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Ridge Avenue, which runs through what is now the city’s Fifth Ward, is the oldest street in Evanston, according to a 1906 Evanston history book. Ridge was established as a military road in 1832 when the neighborhood was referred to as “the Ridge”; the street runs along the summit of the literal west ridge in Evanston.
The ward boundaries we have today did not exist in the late 19th century, when many Evanston streets were being named, but have you ever wondered why you live on “Foster” street or “Hamlin” street instead of some other designation?
Here’s all you need to know about the history of street names in the Fifth Ward, the historically Black ward in Evanston, where African Americans were strategically redlined.
Evanston started as a post office called Ridgeville, later named Gross Point, and then Evanston after John Evans, one of the founders of Northwestern, in 1855. The start of Northwestern marked the area’s official transition from a post office to a village. The university’s nine founders were all Methodists, and most early street names honored Methodists of distinction.
As the village grew, streets would also be named after prominent residents, local political figures, and whoever the early founders and builders of Evanston “fancied.”
Much of this history was found in a 1906 book called History of Northwestern University and Evanston. The chapter on street names was written by J. Seymour Currey, then president of the Evanston Historical Society, which today is known as the Evanston History Center.
Origins expressed in street names
There were a couple of different ways that streets would obtain their names. A majority of these designations occurred before the mid 19th century. Here are some details from the book.
Darrow and Dewey
Darrow and Dewey avenues were both named by Morton Culver, a local real estate developer who would divide pieces of land up into smaller pieces to further develop the area, and increase profitability, according to the Shorefront Journal.
Dewey is named for the Dewey sisters, Electa E. Dewey and Mary J. Dewey, who both taught at the Jones School in Chicago, which was progressive at the time for encouraging the education of every child, including girls. Darrow is named after a man who was well known among Black Masons in Chicago.
Foster street is named for Randolph F. Foster, the second president of Northwestern (1856-1859). He was the first to hold the position without an undergraduate degree, as he left college as a teen to serve as a minister. He made a name for himself as a revival speaker and resigned from being university president to return to the church.
Simpson street is named after Matthew Simpson, who became a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1852 and from 1861 to 1865 was president of Garrett Biblical Institute, today known as Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Simpson was also a confidant of President Abraham Lincoln. With this connection, Simpson immersed himself into national politics and succeeded at some attempts to gain appointments for Methodists to national office, according to the General Commission on Archives and History for the United Methodist Church.
Hamlin street is named for Leonidas L. Hamline, who became a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844. In 1844, when the Methodist church was divided nationally over the issue of slavery, Hamline, an ardent opponent of slavery, wrote up the document for the church to formally divide into two.
Emerson and Pratt
Emerson and Pratt were both named after notable early residents. Benjamin Emerson is known as the first professional milkman of Chicago in 1835. He laid out the street once he settled in the area in 1854.
He wanted to live in Evanston, but decided the area “would never amount to anything,” before moving west to Niles Township, settling and eventually becoming its oldest resident, according to the Skokie Centennial Book. Niles Township today includes the villages of Skokie, Lincolnwood and Golf and sections of Morton Grove, Niles and Glenview. Emerson street would eventually be incorporated into the present-day boundaries of Evanston.
Pratt Court is named after George and Paul Pratt, two brothers who came to Evanston in 1837 and harvested trees here. After doing so, they would use the lake to transport the trees along the lakeshore. During one of these trips, George Pratt became trapped and drowned.
Fifth Ward residents represented by honorary street names
Garnett Place is the only street in the Fifth Ward named after a Black resident, according to Morris “Dino” Robinson of Shorefront Legacy Center, and was formerly known as Ayars Place. Thomas Henry Garnett was a Black man from Georgia who came to Evanston in 1911. After Garnett died in military service at 26, Evanston City Council member Edward B. Jourdain, the city’s first Black alderman, wrote a proposal to change the name of Ayars Place in Garnett’s honor.
In 1996, the Honorary Street Name Sign program was created, which lets citizens honor locals who make an impact on Evanston. Honorary streets officially remain for 10 years.
Delores Holmes, a former Fifth Ward Council member, has led many of these honorary street naming ceremonies. She was awarded her own sign at McDaniel Avenue and Church Street before she entered public office. She believes that most of the honorary street names are in the Fifth Ward. Robinson agreed that there’s been an uptick in the practice.
There are dozens of honorary street names for Black Evanston residents, and their histories can be found in Shorefront Journal, which archives Black North Shore History.
At the corner of Dewey and Foster, there’s a sign honoring Bishop Carlis L. Moody Sr. who started Faith Temple in the Fifth Ward in 1957.
There’s another sign for Allen “Bo” Price, born in Evanston in 1922, who led an Evanston-based military drill team. The group specialized in precision drill and rifle handling and eventually would become the first Black championship drill team in Illinois. They had two major halftime performances: For the Chicago Cardinals of the NFL and at Chicago Stadium for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Individuals sometimes share an honorary street. Three people share Dodge Avenue, starting at Hartrey and Dodge and extending three to four blocks. Honored there are Shorefront Legacy Center’s Robinson; Samuel Johnson, longtime community leader and owner of Church Street Barbershop for over 50 years; and Tina Lifford, an Evanston native and actress who is currently starring in “Queen Sugar” on OWN, one of over a hundred TV shows and movies she’s starred in.
Pierre Jean-Paul Sr. and Lionel Jean-Baptiste are two Haitian Americans with honorary street names. Jean-Paul is honored for pioneering the Haitian immigrant community; he ran his own limousine service for years, chauffeuring officials, politicians and elite university staff. Jean-Baptist is a former Second Ward alderman, and serves on the Cook County Circuit Court as of 2011, the first Haitain American to be sworn in by the Illinois Supreme Court.
Holmes said she didn’t know much about the older histories of early established street names, but she told the RoundTable that honorary street names hold special meaning to herself and community members.
“It’s a way in which Black people could acknowledge work and appreciation for folk who had done that [work],” she said. “Having your name up on the street sign … and becoming a part of history is important.”