Battle for racial equality in Evanston still goes on, author says

Mary Barr talking about her new book, "Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston," at the Wilmette Historical Museum. October 26, 2014. Elizabeth Atkinson
Mary Barr talks about her new book, “Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston,” at the Wilmette Historical Museum. Elizabeth Atkinson/MEDILL

By Elizabeth Atkinson

Evanston may consider itself an integrated community, but, according to a new book by Evanston native Mary Barr, it is not.

The 2010 Census, as reported on the Evanston Public Library web site, shows that 46 percent of the city’s black residents live on west Evanston and 35 percent live in southwest Evanston, and just 19 percent of black residents live in other parts of the city.

“The city rests on and reproduces racial inequality and injustice, but most people don’t want you to know that,” said Barr, a lecturer at Clemson University, in her new book, “Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality In Evanston.”

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, however, points to Evanston Township High School as a picture of Evanston’s community inclusion. “It is a community value that everyone in Evanston attends one high school in order to benefit from the rich diversity of the community,” Bobkiewicz said. “In part because of this, ETHS is the largest high school under one roof in the United States.”

While the one and only public high school in Evanston does have a diverse population, with 43.4 percent of students white and 30.9 percent of students black, what’s true for the high school is not necessarily true for the city.

Barr spoke about her book and the North Shore Summer Project of 1965 at the Wilmette Historical Museum recently. The North Shore Summer Project worked toward housing equality in Evanston, where housing discrimination was flagrant. The project surveyed white homeowners to find out if they would participate in an open market. The project was primarily run by high-school student volunteers, she said. Results showed 73 percent of those surveyed said they would show their homes on a nondiscriminatory basis.

After Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, an ordinance filled with loopholes and weak enforcement left the housing problem largely unchanged. Evanston still has a long way to go until it can call itself integrated, Barr said.

Bobkiewicz disagreed. “Evanston has a long, rich tradition of inclusion as a community,” he said in an email. “The City of Evanston works to make sure that all of our programs and services reach all members of our community and that these programs and services are inclusive of the ethnic and socio-economic diversity of our community.”

When Barr found the photo she uses on the cover of her book, a picture of her friends in childhood, she sought out the stories of those she once knew. They were not the stories she expected to hear.

“From what people were telling me, the black kids were in jail or dead and I was going to Yale,” Barr said. “I was like, ‘what happened here? We grew up in Evanston, where there’s great public schools and resources, how did we all grow up in the same place at the same time and end up in very different places?'”

In her book, Barr tells the story of Earl, who was shot and killed by a policeman near Wrigley Field in March 2000. He had been asking people for paper transfers for the El, and when police asked him to leave, he did, according to the book. The officer followed him and asked him to leave all together. According to Barr, the police report said that Earl became “belligerent and confrontational,” and lunged at the officer with a knife. The officer shot Earl one time in the chest, killing him. It later turned out that Earl had a fork, not a knife, she said.

Living under the illusion of integration is also dangerous. What’s the danger? “That we’re ignoring it, we’re not facing it. We’re not even talking about it,” Barr said. “They’re afraid if they say it it’s going to make it real or something. There’s this silence to talk about race.”

Judith Wittner, a sociology professor at Loyola University Chicago and longtime Evanston resident, said that to some extent, there’s integration in her neighborhood but it could be better. She lives in the Ridgeville neighborhood and said, “We need to keep working.”

“I think racism takes different forms, we are a racist society,” said Barr. “And now we’re supposedly in this post-racial society where supposedly everyone has equal opportunity because of the 1960s civil rights legislation. But people talk about it being a new type of racism, they talk about color-blind racism, and this is where you are just turning a blind eye to racial inequality,” she said. “I don’t really know if anything has changed. I don’t know if I believe that it has changed.”