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Evanston: A city shaped by political engagement

January 28, 2022

In 2012, Evanstonians had the opportunity to vote on a referendum to build a school in the city’s Fifth Ward, an area which has been without a neighborhood elementary school since 1967.

By affirming the referendum, the Evanston/Skokie Consolidated School District 65 would have been transformed into a more equitable institution for all children. But when the chance to make the difference within the Fifth Ward was dropped into Evanston residents’ laps, the referendum ultimately failed, with 54 percent of Evanston voters saying ‘nay.’ This wasn’t the first time that such a referendum had been brought to Evanston voters, each time resulting in the same outcome: no new school in the Fifth Ward.

In a town known for its progressivism, in which 84 percent of its residents voted blue in 2012’s presidential election, how is it possible that a campaign to make its public education system more equitable failed?

This vote—and other moments through Evanston’s history—may be explained by a sociological phenomenon called interest convergence, coined in 1980 by the “godfather” of critical race theory, Derrick Bell. As explained by New York Times reporter Chana Joffe Walt, the interest convergence theory argues, “the only times we ever see an expansion of rights for Black Americans is when white Americans benefit, when interests converge. If white Americans don’t see something in it for themselves, nothing changes.”

In terms of the referendum, interests did not converge. While almost 70 percent of the Fifth Ward voted yes, the Sixth Ward and Seventh Ward, which make up the city’s predominantly white North Side, only saw 35 percent of its residents vote in favor, according to the Daily Northwestern. Clearly, white Evanstonians did not see enough in it for themselves to vote in favor of opening the new school. 

However, when looking at Evanston’s political track record in national and state-wide elections, the loss of the referendum seems like it should be an outlier. Since the city’s founding, Evanstonians have always had a strong focus on human rights, which only intensified in the mid-20th Century.

“The ‘50s and ‘60s in Evanston was an interesting time; it mirrored a lot of what was happening in the nation,” Robinson says. “There was a movement in Evanston, much like the rest of the country, where you had a political shift from the African American community mostly supporting the Republican Party to that of the Democratic Party. At that time period, we saw the Republican and Democratic Parties have a massive shift of ideology.”

Before the transition, the Republican Party was strongly focussed on achieving unified public thought, while the Democratic Party was centered around a belief in individual rights and state sovereignty. The parties’ belief systems swapped in the late 1920s, in an ideological shift known as party realignment. At this time, the Republican Party held the support of most Black voters, but the efforts of northern Democrats to fight for civil rights led to a realignment of Black voters, as well as other voters whose core values were focused on human rights issues, from the Republican to the Democratic Party. In the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, between two-thirds and three-fourths of Black voters supported the Republican candidate. However, by 1936, the number dropped to 28 percent, according to the History Archives of the United States House of Representatives, exemplifying this realignment within Black communities across America. As noted by Robinson, Evanston was no different.    

“Earlier, before the ‘50s, the Republican Party was more associated with [the] common good [and] how to help the middle class and society. [They] believed in unions, fair work, fair wages and equality. But that shifted from one party to another,” Robinson says. “So that [was reflected] here in Evanston, and by the 1950s and 60s, we had a growing movement of what we call today the Civil Rights Movement. So, you had residents that have lived here for generations trying to push back even more so about fair housing, about employment opportunities, [and] about fair treatment in Evanston.” 

While the national and local realignments started with a shift within the Black community, white Evanstonians followed suit. 

“In the white community, you really start to see the change in the late 1950s with a new era of civil rights work and human rights work,” Osborne explains. “In Evanston, that’s particularly focused on issues of housing, segregation, school segregation and the need for integration—or what they think of as more fair allocation of school resources and geographic boundaries for schools.”

By 1964, both Evanston and Chicago were voting blue, but Illinois remained a Republican state. Much of Evanston’s liberalism was visible through community protests and mobilization, such as the North Shore Summer Project in 1965 and the community’s push to integrate its schools. 

And yet, in a time when the political beliefs of both Black and white Evanstonians realigned to focus more on civil rights, the needs of Evanston’s predominantly Black Fifth Ward were being ignored, especially when it came to its neighborhood school, Foster School.

Foster School, which opened at 2010 Dewey Avenue in 1905 was almost entirely Black for the majority of its lifespan. The school’s demographics, which reached 94 percent Black by 1960, were a curated product of the city’s racist housing practices that dominated the early 20th Century. 

