Lincoln Street Beach in 1936, around the time when the city started requiring beach tokens. Credit: Evanston History Center

Editor’s Note: This past beach season in Evanston saw a number of firsts: the first summer after allegations of rampant sexual harassment among lifeguards, the first summer Evanston residents could access beaches for free and the first summer with new leadership in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

In this second installment of the two-part series on the lakefront (read part one read part one here), the RoundTable looks at Evanston’s history of racial discrimination and how it fueled segregation on the lakefront for decades. 

Spencer Jourdain has fond memories of hot summer days he spent with his friends at the beach on Lake Michigan. They would snorkel or float in inner tubes for hours, soaking up the warm rays before school started back up for the fall.

He grew up in Evanston in the 1940s and 50s, the son of the town’s first Black City Council Member, Edwin B. Jourdain Jr. In those days, he and the other Black kids in the Fifth Ward would hang out at Evanston’s only free beach. The city had started charging money for summer beach tokens required to access the other beaches along Lake Michigan.

“It was where the Black people basically went, and because Black people went there – it was open to anybody – but because we went there, it would be all Black. There wasn’t very much mixture there,” Jourdain said. “And next to it, there was a red, wood fence that kept you from going further south on the beach because I think the token beach started there.” 

Despite the segregation, Jourdain said he remembers having a great time swimming, playing games and enjoying time with friends. They were just “kids going to have fun,” he said. 

But that form of segregation on the beaches that Jourdain recalled actually started in the early 1900s. A 1909 article in the Chicago Tribune mentioned complaints among white Evanston residents about Black people going to the beach, which led the then-police chief to come out in support of segregation in public spaces.

Over time, the free beach that Jourdain often visited became an unofficial “bathing beach” for Black Evanstonians, while white people paid for beach tokens to access other lakefront locations. Eventually, after Jourdain’s childhood, all beaches started requiring tokens, a system that lasted through 2021.

This past summer of 2022 was the first time in nearly a century that all beaches were free and accessible to all Evanston residents.

Restrictive beaches, clothing and housing

A Chicago Tribune newspaper clipping from Aug. 26, 1909. Credit: Chicago Tribune

While the city instituted this culture of unwritten rules that perpetuated racist policies, it also made beaches more and more restrictive in other ways, as well. In 1904, Evanston created a new city code requiring that beachgoers wear “proper” bathing suits, according to Evanston History Center Director of Education Jenny Thompson, who has written about the city’s beach history.

“You have police officers given the power to determine what they believe to be proper. … They would actually arrest people on the lake for not having the right clothes, or for changing clothes in their car,” Thompson said. “Two men, at one point, were arrested on an Evanston beach because they were wearing their clothes, and they went in the lake.”

Instead of just giving people a ticket for allegedly improper behavior or clothing on the beach, police officers would physically remove them, take them to the station and slap them with a fine, according to Thompson. Over the years, as local beaches became more and more popular as a destination for recreation, the city added tighter restrictions, like increased beach token costs and the fencing that Jourdain mentioned.

In the 1930s, Northwestern University had its own private beach that only faculty, students and staff could access, but the college barred its small number of Black students from using the beach and living in campus housing, as well, Thompson said. 

William Yancy Bell, Jr. in 1937. Credit: The Crisis

That’s where Northwestern student William Yancy Bell, Jr. comes into the story. Bell was one of the few Black students at the school at the time, and he made a name for himself challenging racist and discriminatory policies all over the city and the university.

In fact, when he fought for the right to live in the on-campus housing that white students were able to use, he became the only Black student during a 40-year period to live in a Northwestern dormitory, according to Thompson.

Later he also challenged the university’s policy banning Black students from the school beach. The Evanston History Center does not have any records showing the outcome of that case, Thompson said, but the fact that segregation and racial restrictions continued for several decades likely indicates Bell lost that particular battle with Northwestern. 

Jourdain and desegregation

Edwin B. Jourdain, Jr. in 1921. Credit: Harvard yearbook

Meanwhile, Jourdain’s father, Edwin, became a City Council member in 1932. He spent his first two years in office working to desegregate places like movie theaters and public parks.

He had successes but was never fully able to rid the lakefront of segregation, though. Yet, the integrated baseball games at Foster Field in the 1930s gave the Black community a real sense of hope and change, Jourdain said.

“That destruction of segregated baseball, of ball games of any kind in the parks, ended any thought of ‘Don’t go in the park at all,’ ” Jourdain said. “That was the desegregation of the parks. Both of those things coming one right after the other, that was the first manifestation of Black political power in Evanston, the parks and the theater.” 

Evanston was the first city along the North Shore to follow this unwritten system of restricting beach access through tokens, fences and segregation, according to Thompson, but surrounding communities such as Wilmette, Kenilworth, Highland Park and Lake Forest quickly followed Evanston’s lead in taking up their own restrictions. 

While those more extreme segregation tactics –similar to laws in the Jim Crow South – ended decades ago, that legacy of beach restrictions has made beaches across the North Shore the most inaccessible lakefront spaces in the Chicago region.

A recent study from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that beach regulations in the northern suburbs “continue to produce discriminatory outcomes and beaches largely segregated by class and race.”

Evanston took a big step this year by eliminating beach token fees for residents, but nonresidents still have to pay to go to the beach, and anyone going to the lakefront in the summer has to display their beach token to get past gate attendants.

The Council on Global Affairs report concluded that the whitest, wealthiest communities of the North Shore charge nonresidents the most to access beaches, and “municipalities which base public beach access on residency extend the failures of the housing market into access to public space.”

Meanwhile, while Jourdain made important moves toward integrating key spaces in Evanston, in the years after his tenure on the City Council, the Fifth Ward saw a loss in investment, local businesses and its self-sufficient economy.

“Integration without equal integration of economic opportunity and financial equalization has a good effect,” Spencer Jourdain said.

“But it also has a bad effect of further isolating Black people or Native Americans or Hispanics, or any other oppressed group, because the economic disparity is way worse now than it was back in that time. White people have never been richer and Black people poorer.”

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

4 replies on “Evanston’s beaches: A history of segregation”

  1. Great article. I moved to Evanston 15 years ago and was appalled that a fee would be charged for beach use. A few people informed me of the discount for a token , if I would to fill out paperwork. I think not, affordability wasn’t the issue, I live here and the water is free. I’ve traveled to all 50 states and never once was I approached to pay a fee to walk along the oceans or lakes. I go to Chicago and Wisconsin to enjoy the beaches

  2. Was there any Evanston institution, business, or agency, public or private, that wasn’t pretty awful about race before the 1964 Civil Rights Act forced it not to be?

  3. Terrific article. Could you also do one on the pools? As someone who did not grow up in Evanston I strongly suspect we will find the legacy of lack of public swimming pools outrageous and also rooted in segregation.

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