Photographs recall lost hub of black Evanston

Elizabeth Kirk

Reading from front to back the three files marked “colored” at the Evanston Historical Society, Dino Robinson didn’t find the kind of information he wanted about Evanston’s black community.

The information he did find combing through archives and library stacks was about a few famous Evanston blacks like Henry Butler and Isabella Garnett Butler.

He wanted a way to find out about the black community outside of its famous faces, so he formed Shorefront, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the history of blacks on the North Shore.

“(Shorefront wants) to educate and help people understand that history is not one person’s perspective,” Robinson said.

Robinson, 38, will discuss his most recent book, “Gatherings: The Emerson Street Branch YMCA,” at a book signing Thursday at the Evanston Historical Society, 225 Greenwood St.

The book focuses on the importance of the Emerson YMCA in the North Shore black community. It’s filled with pictures and programs from social events held at the Emerson YMCA. Father-and-son banquets, proms and graduation parties were among the many events that put the YMCA at the center of black Evanston.

“It was the hub. If you’re anything or about doing anything in Evanston you’re at the YMCA,” Robinson said.

The Emerson YMCA opened in 1914. The McGaw YMCA, 1000 Grove St., was all white, so blacks from as far away as Glencoe came to the Emerson YMCA for swimming lessons, proms and other social gatherings.

The photographs in the collection come mainly from private homes, Robinson said. Others came from studios that had been in Evanston for 75 years. Evanston Photo Studio and Twentieth Century Photographers donated them to Shorefront because they realized their historical importance, Robinson said. Twentieth Century closed in the 1960s.

“Evanston’s history of segregation and immigration is a really important part of the city’s history and it’s never been researched as it should be,” said Leslie Goddard, curator of education at the Evanston Historical Society. “This is a good step forward in that direction.”

Goddard said that when Robinson came to begin his research at the historical society, its archives on blacks in Evanston had been sorely neglected.

“At the Evanston Historical Society, we collect anything related to the history of Evanston,” Goddard said.”(African-American history in Evanston) is an area we’re very interested in. Dino’s work kinda complements that.”

Goddard also said the Emerson YMCA is a good place to start because of its significance to the area.

“It filled a really important role in the Evanston community,” Goddard said.

Black churches in Evanston, such as Ebenezer A.M.E. on Emerson Street, were many times the social hub for church members, Goddard said. The black community needed a place that included those who weren’t church members and the YMCA filled that need.

“If you look at some of the landmarks in that area… (the three traditionally black churches) form a triangle,” Robinson said. “These are the three oldest black churches. Churches tend to be close with community.”

The former center of black Evanston is now a shopping and dining destination and home to a hotel and research park, and Evanston’s black population is now concentrated on the south and west sides of the city.

“It was a forced migration,” Robinson said about the end of the area between the three churches. “A retailer came into town and they needed parking. They basically tore down all of the African-American community between 1900 and 1960.”

When the Emerson YMCA building was finally razed, it had been home to exhibition halls, stores and a group of Hare Krishnas. The Northwestern-Evanston Research Park stands on the site of the YMCA now.

The temporary exhibit will be on display at the Evanston Historical Society until August 19, after which it will move to another location in Evanston, Robinson said.

Robinson and Shorefront’s future work will focus on its “legacy collection.” The collection, Robinson said, will connect historical photographs from Evanston with the people who provided them and who were present in the photographs. It will include photographs of the individuals as well as audio files of explanations of the photos and people in them.

Shorefront also is working to find a permanent home for black history in Evanston.

“We have worked on many ideas and there have been a lot of promises,” Robinson said. “Evanston has played this key role (in black history).”

Robinson has written two other books on Evanston history. “Through the Eyes of Us” is a resource book that includes a timeline of black history in Evanston from 1850 to 1998 and an audio CD with interviews with seven people. “A Place we can call out Home” is a compilation of articles Robinson wrote for the Evanston Clarion newspaper.

Reach Elizabeth Kirk at [email protected].