 Around the same time as the North Shore Summer Project, District 65 was making plans to integrate its schools—an action that, at the time, matched the political beliefs of the city as a whole. Foster School was central to these integration plans, and the only Evanston school chosen to be broken up through these practices. It would first house an experimental kindergarten program, into which families from across the city could place their children. Once the results of this kindergarten program came back positively, the district moved to make all of Foster a laboratory school, accepting students from across the city. Just like that, in the midst of two years, the Fifth Ward had lost one of its main community centers. Its children found themselves needing to be bussed to school across Evanston and divided amongst themselves between elementary schools on the city’s North Side.

“If you look on a map of the school area zones, there’s only about four blocks exed [where] those kids living there will go to Lincolnwood School. A block over, they’ll go to Walker. Another one across the way will go to a different school,” Robinson explains. “All [of the] Fifth Ward was broken up into five different school zones. So that splits up a community. It dilutes the power structure that’s there—the PTA power structure—and also the influences that those families have with their children and teachers.”

Not only did the move strip Fifth Ward residents of political capital and community, the bussing policy also had a tremendous strain on student relationships and growth outside of the classroom. 

“It looks good in class, but in the community, [the students are] not there. Parents of those students are not there to walk their kid to school, or hang out afterwards or have coffee with the other mothers and fathers that are dropping off their kids. So those bonds and those relationships are not being made,” Robinson says. “There’s no connectivity within a classroom, and after school activities might be limited because of that.”

 Despite the fact that a neighborhood school is integral to the lifeblood of a community, and that Foster School in particular was a place of power and connection within the Fifth Ward, the area has now been without a neighborhood school for more than half a century. While there have been multiple referendums proposed to build a new school since Foster School closed, every time Evanstonians vote, the proposal is shot down. Somehow, in a community that claims to be focused on civil and human rights, not enough Evanston residents see a Fifth Ward School as an institution that is not only worth having, but vital to community growth and racial equity. 

 “[Foster School] was this vibrant community institution. It was a gathering place, where people met and formed those community bonds that make for a strong, vibrant place,” Osborne says. “I think people meant well, [but] I honestly believe there was a certain lack of understanding or real focus on the needs of the Black community and what happens [when] those community institutions are gone. And you can still, today, hear people talk about it. They’re basically grieving the loss of these places.”

Negligence of the needs of the Fifth Ward community is not solely focused on Foster School. A little more than a decade after the institution was transitioned into a laboratory school for the whole Evanston community, leaving the Fifth Ward residents without a neighborhood school, another community staple was withdrawn. The library branch, which opened in the Fifth Ward in 1975, was closed within 6 years of its opening. 

 In 2020, discussions about creating an equitable library system gained traction. In an effort to make the library’s resources more accessible to all parts of Evanston, the Evanston Public Library’s Board of Trustees unanimously voted to close the organization’s branches on Chicago Ave. and Central St., both of which have historically served predominantly white communities. The resources were redistributed to the newly implemented branch within the Robert Crown Community Center, which, located on the corner of Main St. and Dodge Ave., is significantly closer to the more diverse side of the city. 

“There were suggestions to close the branch library on Central St., and there was huge pushback,” Robinson says. “But at the same time, there was a Black community that wanted a branch library put back in the Fifth Ward that once used to be there. And the community was, in general, told to ‘just be patient, your turn is not now.’”

But in terms of turns, how long does one last? In a town known for its political progressivism, Fifth Ward residents have been waiting for a library in its ward since 1981. 

“So [there’s] that type of pattern of, ‘Wait until we get this done first. That benefits the greater [white] community, then we’ll get to yours eventually,’ and eventually never comes,” Robinson says. 

Throughout Evanston’s history, the Fifth Ward has continuously been left waiting. Whether it was for true integration, a school, a library branch or something else entirely, Evanston’s claimed progressive beliefs have never been deep or radical enough to truly make the city equitable for its residents of color. 

“I look at it as a sense of privilege,” Robinson says. “What I’ve seen with my research over the last 25 years is that there seems to be a pattern with any type of new initiative, building or services. It focuses [on] helping benefit those from a privileged background [rather] than those who’ve been deprived of those same privileges—mainly the Black community.”

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