property but you know the word I got was that they wanted me out. I mean, how do you repair that?”

Nance moved to the south suburbs of Chicago. He still has connections in Evanston who update him on the reparations program, but for him the move was worthwhile. He doesn’t believe the Evanston reparations program is doing enough.

“The reparations program in Evanston is not a reparations program,” he said. “It doesn’t deal with repairing anything.”

Nance explained that although recipients will receive $25,000 housing grants, the stipulations are unfair and $25,000 is not enough. Nance said that the house his grandparents bought in the 1940s cost $4,000, but today is valued at nearly $250,000.

“If I buy a house and you’re going to give me $25,000 but I have to qualify for the credit, I got to put in an application, what does that have to do with repairing anything that you’ve done to me? The people that have been affected are older and dying, what does that repair?”

For Nance, true reparations would be more community-based and echo the same feelings he had growing up in West Evanston in a vibrant, Black-centered community with plentiful resources.

“I have always wanted to see economic development for that community [West Evanston] and building business and building wealth because they gutted the soul of the community. They basically ran people out of town.”

Other documentaries, expert discussions, community conversations and a discussion guide are available on the WTTW website.

Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas is a reporter and the social media manager at the Evanston RoundTable. She covers small businesses, social justice and human interest stories. Contact her at sam@evanstonroundtable.com and...

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