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Decades of advocacy, research and planning came to fruition on May 14 when the first two of eight markers of the city’s Heritage Sites Program were unveiled at the former homes of the Evanston’s first African American alderman, Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr., at 2032 Darrow Ave. and the city’s first African American mayor, Lorraine H. Morton, at 2102 Darrow Ave.
“Understanding our heritage in Evanston – where people live – is important for our youth,” said Shorefront Legacy Center founder and President Morris “Dino” Robinson. “They get a better connection with history when they know the history of their own communities. Once we get a little information out there, students take a different interest in their history, not only locally, but how it ties into a national narrative.”
Project first began nearly 30 years ago
About a dozen people gathered at 1 p.m. for the informal event celebrating Evanston’s Heritage Sites program, adopted June 22, 2020, as Council Resolution 54-R-20.
Robinson, who coordinated the project, describes Anne Earle and Mary McWilliams as “premier researchers” for the program.
McWilliams told the RoundTable that “in the ’90’s, Ald. Joe Kent wanted to have a conservation district in this area,” that is, the Fifth Ward. She said she and Earle were active on the Preservation Commission and served on a committee with Robinson and City Preservation Commission Senior Planner and Preservation Coordinator Carlos Ruiz to research the area.
“Anne [Earle] walked every street and did the permit work on every building in this district. Yes, it’s an awesome task, and she did it all by herself,” she said. “I’m still impressed.”
Robinson said Earle’s research “comprises about six or seven bankers boxes of surveys, photographs, historical write-ups, and other research related to creating a heritage district.”
In his remarks to the group that gathered for the unveiling, Robinson said that Earle and McWilliams “were part of a small, dedicated group called PITCH in the mid-1990s. They assessed this entire neighborhood, block by block, house by house, to create a record of historic significance in the Fifth Ward pertaining to the Black community. They did this for about seven or eight years.”
PITCH, Preserving Integrity Through Culture and History, formed in 1995, and members used their documentation of buildings in the Fifth Ward to create a report and make recommendations to the Evanston Preservation Commission and the City Council.
“The report was reviewed, but it kind of sat on the shelf. The idea was to have a heritage district in this area, without the constraints that preservation districts have,” Robinson said.
McWilliams said she applied in 1996 to the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference, held in Chicago, for a bus tour of Evanston’s Fifth Ward.
“We brought two busloads of people from the Trust Conference to Evanston, drove them to sites in the Fifth Ward and then took them to Fleetwood Jourdain [Community Center], where they met the mayor and the aldermen. People became aware of the idea of having a conservation district, and in a Black community. Conservation districts were a new idea that had not been much used,” McWilliams said.
“We were able to bring people up and show them what could be done – what a typical conservation district might look like,” she added.
McWilliams pointed out some key differences between a conservation district and a preservation district, among them that the rules for a conservation district are “established by the residents themselves.”
Residents “would determine how decisions are made. It was a good idea then and it’s still a good idea,” she said.
Even after Kent’s plan to create a conservation district in the 1990s was put “on hold,” McWilliams and Earle remained optimistic.
“We do what we can do, and what we can get done,” said McWilliams.
Fortunately, Robinson had archived all the documentation of buildings in the Fifth Ward.
“All that stuff came over to Shorefront, and we were able to utilize the work that was done by … the PITCH committee to formulate this whole program,” Robinson said. “We took a portion of that and said, ‘You know what, we can do something with this that does not impact a homeowner’s property, but also recognizes the heritage and historical value – the importance of these sites and structures that are in the community.'”
Robinson said that about 12 years ago, he “was envisioning large plaques to designate homes in the conservation district, but I realized that’s not going to fly in neighborhoods – to have big plaques in the middle of a parkway.”
That idea, too, was put on hold.
Early work helped project come to fruition
In 2017, Robinson said, when Robin Rue Simmons was elected to represent the Fifth Ward on the City Council, she advocated for reparations and reached out to Shorefront to start a heritage district.
“I said, ‘The research has already been done. I think we can advance this pretty quickly,'” Robinson told the group assembled around Marker # 1 at 2032 Darrow Ave.
Rue Simmons then arranged a meeting with Ruiz, who has served for 30 years on the City Preservation Commission.
