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Telling North Shore stories from the Underground Railroad to today

Thu, Mar 1, 2012

Attorney Jacqueline Branion and her mother, author Rose Jourdain.

African-American history came full circle for Morris (Dino) Robinson as he watched Barack Obama’s televised presidential inauguration with Rose Jourdain, daughter of Evanston’s first Black alderman.

“We had been following Barack Obama for some time and I would go to Rose’s house weekly to help her with the novel she is working on,” Robinson said in an interview at the Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston, which he founded.

“She was looking at the inauguration ceremony and looking back at all the things Barack Obama went through,” Robinson said. “She had this recollection that ‘Wow, this is exactly what my father through went he was running. He would hit the pavement, he would knock on doors, he would mobilize a lot of people in the community for voter registration. He would use the latest technology – the newspaper — to help spread the word about his activities.’ She kept making these comparisons to Barack Obama using the Web to get his word around. The look of awe on Rose’s face was amazing.”

Robinson launched the first issue of a quarterly newsletter on local Black history in 1999 and Jourdain called him immediately after she received a copy.

She was direct, Robinson recalled, a product of years working at Scott Foresman Publishing in Glenview and Johnson Publishing in Chicago, in the civil rights movement, and as a novelist and screenplay writer. “ ‘Dino. Wonderful story, wonderful publication. You need an editor. I’ll be that. See you tomorrow.’ ”

In time Rose provided the papers of her father and grandfather to the archive Robinson had started in 1995; now the library at the Shorefront Legacy Center is named in her memory. Rose’s grandfather, Edwin Jourdain Sr., had been a graduate of Boston School of Law and active in the Niagara Movement, a predecessor to the NAACP. He had collected writings on civil rights legislation as far back as the 1870s. His files also contained 1895 newspaper coverage of the death of Frederick Douglass and efforts to place a commemorative marker for Crispus Attucks, the runaway Indian/Black slave who was the first to die in the American Revolution.

Shorefront founding board members and family attending its first meeting in June 2002.

Edwin Jourdain Jr., a graduate of Harvard, came to Evanston to attend journalism school at Northwestern University. He wound up sports editor of the Chicago Defender and managing editor of the Chicago Bee, Robinson said. Redlining in Evanston schools led community members to urge him to run for alderman in the 1930s. He served for 17 years, during which he desegregated Evanston theaters, beaches and baseball games.

According to Shorefront’s very first newsletter, the 1850 census showed the first Blacks in Evanston were farm owners Patrick and Catherine Melok and their four children, as well as field hands Reece and Lumus Carny. Through the Eyes of Us, a printed timeline and oral history compact disc researched and recorded by Robinson in 1998, adds the name of Maria Murray. A 15-year-old bought out of slavery, Maria worked for the Vane family after 1855. She later married and was a founding member of the Second Baptist Church in 1882.

Morris (Dino) Robinson

The Chicago Fire of 1871 prompted wealthy whites to move to Evanston, along with their Black domestic help who enlarged the community, according to Through the Eyes of Us. Still others came after the Chicago Race Riots of 1919 and the Great Migration from the South; they sought a more peaceful community with good schools and nice, safe homes.
Although the Black community was geographically restricted to living in the area between the North Shore Canal, Emerson Street and Green Bay Road, it included downtown business owners like Daniel Garnett, a Davis Street bootmaker in the 1870s. His children became doctors and founders of Evanston Sanitarium, the forerunner of Evanston Community Hospital, in operation until 1979.

Another downtown Evanston business owner was William H. Twiggs, who operated a barbershop at 1573 Sherman Ave., what is now Fountain Square. He later operated a printing shop at 1619 Sherman Ave. and was appointed by the mayor to positions as city sealer and then permit clerk during World War II. He was also active in construction of the Emerson Street YMCA.

Robinson called the Emerson Street YMCA “the soul of the community,” with 4 out of 5 boys in the community as members in 1941. It was the place where Evanstonians like Lorraine H. Morton, the city’s first Black mayor, met her future husband. She was quoted in Gatherings, a history of the Emerson Street branch published by Shorefront.
Until desegregation of the main Evanston Y in the 1960s, the Emerson Y was also the place for non-nativeborn Americans: Poles, Jews, Germans, Native Americans, Asians, Robinson said.

Robinson himself moved to Evanston about 30 years ago, in eighth grade. His interest in history extends just as far back, thanks to his parents, his freshman high school teacher who put him in history honors class, and his grandmother in South Carolina. She shared stories about his forebears and 14 photo albums on sweltering days.

