Northwestern archivist tells the history of university, city
October 24, 2013
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University archivist Kevin Leonard on Thursday night showed Northwestern students and Evanston residents what the city was like long before most of them arrived.
His lecture, titled “Sanctified Minds and Sharp Elbows,” detailed the history of town-gown relations in Evanston. Held at the Evanston History Center, 225 Greenwood St., his talk was part of an ongoing series.
Leonard sits on the board of the history center and has been working at the NU archives since he was an undergraduate student in 1976.
“When you deal in records of the past, you’re dealing with the residue of lives both present and past,” Leonard said.
NU has been an important institutional anchor for Evanston since 1853, he said. The university’s early ties to Evanston have contributed to the city’s character as a place dominated by the religiously affiliated elite.
Leonard added the relationship between the two has sometimes been challenging, but it is important for members of the community to realize the friction is not a modern problem.
“Whenever something goes wrong or seems like in the wrong direction, it’s easy to get discouraged,” Leonard said. “But when you know the full history, you can understand that the point of contension gives you a better handle of how to move past those friction points.”
He also pointed to the University’s position as a tax-exempt organization and the large size of NU’s land holdings as major points of tension between the city and school.
“But overall the relationship has been a good one and has contributed to a very lively community that can boost a terrific institution at its core,” Leonard said.
He added that both NU and Evanston have become places of which many students should feel proud to be a part.
Wilmette resident Dwan McMorrison said he attended because he was interested in learning how Evanston became so diverse and what role the University may have played in that transformation.
“We have people from all over,” McMorrison said. “It’s like a mini-melting pot.”
Leonard finished his lecture by adding that those who are affiliated with both NU and Evanston are recognizing that it is important for them to have a healthy bond.
“And they are helping,” Leonard said. “The relationship is improving, and it’s good.”