Ruiz “has been part of this whole process from the beginning,” Robinson said.
“We talked with him and the Preservation Commission about the idea to recognize historic sites around the City of Evanston – not just the Fifth Ward – but throughout all of Evanston,” he said. “I want to get rid of the myth that the Black community was only in this area. We were throughout all of Evanston, including downtown Evanston, the lakefront, the south end.”
The goal, he said, was to recognize all those places, but not to make it too complicated.
He researched what had been done in other communities.
He said he had always admired “old-school sidewalks” that had bronze plaques embedded in them. He brought the idea to the Preservation Commission, and “they loved the idea.”
The City Council approved a resolution and Robinson convened a group of Advisory Committee members from the community, including Constance Brasher, granddaughter of the late Mayor Morton, to help formulate the process to submit applications for future historic sites. Ben Blount, who designed the logo for the heritage signage, and Ruiz also serve on the Advisory Committee.
“The beauty of this project is that the community decides what’s important about these sites. … We utilize public parkways and the City puts the markers in place [on the walkway]. That way, it doesn’t impact the homeowners. …The homeowners have complete control over what they do with their properties,” he said.
Evanston’s Historic Sites Program avoids the constraints placed on owners of structures within historic districts – and individual homes and buildings designated as local or national landmarks – which are strictly monitored by City Council or other bodies, sometimes making it difficult for owners to make repairs, improvements or additions.
“Houses come and go, but we want to recognize what was happening in this place. So, we thought having a marker embedded in a public space, with a number that you can follow on a website with self-guided tours, was the best way to do it,” Robinson said.
Jourdain, Morton homes recognized
In honoring the space where Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr. (1900-1986) resided during his tenure from 1931 to 1947 as Evanston’s first African American alderman, Robinson also recognized the current homeowner, Amy Stewart, for “curating the space and keeping its legacy alive.”
Robinson presented Stewart with a specially designed postcard with information about the property to commemorate the unveiling of the marker at her address.
“This is an amazing part of history that I am honored to be a part of,” Stewart said at the unveiling.
During his years as alderman of the Fifth Ward, Jourdain was a leader in desegregating public venues and helping to improve the overall quality of life in the Black community, according to information published on evanstonheritagesites.org.
Brasher attended the unveiling at 2102 Darrow on behalf of her family. The home was owned by the family of James Morton at the time he and Lorraine Hairston married in 1941. Brasher’s late mother, Elizabeth, was born and raised in the house on Darrow.
Lorraine Hairston Morton was among the first group of Black teachers to be allowed to teach in Evanston.
She taught at Foster School when it was a public neighborhood school in the historically Black Fifth Ward. Later, she became the first Black teacher to teach outside of Foster School.
Morton went on to become principal at Haven Middle School, alderman of the Fifth Ward and Evanston’s first Black mayor, serving from 1993 to 2009.
In addition to her many accomplishments, Morton was “extremely social,” often inviting people into her home, Robinson said. “In essence, she was like everybody’s mother.”
Brasher said that for as long as she could remember, her grandmother drew the attention of people from all backgrounds, nationalities, races, gender identities and more. She said she considers her grandmother to have been one of the most liberal and open-minded people she knew, especially for someone born in 1918.
“My sister, Elizabeth, and I are appreciative of Shorefront and the City of Evanston for this honor,” Brasher said. “When I think about legacy, when I think about all the years this house has meant so much to so many people, I know that this is another extension of how my grandmother will continue to live on in the community that she loved so much, so deeply.”
She said her grandmother was a maternal figure to many.
“My sister and I always knew that we were loved, always knew that she was there for us. We mostly saw her as ‘Grandma,’” she said.
“When the documentary of my grandmother’s life, A Life Worthwhile, was being made, and at a time like this, it reminds us just how longstanding her life has been,” Brasher said.
“This house is like a second home to my sister and me,” she said
Brasher said she hopes anyone who takes the historic walking tour or even just walks past 2102 Darrow Ave. and sees the marker in the concrete knows “that her real family felt love in this house and the greater community family felt loved in this house.”
Visitors to evanstonheritagesites.org can navigate an interactive map to learn more about sites important to the local African American community, including the next six sites that will be honored: buildings and locations, most of which are related to historically significant Evanstonians.