Two new sidewalk markers honoring historic Evanston locations for Black residents were unveiled Saturday afternoon, Aug. 13.
The first marker was unveiled at 325 Dempster St., the former home of Evanston’s first documented Black resident: Maria Murray, who was brought to the city as an indentured domestic servant in 1855.
The second marker was unveiled in front of the former Evanston Sanitarium at 1918 Asbury Ave., which was once a house converted into a segregated hospital – the only hospital in Evanston where Black physicians could practice and Black mothers could give birth.
“Sometimes the houses do still remain or the buildings still remain, sometimes they’re no longer there,” said Shorefront Legacy Center founder Morris “Dino” Robinson to a group of 10 people standing around the new marker at the first unveiling. “But we want to designate where these sites were.”
In the 19th century, when a series of Black Codes limited the movement of Black people in and out of as well as throughout the state, Murray was brought into Evanston by the Allen Vane family after buying her out of slavery as a 14-year-old in 1855.
At that time, Robinson said, Black residents had to be sponsored by a white family to find work in public and had to have “registration papers,” which could cost up to $1,000 in 1850.
Murray chose to continue working for the Vane family after the Civil War, after Black codes were lifted, and was considered a “friend of the family.”
“But how can you measure the friendship if you’re indentured into, and have a sense of debt of obligation for, a family that’s bought you out of slavery?” Robinson asked.
Murray’s future husband, George Robinson, came to Evanston in 1865 and they moved into the home at 325 Dempster St. once they married. The two were founding members of Second Baptist Church in 1882. They did not have any children.
At 1918 Asbury Ave., the first Black physicians in Evanston, Dr. Isabella M Garnett and Dr. Arther D. Butler, opened the city’s first hospital to serve African American Evanstonians.
The family lived in a separate house in the back lot of the property. In front, though, Robinson gazed up at the tattered white-and-red structure, as he painted a picture of how it once was.
“The surgery room was down in the basement,” he said. “When the doors opened, you see the coal chute and the furnace.” He pointed up to three windows where the attic would usually be. “That was a maternity [ward]. So It had about seven beds.”
The Sanitarium operated on Asbury from 1914 to 1928. It would change locations and eventually evolve into the Community Hospital of Evanston, which ultimately closed in 1980.
Heritage marker initiative
Evanston’s African American Heritage Sites program has now unveiled four of eight planned sidewalk markers at locations throughout the city deemed essential to understanding the local African American community’s historical context.
The program was established in 2020 by Shorefront Legacy Center, which documents the history of African Americans in the North Shore. The City of Evanston supported this initiative the same year with resolution 54-R-20, establishing and designating the locations of the first eight markers.
The first two markers were laid earlier this year at 2032 Darrow Ave. and 2102 Darrow Ave. to honor Edwin B. Jourdain, Evanston’s first Black Council Member, and Lorraine H. Morton, the city’s first Black Mayor.
How sites are selected
On the Evanston Heritage sites website, there’s an application form community members can download and fill out to nominate their own home or a landmark in their neighborhood to receive a historic designation and sidewalk marker installation. After receiving applications, Shorefront convenes a meeting of residents to judge and prioritize applications, then assigns marker numbers based on that feedback.
So far, Robinson said, once locations are chosen and the current building owners are informed of the decision, they have responded positively; the owners of residential properties especially are “extremely happy about it,” he said.
Commemorating Evanston’s Black history
The first local attempt to create a historic district began with an organization called PITCH (Preserving Integrity to Culture and History), started by Robinson and which commissioned a study on Black residential life in historic landmarks and places of events, primarily focusing on the Fifth Ward with the intent to establish a heritage district. After a few unsuccessful attempts to bring that vision to life, Robinson tried again with then-Council Member Robin Rue Simmons in 2020.
The organization decided to expand the landmarks project across the entire city, not just the Fifth Ward, and Robinson came up with the idea of the fist-sized sidewalk markers.
“And we do this because of what other institutions were not doing,” Robinson said. “And also to put a presence of our location here in the North Shore.”