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Mobilization of a city

January 28, 2022

 The racial disparities that appear at the basis of Evanston’s institutions are commonly attributed to the presence of prejudicial behavior within the housing market. Often viewed as an indication of immoral loopholes working outside the confines of the law, “de facto segregation”—or racially motivated practices that were not legally imposed—existed as the outcome of explicit public policies that intentionally separated Black families from whites, commonly referred to as “de jure segregation.”

Blatant discriminatory practices upheld the ideals of former city planners. 

“Discriminatory practices and a lack of affordable housing crowded Blacks into the west side where the demand was greater than the supply, enabling landlords to neglect housing stock and raise rents,” Mary Barr, a Kentucky State assistant professor of sociology, wrote in her book entitled Friends Disappear. “Public policy and private action had created a visibly segregated city.”

From the impacts of Northwestern University and the city’s crucial role in the temperance movement, Evanston’s liberal reputation was well-defined from the beginning, even while racist housing practices were being implemented. 

Throughout its history, Evanston residents have protested racist housing policies in the city, often only earning partial victories along the way. 

“The Black community was fighting against segregated housing as early as 1905. The movement was always evolving,” Robinson says.

By the 1960s, in the wake of redlining and other racist real estate practices, many Evanstonians were ready to push for less segregated housing practices.

Despite the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, housing discrimination consistently proved to be the most persistent form of segregation in Evanston.

Inspired by civil rights movements that took place outside of the Chicagoland area, a number of residents from suburbs across the North Shore formed what became known as the North Shore Summer Project (NSSP), a campaign that began when activist Bill Moyer, alongside his North Shore based counterparts, joined forces to remove the barriers of injustice within the community. 

“The story of the North Shore Summer Project and its aftermath is about a brave attempt to transform not only a de jure racist suburban housing market but also a de facto culture of exclusion. I argue that the NSSP’s most significant legacy was not the most obvious, the changing of housing laws and real estate practices, but rather its ability to galvanize hundreds of people—white and Black, particularly women—in an extremely organized fashion around an ethic of racial justice,” executive director of Housing Opportunities and Maintenance for the Elderly (H.O.M.E.) in Chicago, and former long-time executive director of the descendant of the North Shore Summer Project, Open Communities, Gail Schechter, wrote in her chapter of The Chicago Freedom Movement: Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights Activism in the North. “This language of justice, laden with religious and patriotic underpinnings and an ethic of care that made others’ struggles one’s own, was especially appealing to those affluent, white North Shore residents who wanted to contribute to the electrifying energy of the Civil Rights Movement.”

With Bill Moyer as the project’s director and Reverend Emery Davis of AME Church in Evanston as chairman, the ambitious goals of the campaign were in the hands of several disciplined individuals.

“[In March of 1965], Moyer and Davis planned to reach out to everyone in the northern suburbs who had a house listed for sale. With over 1,000 houses on the market, they were going to talk to homeowners about whether or not they’d sell to a Black family, and how they felt that their neighbors would approach the situation,” Schechter says. 

In February of 1965, a total of 75 North Shore realtors were interviewed by those involved in the North Shore Summer Project. The vast majority of North Shore realtors agreed that the values of the NSSP aligned with their personal beliefs in regards to integration. The realtors positioned themselves as strictly accommodating to the desires of the seller. They expressed the community’s unwillingness to become a non-restrictive, welcoming haven. 

The report, released on Aug. 29, 1965, read, “Other vital facts that have come to light are that realtors do not do the will of the homesellers whom they claim to represent; realtors do the will of the realtor. Realtors do not do the will of the community; realtors do the will of the realtor.” It continues, “If realtors would exert as much leadership and pressure in a positive direction as they do in maintaining the status quo they have created, then our communities would be as open as they are now closed. The NSSP findings agree with a statement made by Louis A. Pfaff, President of the Evanston-North Shore Board of Realtors, ‘Times have changed, but the real estate industry has not.’”

Realtors do not do the will of the community; realtors do the will of the realtor.

— North Shore Summer Project report

Maintained and uplifted by local realtors, racist practices only satisfied the desires of a single demographic that contributed to the entirety of Evanston’s population. The North Shore Board of Realtors acted as gatekeepers that steered sellers in the direction of upholding racist laws.

Additionally, the NSSP was responsible for the opening of freedom centers, which delivered accessible services to those directly impacted by housing inequalities and other forms of discrimination, while promoting the ideals of freedom along various dimensions. 

The work of the local grassroots organization was fueled by the compelling and dynamic energy at the heart of the campaign. Both nationally and across the North Shore, the fight to cease all forms of racist attitudes and policies was in full force.

