In 1905, Naomi Willie Pollard Dobson (1883-1971) became the first Black woman to earn an undergraduate degree at Northwestern University. She lived with her family in Rogers Park and commuted to the Evanston campus. At the time, no Black students were allowed to live in campus housing. After graduating, Dobson worked as a public school teacher. She attended the University of Chicago and earned a library science degree. She then joined the staff at the Chicago Public Library. In 1914, she joined the staff at Wilberforce University, serving as Head Librarian and instructor. (Founded in 1856, Wilberforce was the first private Historically Black University in the U.S.) After marrying Dr. Richard Dobson, she moved to Sioux City, Iowa, where she co-founded a local NAACP chapter and served as its President. She helped successfully integrate Sioux City swimming pools and hotels and worked for the hiring of the first Black teachers in Sioux City public schools. She also helped secure passage of the first municipal fair employment laws in the city. Dobson later moved to New York City, where she served as President of the Woman’s Auxiliary for Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. (Founded in 1892 as an historically Black hospital, in 1949 Sydenham became the first integrated hospital in the United States; it closed in 1980). Pollard died at the age of 88 in Manhattan.
Dr. Isabella Garnett (1872-1948) was born in Evanston. Her father, Daniel, born in Kentucky in 1837, was a shoemaker. Her mother, Hannah, was born in Kentucky in 1835. The Garnetts moved to Evanston and raised 5 children. Her stepmother, Mary, helped raise the Garnett children after their mother died in 1873. In 1895, Garnett earned a nursing degree from Provident Hospital and Nurses Training School in Chicago. Founded in 1891 by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Provident was the first Black-owned and operated hospital in the United States. Six years later, Garnett earned a medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons (now the University of Illinois College of Medicine). She was one of the first Black female physicians in Illinois. In 1914, Garnett and her husband, Dr. Arthur Butler, opened the Evanston Sanitarium, a 14-bed hospital, in their house at 1918 Asbury Ave. At the time, it was one of just four hospitals in the Chicago area that admitted Black patients. (Evanston’s hospitals were segregated at the time.) After Garnett’s death in 1948, a day of honor was dedicated to her as part of the “National Negro Health Week” established by the U.S. Public Health Service.
Thomas Henry Garnett (1892-1918). Born in Augusta, Georgia, Garnett came to Evanston with his brother Winfield in 1911. They lived at 1310 Foster St. Garnett worked at the Root boarding house at 2001 Orrington Ave. In June 1917, he registered for the draft. He was inducted and sent for training with the 365th Infantry Regiment of the famed 92nd “Buffalo Soldier” Division, one of two African American divisions that went overseas with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. Parts of Garnett’s division served under the command of the French Army, since the AEF was entirely segregated. On Oct. 29, 1918, Garnett was killed in action in France. He was 26 years old. He was buried in France, but his grave was later repatriated to Arlington National Cemetery.
In April 1938, Evanston City Council member Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr. (below) proposed an ordinance to change the name of the Evanston street Ayars Place to Garnett Place in Garnett’s honor. “Mr. Mayor and Gentlemen of the Council,” Jourdain stated in introducing the ordinance, “I am about to present for passage tonight an ordinance by which the City of Evanston will not only pay tribute to the memory of a distinguished son of this City, who laid down his life on the field of battle, but by which the City will, to an even greater extent do itself honor. The ordinance will change the name of the street now known as Ayars Place and will give to that street the name of a war hero who died carrying on a tradition glorious in the military annals of our country – the tradition of the valor of the colored soldier.”
The ordinance passed.
When 25-year-old Forris Evestus Bass (1891-1957) registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, he listed his occupation as “student.” He also noted that he worked as “kitchen help” in an Evanston restaurant run by Albert Paoli, owner of the Purple Inn restaurant and lunchroom at 1614 Sherman Ave. Bass was born in South Carolina to John and Connie Bass, both farm laborers in Diamond Hill. Bass was the eldest of five children. Around 1902, the Bass family moved to Evanston and lived for many years at 1460 Dewey Ave. In October 1917, Bass entered the U.S. Army and served until December 1918, a month after the Armistice ended the war. During the war, Bass was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant; he was one of a very few Black U.S. officers in an army that would remain segregated until 1948. After the war, Bass earned his M.D. at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, the first medical school for Black students in the South. Bass married Alice Elizabeth Black (1896-1977) and moved to Lebanon, Tennessee, where he set up a private practice. Forris and Alice had three children. His parents remained in Evanston.
