If you’ve attended a Fourth of July celebration at Evanston’s lakefront in the past 25 years, you might be familiar with Paul Wilson, the event’s official host.
Wilson, though, is also one of the city’s inaugural beneficiaries of a $25,000 restorative housing grant in a program that’s Step 1 in Evanston’s effort to make amends for historical anti-Black city practices.
Every Independence Day, Wilson takes the microphone for the city celebration.
“I do it every Fourth of July,” he says. “I make announcements, and I sing. That’s what I do.”
Wilson said he began participating in the Independence Day festivities 25 years ago as a sergeant of arms, working his way up to “celebration manager,” a position charged with organizing the parade and the fireworks.
Now he’s a trustee emeritus and was chosen to be the grand marshall in the 2022 Fourth of July parade, which he describes as the “top spot.” He’s also the only African American Evanstonian who serves on the July 4th committee.
It just so happens the committee selected him for grand marshal the same year he became one of the group of the “first 16,” what some in the city were calling those set to receive the first round of reparations.
Wilson said he first heard about the Evanston program when local news introduced it on television back in 2019. Wilson and his family were immediately intrigued and started talking about how he was born in the city.
He told the RoundTable he liked that the city wanted to prioritize reparations for those who started here, were raised here and have their roots here.
“I think it was a wonderful idea,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was going to gel or not. But I was happy to hear it. I didn’t know I was gonna be picked, but it was just nice knowing that they were … going back so far.”
Wilson’s daughter gave him the call letting him know he was chosen.
“I was given a number [correlated to an application number],” he said. “And my daughter came one day and said, ‘Dad, I think your number’s been picked … You’re one of the 16.”
Ancestors’ claim given priority
Evanston’s Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program is the first initiative in the city’s $10 million commitment “to eradicating the effects of systemically racist past practices from City Government and all city-affiliated organizations.” The first $400,000 of the reparations program is slated for housing.
Applicants deemed eligible for the program and selected to participate can get up to $25,000 to buy or remodel a home or pay down a mortgage. The home must be in Evanston and must be the applicant’s primary residence. The $400,000 figure is enough to pay for 16 grants of $25,000.
To participate, Black Evanstonians must fit one of three categories:
- Residents who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969, referred to as “ancestors.”
- Direct descendants of a Black resident from 1919 to 1969.
- Residents who submitted evidence they suffered housing discrimination due to the city’s policies or practices after 1969.
There were more than 600 applicants to the Restorative Housing Program, 122 of whom were ancestors. The Reparations Committee decided to prioritize that group for the first 16 grants.
Wilson’s family and personal history
Elizabeth and Clarence Wilson, who moved to Evanston in the 1920s from Georgia and West Virginia, respectively, gave birth to Paul in 1932. He said he was born in a house at 2035 Brown Ave., across the street from Community Hospital.
He said his mother was active at Ebenezer Chicago in the so-called “Morning Star Club,” and his father worked at a grocery store in downtown Evanston. Wilson matriculated through Foster School and then onto Haven Middle School, before graduating from Evanston Township High School in 1950.
He then went on to the Navy and served in the Korean War for four years.
“I went to work for the Chevrolet dealership on Chicago Avenue,” Wilson said, but after workers went on strike, he took a job at Kmart as a security guard and supervisor, continuing to work there after it was bought out by Builder’s Square, a home improvement retailer.
Wilson married his current wife, Linda, in 1966. They had two daughters, Marlette, 59, and Dianne, 55. From an earlier marriage, Wilson has one son, who is deceased.
After Builder’s Square, Wilson worked as a custodian at the Morton Civic Center for 25 years, until retiring in 2008.
Memories of old Evanston
Wilson grew up near the intersection of Brown Avenue and Simpson Street, and said he remembers the Evanston of his youth as a close-knit town in terms of “how and where” people lived.
As a little boy, Wilson remembers there being about four Black-owned grocery stores on Simpson and Dodge Avenue. He also remembers a Black-owned cleaners.
“A lot of people don’t know [that] at Dewey and Emerson, there was a Black church, a Baptist church, right on the corner,” he said. “Then on Emerson Street, [there was] a little restaurant, a fish place, [where] we could buy a fish sandwich.”
Growing up, Wilson said the segregated YWCA on Emerson Street, also known as the “Black Y,” was one of the only places to go for recreation. There also was Foster Field, in the Fifth Ward, where Black kids had a playground to themselves. Wilson says the Black Y provided swimming and basketball and he remembers having a “very good time there.”
Wilson remembers Northwestern University at the time being mostly white, with Black Northwestern students sent to sleep in rooms at the Black Y.
He also noted a dividing line at Dempster Street. Most Black residents lived north of Dempster. South Evanston, on the other hand, was mostly Polish and German.
Wilson said that downtown Evanston has come a long way since he was a kid.
“If you look at all the high rises, all the apartments, and all these buildings they’ve built, Evanston has advanced as far as residential and business areas tremendously,” he said. “It has grown.”
Funds to go for home improvements
Today, Wilson lives in a house by Dempster Street and Fowler Avenue, one he purchased in 1979 while working at Kmart. Before 1979, Wilson and his kids stayed with his mom in a two-flat, in one of 23 townhouses that sit in a row.
Two of those townhouses were vacant in 1979 when, eventually, the couple bought one for themselves. That is the same house the two will be getting home improvements on this spring.
“We have a water leak in the basement, a very bad water leak. That’s going to be number one,” Wilson said. “It’s been a thorn in our side for many years.” He said they are eager to finally have the funds to properly fix the problem.
Wilson said that every time there’s heavy rain, the couple has to sop up water off the basement floor.
Wilson says it’s nice to be able to use the money “how you want to use it,” since recipients had the flexibility to choose whether to get home repairs, pay off a mortgage or buy a new home.
“I think it’s a wonderful program. If they come up with something else, that would be wonderful too,” he said. “And if I could be a part of it, you know, I’d be glad … to participate in any way I can.”