Nonetheless, the success of the North Shore Summer Project was met with some skepticism and resistance.

“The North Shore Summer Project was an incentive to engage Black families to move into the North Shore areas to try to diversify and make a more inviting environment. However, it [was] met with mixed results. There were families that were excited about this. But if we really think about it, it comes down to resources. Why would a Black family move into a community where the resources are not there for them? They would have to move elsewhere or go somewhere else to [access] the services that are specific to them, as odd as it might sound,” Robinson shares. 

“If I move to Wilmette,” Robinson supposes, “and I’m the first Black family that lives there, and I’m looking for someone to cut my hair, what barber would know how to cut my hair? I would have to leave the town and find someone that can do that. I may want to go to a church that more [accurately] reflects my culture and identity, and if these services are not there, why deal with that?”

Still, the limiting nature of change for Black folks in the area aside, the organization’s effort to shift local culture drew nationwide attention, including that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Following his triumphs in several southern cities, King ventured North to continue his teachings, traveling across the various Chicagoland suburbs and inspiring the local community about issues regarding fair housing and equal education. 

“King’s Chicago Movement had two goals: better conditions in Black neighborhoods and unfettered access to housing in white neighborhoods,” Barr wrote.

King’s ideas quickly flowed into Evanston politics as well.

“Evanston often functions as a proving ground or trying out space, like a little microcosm of the world outside our borders. That’s true with the Civil War. That’s true with World War One. These are all big, national, world events, and Evanston got its own little version of it,” Lori Osborne, the director of the Evanston Women’s History Project at the Evanston History Center, says. “When King was working on housing desegregation, specifically, and I believe it’s connected with the Chicago housing reform movement, Evanston was working on the same thing. Evanston was seeing these national forces and going, ‘Well, hang on a minute. This is happening here. Let’s take this on.’”

July 25, 1965 marks the date of King’s speech on the Winnetka Village Green, which garnered a large audience of locals. With the support of the North Shore Summer Project, over 10,000 locals were in attendance. Equally as exceptional as the number of individuals in attendance were the serene conditions at a time of frequent ferocity and cruelty in the presence of King’s well-intended conversations. 

Evanston was seeing these national forces and going, ‘Well, hang on a minute. This is happening here. Let’s take this on.’

— Lori Osborne, Evanston Women’s History Project director

King’s ideas quickly flowed into Evanston’s politics. However, the assassination of King on April 4, 1968 caused a wave of disruption across the entirety of the country and sparked a more local discussion regarding fair housing in Evanston. King’s progress paved the way for the future of equitable housing laws and racial equality. 

On April 7, 1968, just three days following the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Evanston residents gathered to march as both a sign of gratitude and respect while participating in the freedom movement. 

The designated route began at Emerson Street and McCormick Boulevard, where participants continued southeast before entering Evanston’s Raymond Park to attend a celebratory gathering. Two days after the march, Evanston schools were shut down to honor the progress directly attributable to MLK.

Almost simultaneously, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 passed on April 11 reinstated and broadened the rights protected by the Civil Rights Act just four years prior. The implementation of the Fair Housing Act credited to President Lyndon B. Johnson ultimately prohibited discrimination by housing providers and other entities, whose practices made purchasing housing nearly impossible on the basis of race, religion, national origin and sex.

Without the implementation of a fair housing ordinance at the local level, Evanston residents continued to fight, with a city council vote as their desired outcome.

Several days later, on April 29, 1968, Evanston’s city council gathered to conduct the voting of a new ordinance, an official form of legislation that would solidify the illegal practices written in the Fair Housing Act. 

Fifteen to one, the 1968 ordinance was passed into law. 

Mobilization was an integral part of the push for change. That said, which face of Evanston ultimately showed itself as a result: surface level progressivism or real sacrifices and commitment to social change?

“If it wasn’t for the Black community to raise those vocal challenges, it may have not [passed],” Robinson continues. “[If Black residents hadn’t advocated for themselves], I think there would still be the status quo and those who control the narrative would still say Evanston’s a progressive, liberal city without actually having to do anything.”

A former Fifth Ward alderwoman and national leader in the push for reparations, Robin Rue Simmons notices Evanston’s great potential, and with the right vision and leadership, she believes Evanston can be transformed into a more liveable and equitable city. While Simmons has seen incremental changes, these changes didn’t break the fundamental truths at the heart of the city. Simmons’ ideal reparations bill directly targets racial and educational gaps, forming a bridge between household incomes and homeownership rates.

Simmons proposes, “We’re doing a reparation in direct correlation to our harm, which is housing and zoning here in Evanston.” 

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