In 1995 Evanston Clarion Editor Tony Kelly provided the final spark that led to Shorefront’s founding, when he asked Robinson to write an overview of Blacks on the North Shore.
“I was thinking people had already done it because there is a huge population here but I found out not much was done, at least not written down,” Robinson said. “I wanted to know more. I would ask questions to bring this to light and it started growing and growing. I started to attract people with like interests.” The first assignment became a 14-part series that Robinson published as his first book, A Place We Can Call Our Home.

He raised $1200 to get the book printed and District 65 elementary schools purchased a number for classroom use. In 1997, he wrote his first grant for Through the Eyes of Us.
It was the opening statement in the recording of William Twiggs’ 80-something daughter Martha Twiggs Walker, that really hooked Robinson.

“..‘My mother and grandmother shot their master and escaped North on the Underground Railroad,’ a very powerful statement from a 4-foot-9 woman with a voice that resembled Minnie Mouse. She went through this litany of history, very succinct, very detailed, she talked about her experiences, the people she knew and met and the community atmosphere,” Robinson said.

Starting from three file folders on his desk, Robinson filled his garden apartment office with old photos, invitations, business cards, items of clothing. He has received much material from Ebenezer AME Church, founded in 1882, and he has fed information back and forth with the historians at Evanston’s two other oldest Black congregations: Second Baptist Church and Mount Zion, founded in 1894. He encourages families to preserve their own histories but to donate them to the archive if they cannot.

“Sometimes I will arrive back home and there will be boxes by my door with a note saying, ‘Dino, we know you’ll take good care of this,’” he said.

In 2002, the organization went from the name “Through the Eyes of Us” to “Shorefront,” established itself as a nonprofit, and installed a 16-member board of directors. In 2009, Shorefront opened the Legacy Center on the second floor at 2010 Dewey Ave., the former Foster School. In addition to the library and 80 linear feet of archival material, the Legacy Center has space for exhibits, conferences and community programs.

While its stated mission is to collect, preserve and educate people about Black history on Chicago’s North Shore, the nonprofit goes by the name “Shorefront” alone, Robinson said, because “it is more inviting. It brings people in, to work together as a team to bring this important history to light. That’s what I want to focus on; Shorefront’s the entity for bringing these important stories to the public.”

Geography also comes into play, he said. “We want to have a sense that this is everybody’s story. Shorefront indicates a demographic area that we cover – seven suburban communities north of Chicago, [Evanston, Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, and Lake Forest] with specific interest in Lake Forest, Glencoe and Evanston. All have connecting stories; you have families that live in Evanston, they have descendants living in Glencoe or Lake Forest so that cross-pollination is very important to us. To focus on only one community is very limiting.”

Lake Forest, for example, has connections to the Underground Railroad, thanks to Sylvester Lind, a city founder, mayor, and Chicago lumberyard owner. According to Lake Forest College’s online walking tours for students, fugitive slaves were sneaked onboard ships bound for Lind’s Green Bay timber stands when the captain wasn’t looking. At a refueling stop just off Door County, Wis., the slaves switched to ships bound for Detroit, which let them off to freedom in Ontario, Canada.

“One of the stops was in Evanston, so you can deduce the slaves either stayed on the ship and hid or they disembarked and hid somewhere else in town, such as the Clovin House, at the corner of Davis and Orrington Street,” Robinson said. After the Civil War, when some of them came back to the United States, they went to Lake Forest, Glencoe and Evanston, because of the connections they had made there. They became domestic workers, farmers, small business owners.

Besides himself, Shorefront has a part-time director, Joi-Anissa Russell. Its more than 35 quarterly journals have attracted over 60 writers and are catalogued at the Library of Congress.

“We have a budget and we really work hard at maximizing the dollars we use,” Robinson said. Last July, for example, Shorefront worked with U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky on presentation of a replica congressional medal to the family of the late aviator Fred Hutcherson Jr. He had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II because of American Air Force race restrictions; he had ferried airplanes to Britain and helped train Tuskegee Airmen. Most of the event volunteers were children, from fourth grade through college.

Working with a history organization, Robinson takes a big picture view. He tells volunteers to “check their egos at the door,” and to build the story backwards in a timeline beyond themselves.

“People will say, ‘you got this wrong,’ and I will say, ‘what about this person in 1895?’ That will stump them, they will say, ‘I didn’t know about that.’ And I will say, ‘this is why I am doing this. I don’t know all the history. I’m never going to know all the history. But collectively we all know the history. We need to share that story and especially share it with our youth so that it can be carried on into the future. Once we’re gone, there’s no one to tell the story. We need to share it, we need to value it, we need to honor it and we need to make it common knowledge.”

Shorefront hours are 9:30 to 2 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. More information is available at 847.864.7467 and at www.shorefrontlegacy.org.

Written by Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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