Parham: Being Black and female in Evanston

Opeyemi Parham, Op-Ed Contributor

Content warning: This story contains mentions of gun violence and death.

I grew up believing that it isn’t safe to be Black, female, sexy, smart and powerful — defined as having access to wealth. “They” will kill you.

By the 1920s, my grandfather moved to Evanston and was active in building a life here for himself. He supported several extended family members — chain migration style — in moving up to Evanston. One sister, Amanda, married and settled; the other, Lula Mae, ended up in Chicago. Lula Mae had her own apartment in Chicago. At the age of 31, she survived a gunshot wound to the chest, purportedly the result of a “hit” taken out on her by a disgruntled ex-lover.

This incident reinforced my family legacy belief that it is innately unsafe to be a single Black female.

Alfred Parham was a devout baptist who planned on being a minister before he was forced to leave college. My grandfather and grandmother worked as domestics: a chauffeur and laundress, respectively. My grandfather eventually moved on to work in the Chicago steel mills.

The first generation of Blacks born in Evanston included my aunt, Dorothy Louise, and my mother, Alfredine. Like their older sisters Mary and Gwendolyne, they attended and graduated from Evanston Township High School. 

The oldest, Mary, attended a traditionally Black college in the South and majored in chemistry. She was lucky to be inspired and supported in her brilliance in a time when women, especially Black women, didn’t go to college. 

Mary returned to Evanston during the summer of 1941. She was scheduled to leave in the late summer to join research scientists at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, working on the Eastern U.S. part of the Manhattan Project.

But she didn’t make it to Tennessee. She drowned in Lake Michigan that summer. 

One summer night, she took a ride into Chicago with a Black male friend and never returned. That Black male friend worked with my grandfather Alfred. When Alfred arrived at work the next day, worried sick that Mary had never come home, the Black male friend stated that he had left her at the lake. Her body was found when the lake was dredged that day. The Black male friend’s story evolved; he elaborated he pushed her into Lake Michigan. He left and “he didn’t know that she couldn’t swim.”

Many reading this piece may not see how such a personal family story has anything to do with a conversation on reparations. 

I tell these stories to emphasize what life was like for Black Evanston residents in the 1940s and 50s. My grandparents’ generation had left the South, traumatized by their lived experience of white terrorism. In Evanston, they experienced a different type of harm from stress related humiliations, despair and disempowerment. They lived in a segregated community within a white township. Evanston in the 40s and 50s was segregated de facto, if not de jure. There were double standards for many life experiences, like Black people accessing our justice system. In the case of Lula Mae, who was shot in the chest, no one was ever charged with assault or attempted murder. In the case of Mary, who drowned, an arraignment brought no charges against the man involved. 

There were always excuses. Black on Black crime, in the second case. Just another Black woman from Chicago’s South Side, in the first case.

Despite access to wonderful academic experiences provided through ETHS, lack of access to swim lessons in Evanston for Black residents contributed to the death of my brilliant aunt. 

That tragedy influenced the emotional and physical health of the remaining three sisters in my mother’s generation. My mother was 11 when her sister drowned. My grandmother was 37 when she lost her eldest child. 

As I untangle family stories, I see the tensions involved with being a Black female wanting independence, but never truly feeling safe. Mary had no idea the consequences of that one choice on a summer evening. Despite her middle-class privilege, there were fatal consequences to de facto segregation in Evanston. Segregation left her with a life threatening deficit in survival skills.

All but one Parham sister were dead by their mid-60s. I hope to share, in a third and last essay, more on how life in Evanston contributed to those early deaths.

Correction: A previous version of this story implied that Black Evanston residents did not have access to swimming lessons in the 1940s because they were banned from the ETHS pool. The ETHS pool did not exist until 1958, but Black Evanston residents still did not have equal access to swimming lessons because they were barred from other Evanston pools in the 1940s. The Daily regrets the error.

Opeyemi Parham is a retired M.D. who writes as an artist, healing. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.