Evanston Roundtable staffers cast around some before settling on a title for their new book, Encountering Evanston History.

Mary Helt Gavin, co-founder of the paper, picked up on the name from a sculpture, titled The Encounter, which sits atop the Maple Avenue garage.

Larry and Mary Gavin, founders of the Evanston RoundTable, finish a book reading at Bookends & Beginnings Thursday, Dec. 15. The two spearheaded the writing and publication of a new book featuring 18 writers, Encountering Evanston History. Credit: Susy Schultz

Gavin and colleagues involved in the book’s production considered a number of other titles, “but we settled on ‘encounter,’ because an encounter can shake you up a bit,” Gavin said.

Published by Evanston RoundTable Media NFP, the 340-page book provides a lively history of Evanston, starting with the time when indigenous people lived on its shores and continuing with the coming of settlers and Evanston’s growth as a modern city.

Bookends & Beginnings hosted a book launch reception on Dec. 15.

Encountering Evanston History goes beyond traditional accounts of the city’s history. The 18 authors – almost all of whom are or were writers, reporters or columnists for the RoundTable – turn their lens on the city’s struggles with segregation and provide views of visionaries such as the town’s namesake John Evans and temperance leader Frances Willard that go beyond what readers might find in earlier accounts.

“Encountering Evanston History”is available at www.evanstonbook.com and at selected bookstores and shops.

“I think one thing that comes across as you go through the history, almost every institution we covered  – hospitals, the YMCA, churches  – right down the line, each had segregation in their past and then they rectified it,” said co-founder Larry Gavin in an interview.

History has always been an important part of the RoundTable, now almost 25 years old.

For a number of years, Janet G. Messenger wrote a column for the paper, called Once Upon a Time in Evanston, highlighting little-known facts about the city’s history. And Morris (Dino) Robinson, founder of the Shorefront Legacy Center, informed the community about Evanston’s Black history through a series called Did You Know?

The idea for Encountering Evanston History came from three history magazines the RoundTable published as supplements in honor of the city’s sesquicentennial in 2013.

“They were very well received and people asked us to write a history,” said Mary Helt Gavin, “and 10 years later we had the time to do it.”

On the surface at least, the project seemed a snap, recalled Kathy Ade, the book’s designer.

“We thought, ‘Oh great, we can just get rid of all the ads and do a little bit of reformatting and make a book,’” Ade said. “But once we started, it took on a whole life of its own and [we] realized a lot of the articles had to be rewritten, or updated or there was a lot newer information, better information.”

The publishers introduce each chapter with an image of public art – statement pieces people pass by every day in neighborhoods, parks and along the lakefront.

Gathered for the book reading at the Bookends & Beginnings store Thursday, were 11 of the 18 writers of the new book, Encountering Evanston History. From back left, going clockwise, are: Larry Gavin, Ned Schaub, Nina Barrett (store owner) Mary Gavin, Mary Mumbrue, Matt Simonette, Ellen Galland, Janet Messenger, Victoria Scott, Judy Chiss and Heidi Randhava. Not pictured are Natalie Wainwright, Morris (Dino) Robinson, Shawn Jones, Joi-Anissa Russell, Lori Osborne, Anne Bodine, Libby Hill and Les Jacobson. Credit: Evan Girard

Appropriately, the piece which opens the book, Conversations: Here and Now by India Freitas Johnson, features seven bronze chairs set in circular fashion in Raymond Park. The sculpture was intended to create a space for dialogue and understanding between friends and strangers.

The 18 writers who contributed the 75 articles, meanwhile, are Evanston residents  – among them, historians and award-winning journalists – who love this city, wrote Mary Helt Gavin. “Over the years they have seen, studied, cringed and seethed at, assessed, loved and written about the mosaic that is Evanston.”

A sampling:

John Evans, by Victoria Scott.

Evans’ Evanston accomplishments were myriad, at least, as a founder of Northwestern University who envisioned the Methodist town that would grow up around it. But “he ran amok” as governor of the Colorado Territory, where a massacre of Native Americans occurred under his watch. “The interests of white settlers often conflicted with those of the Native American people. When they did, Gov. Evans acted in favor of the white people. As settlers encroached on their vital resources, Native Americans periodically struck back with raids. Trouble was brewing.”

Frances Willard, Evanston Activist, by Natalie Wainwright and Mary Helt Gavin.

“Her famous slogan was ‘Do Everything.’ She has been called the “mother of grassroots organizing,” write Wainwright and Helt Gavin. “For more than a century, Frances Willard’s fame and accomplishments kept her a star of suffrage and temperance in United States and Evanston history.” Yet, “as researchers peeled back the layers of history, however, many came forward with the blatant racism and prejudice that underlay much of the suffrage movement.”

ETHS Black Students Protest in the Late 1960s, by Larry Gavin.

On Dec. 9, 1968, the Black Organization for Youth’s student group said, “We, the Black Student Body, at Evanston Township High School deem it necessary at this time to demand a necessary restructuring in the curriculum of this school. We have found through experience that the present high school structure does not adequately meet or attempt to meet the needs of Black youth at this juncture in history.”

The Dewey Community Conference, by Ellen Galland.

“The Board’s position was that the DCC ‘must encourage white families to move into and remain in the neighborhood. It must also exert every practical pressure against schemes of speculators and exploiters who deceive, overcharge, and harass Negro families attracted by the availability of housing and other advantages in an interracial district.’”

Pioneer Aviator Fred Hutcherson, Jr., by Janet G. Messenger.

Hutcherson Jr., the first Black pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, flew across the Atlantic dozen of times. “More times than most of us have crossed state lines,” said Alderman Edwin B. Jourdain.

Evanston’s Beacon, by Mary Mumbrue.

“At its peak of operation by the federal government during the 1800s, the Grosse Pointe Lighthouse required a principal keeper, two assistant keepers, and a day laborer to maintain the buildings and light in top operating condition.”

Amazing Grace at The Main, by Shawn Jones.

“Steve Martin gave his first Chicago-area performances there. Henry Youngman dropped in one May 1978 evening. … Amazing Grace became known as the best place to see live music in Chicago – one of the great surprises for much of the 1970s, given its Evanston location.”

A lot of support

The 20-some pages of sources at the end of the book point to the research undertaken by the writers.

In addition, said Helt Gavin, many people were very generous with their knowledge, photos and documents. Kevin Leonard of Northwestern University Archives, and Grace Lehrer and Suzanne Farrand of the Evanston History Center were among those who helped locate the files and documents and information used in preparation of the book.

“Steve and Genie Lemieux-Jordan of Evanston Photographic Studios and Morris (Dino) Robinson allowed us to use whatever photos we needed,” Helt Gavin said. “Photographs from former Evanstonians J.J. Sedelmaier and Charlie Seton added to the stories. With the help of Mary De Jong, Julie Cowan, Nicki Pearson, Lori Osborne, Patrick Hughes and others, the project grew and improved in many ways.”

The book is available at www.evanstonbook.com and at several local stores, among them Bookends & Beginnings, Shaker Traditions and Booked.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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