Journalist, politician and civil rights activist Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr. (1900-1986) was born in New Bedford, Mass. His father was a member of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization founded in 1905 by W.E.B. DuBois and others. Jourdain graduated from Harvard in 1921 and moved to Evanston in 1924. He worked for several newspapers, including the Chicago Defender, where he was Managing Editor. Jourdain was Evanston’s first Black member of the City Council. He was first elected in 1931. In 1932, he was charged with unsubstantiated voting “irregularities” by his opponent and was outrageously unseated by other council members. Jourdain immediately announced he would run again. His good friend, W.E.B. DuBois, campaigned for him in Evanston. In April 1932 he won again and went on to serve until 1947, representing Evanston’s Fifth Ward and taking the lead in fighting discrimination in the city.
On August 15, 1923, Anna Mitchell Beck (1875-1939) was sworn into the Evanston Police Department and thus became the first Black female police officer in Evanston. According to the press, she had been appointed especially to “look after the increased population of women and girls who [were] coming into the city with the general influx from the south.” Born in 1875 in Palmyra, Missouri, Beck had been a teacher in Missouri. After moving to Evanston she served as Superintendent of the Primary Department of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church’s Sunday school for nearly a decade. For many years Beck and her family – husband Preston Beck and their children, Walter, Clarence, Eugene and Juanita – resided at 2018 Colfax St. By 1930, the family had moved to 2010 Darrow Ave. Beck’s son, Eugene Beck (1904-1969), went on to represent the city’s Fifth Ward as City Council member. He served in that role for six terms, beginning in 1947.
Kathryn Elizabeth McDonald Wimp (1920-2012), known professionally as Kay Davis, was born in Evanston in 1920. She grew up in her family home at 1829 Ashland Avenue and attended Evanston Township High School and Northwestern University, where she was one of only six Black students in the school of music. She earned both her BA and MA at Northwestern. In 1944, Duke Ellington heard Davis at a recital in Evanston and hired her on the spot. She sang with Ellington’s orchestra from 1944 to 1950 and gave a memorable performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1948.
Lois Mae “Peaches” Davis (1901-1966) was born in Mississippi and came to Evanston some time before 1920. After her husband passed away, she began driving a cab in Evanston. In 1940, she started her own taxicab business. The Peaches Cab Company quickly grew, although Davis still worked part time in an Evanston theater to make ends meet. In a 1942 piece titled “In a Man’s World,” writer Diana Briggs profiled “Peaches, the Cabbie” for the Chicago Defender. Davis had become a well-known figure in Evanston by then and had a growing number of customers; still, she faced obstacles, especially from the all-male cab force who tried to block her from using the city’s cab stands. In response, Davis set up her own stand at her house at 1029 Garnett Place. Davis’ business would thrive and, by 1948, she, her son, Joseph, and several others formed the Better Cab Association of Evanston.
“The Depression had just about wiped everybody out.” This was one of Joseph Hill’s (1923-1998) memories of his childhood in Evanston. His father, Joseph Hill, worked as a carpenter in Evanston, while his mother, Emma, took “day work,” cleaning houses to help earn money to support their eight children. Hill and his family moved to Evanston in 1926, and he recalled that his father started a garden, raising vegetables to sell. That garden soon expanded and occupied 10 acres on the current site of Evanston Township High School’s football field. Hill attended Foster School, and two decades later, he would serve as that school’s first Black principal. Later, he became Evanston’s first Black superintendent of schools. Along with others, he took part in efforts to desegregate Evanston’s schools.
Venice Deese, Jr. (1936-2013) was a graduate of Evanston Township High School. Deese went on to serve as a security officer at Northwestern University in the 1960s. Deese, the only Black security officer at the time, was instrumental in maintaining calm on campus after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968. Head of campus security, Ted Arndt, credited the calm at Northwestern directly to Officer Deese. “If it had not been for his fine work,” Arndt wrote one week after the uprisings in Chicago and across the country, “we would have had trouble on the campus.” Deese also played an instrumental role during the May 1968 takeover of the Bursar’s Office by 120 Black Northwestern University students. Deese was on duty at the front door of the Bursar’s Office on the morning the students took over the building and announced their demands. Deese stayed at the Bursar’s Office throughout the takeover, often at the side of student leader James Turner. The Chicago Defender later described Deese as the “go between for students, police, and the school’s administration.” The takeover ended peacefully, with many institutional changes and reforms in place. Deese was one of the peacekeepers that day.
In the 1960s, artist and educator Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004) lived at 1912 1/2 Central St. in Evanston while working on a Ph.D. in art history at Northwestern University. Born in 1932 in Arkansas, Donaldson earned a B.A. in studio art from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and an M.F.A. at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Donaldson became a leading figure in the Black Arts Movement and organized various shows, festivals and projects. He eventually became the first person to earn a Ph.D. in African American art history. In 1967, Donaldson took part in creating the famous Wall of Respect, a mural painted on the side of a building at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue in Chicago. The project was organized by the Organization of Black American Culture. The mural featured portraits of various Black heroes, from Gwendolyn Brooks to Harriet Tubman. “It was a guerrilla mural,” Donaldson explained of the project. “It was a clarion call, a statement of the existence of a people.” The mural would spark the creation of similar murals all over the city and country. (In 1971, after the building was damaged by fire, the structure was razed, along with the mural.) In 1968, Donaldson co-founded the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, a collective designed to create art to empower the Black community, set forth a new “Trans-African” aesthetic and inspire other young artists. Over the course of his career, Donaldson’s work was shown in exhibits around the country and the world. He also served as Professor, Chairman and Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Howard University. His papers are now housed at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
In 1968, Evanston educator Ruby Murray decided to teach a new section in her classes: Black history. An artist as well as a teacher, Murray wanted to focus on African art and culture, and began to teach her students lessons in African history. She also brought artifacts and artwork from her own growing collection into her classroom to show her students. “The kids absolutely loved it,” Murray recalled. “Most of them had never heard about Black history before … It opened up a fascinating new world for them.” Murray was invited to other area schools to present her talks and soon she had a new idea: why not establish a gallery dedicated to showing the art of Black artists. In 1972, she launched the International Black Art Gallery at 1122 Emerson St. In 1976, the gallery became a museum when Murray moved it to 834 Custer Ave. Murray, who was born in 1916, taught for 37 years in Evanston schools, including Oakton and Washington Schools. In 1979, she retired to California and moved her museum to Inglewood in Southern California.
In 1970, Studs Terkel visited Evanston Township High School to sit in on a rehearsal of Spirit of Soul, a group of student singers led by ETHS faculty member and musical director, Avon Evans Gillespie (1938-1989). Gillespie was an accomplished singer and performer as well as an educator. He was born in Los Angeles and earned his B.A. at Indiana State University and graduate degrees from the University of Toronto and Memphis State University. In the 1960s and early 1970s, along with teaching at ETHS, he was Musical Director at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, where he added spiritual and gospel music along with hymns of the civil rights era to the congregation’s songbook. Gillespie was particularly interested in researching and performing soul, gospel and Black American musical traditions from the South. He went on to teach at Capital University in Ohio. He later taught at several other universities, led music workshops across the country and was a scholar at the Orff Institute in Salzburg, Austria. Clearly, he was an amazing and inspiring teacher. Listen here (from the Studs Terkel Radio Archive).
Lorraine Hairston Morton (1918-2018) was Evanston’s first Black mayor, the city’s first Democratic mayor and the city’s longest serving mayor. Born in North Carolina, Morton graduated from Winston-Salem State University with a B.A. in education. She then earned an M.A. from Northwestern University. In 1953, Morton and her husband, James T. Morton, Jr., moved to Evanston. Morton taught at several Evanston schools, beginning at Foster School, a predominantly Black school that was the result of Evanston’s segregated school system. In 1957, Morton asked School Superintendent Oscar Chute if she could be the first teacher to integrate one of the predominantly white schools. He agreed and in 1957 Morton became the first Black teacher to teach in an Evanston school other than Foster School. Efforts to desegregate Evanston schools were just beginning and Morton led the efforts first in the classroom, teaching at Nichols and Chute Middle Schools, and then within the administration, later serving as principal of Haven Middle School until 1989. In 1982, she was elected to the Evanston City Council, representing the Fifth Ward. Morton is pictured here with her granddaughters, Constance and Elizabeth, after she was first elected mayor in April 1993. In 2009, upon Morton’s retirement, Evanston’s city hall was named the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center.
*Earlier versions of these biographies have appeared on the Evanston History Center’s Facebook and other social media pages.