Evanston’s “Reparations”:  My Reality of
The Great Migration, Desegregation, Gentrification, and 16 Bingo Winners. Oops I Mean “Ancestors”

Preface- One of the first thoughts that come to mind when I hear the word “Reparations'' is 40 Acres And A Mule. That’s it, just some land to take root on, where from the branches of generational security can be grown. It is a whole word association for me. Reparations, the feeling of long due justice, certainty, and peace of mind.   

 

When I first learned that Evanston’s Reparations initiative was looking to address the high cost of owning a home in less than affordable Evanston, I wasn’t getting 40 Acres And A Mule vibes. What I was hearing is that Evanston is in the middle of an image crisis! Our reputation for being “diverse” and “welcoming” is on the line, because we are losing our token Black population in droves! We will lose our spot on the Top 10 Best Places To Raise a (woke white) Family!! Who will want to live here? Do something, make it stop! So here we are… another Evanston housing initiative, NOT Reparations. Not an institutional change I can plant my roots in, but a band-aid on housing for 16 of our Black elders. It’ll be a damn shame when they pass, and their successors can’t afford to keep their Evanston home, but hey Evanston will feel all the warm fuzzies in the meantime. 

 

“Reparations” Generation One: The Seeds Are Planted

Edward Matthews (1862-1937) and his wife Ada (Brown) Matthews (1867-1949), moved to Evanston, IL, from Amite County, MS during the Great Migration. Like 6 million other Black people they were looking for opportunities outside of the domestic terrorism that saturated the roads in rural South-West Mississippi. Domestic terrorism such as daily lynching in the form of decapitations. “There’d be heads {Black heads}, just heads in the ditches”. Domestic terrorism such as having your people skinned alive and displayed on the court house doors. Domestic terrorism such as being forced into unpaid servitude, better known as enslavement, by violently racist white people, in spite of being born in 1867, four years after Lincoln “freed” ALL the enslaved… only to gain freedom 14 years later at the cost of $100. Domestic terrorism such as normalized anti-Black racism in all of it’s forms you can possibly imagine and then some. Edward and Ada escaped. 

 

Edward and Ada are my great grandparents, and just one of my ties to being able to qualify for what Evanston is calling “Reparations”. According to the rules of the “Reparations” application, individuals must have lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 or be a direct descendant of an individual harmed by Evanston’s housing practices during this time. These individuals, or “Ancestors”, as the City of Evanston has oddly taken to calling us living beings, might just be one of the16 winners, in a tilted lottery draw, set to receive $25,000 in… drum roll please…… Evanston housing initiatives… In Evanston, for Evanston!!! YAY!

 

From The Seeds of One Generation: Roots and Branches

Back to Edward and Ada Matthews. Genealogy is kinda my thing, so I’m going to break down just how many Black “Ancestors” in my direct line of ancestry have been negatively impacted by Evanston’s racist housing practices. 

 

By 1919, the year attributed to the start of The Great Migration, Edward and Ada had 10 living children, most were grown, some had already started families, ALL had fled North out of Mississippi, including my grandfather Bill Matthews (1901-1986). Of these two generations, we now see 12 “Ancestors” that have been impacted by Evanston’s racist housing practices. 

 

In the span of 60 years Edward and Ada are now a part of three generations, as their 10 children gave way to 26 known grandchildren, including my mom and her two sisters. Let’s add the generations of people, 2+10+26= 38! 38 “Ancestors” hurt by Evanston’s racism. Many of which were born in Evanston’s Black neighborhood, in Evanston’s Black hospital, by Evanston’s Black doctors, filling Evanston’s Black school, and paving the way for Evanston’s desegregation experiment. 

 

The family tree continues to grow! Edward and Ada’s next branch raises up 40 known great-grandchildren, including me, a product of Evanston’s public school system, and one of the many raised in the “colorblind”, “racism doesn’t exist” in “post-segregation” Evanston. While I can speak truth of my upbringing, I also need to hold space for Edward and Ada’s other great-grandchildren, some born as early as 1927. It is off of their pain that I am able to freely write about racism. *Thank you*.  Four generations out of Mississippi and we're now up to 78 total “Ancestors” violated by racist people in Evanston. 

 

Through my genealogy research, I’ve been able to connect with 64 “Ancestors”,  the great-great grandchildren of Edward and Ada, including two of my children, who are also coming up in Evanston’s public school magnet programs. Evanston programs that center Black and Brown culture, while simultaneously forcing Black and Brown children on yellow buses to add a little color to hueless classrooms in “diverse” Evanston. This generation brings our count up to 142 “Ancestors” stung by Racist Evanston. 

 

This brings us to generations six and seven made up of  57 Great Great Great Grandchildren, and 6 Great Great Great GREAT GRANDCHILDREN born of Edward and Ada Matthews. We’ve come a long way from Amite County, Mississippi, but not far enough from culturally acceptable racism that is still widely practiced everywhere, including “progressive” Evanston. Adding up all seven generations we have 205 Black people impacted by Evanston’s housing practices. I know there may be some of Edward and Ada's successors missing from this count, sadly leaving bare some of the branches on our family tree. Also not included in this count are Edward and Ada’s siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, and/or step-children that also came North to Evanston, or other extended family members that can find their way back to Edward and Ada.

 

What Can Grow With Depleted Resources:

My family is just one family, one direct line of SEVEN generations that enriched our community, while enduring Evanston’s anti-Black racism? How many hundreds of thousands of other Black people are out there that should qualify for Evanston’s “Reparations”? I started this piece also mentioning desegregation, and gentrification, because I want to quantify what sort of impact racism has. Imagine that, 205 Black people I share DNA with, right here in Evanston. Of these 205 Black people, about 160 of us are still living, and over 100 of us are old enough to apply to play Bingo in the Evanston Black Housing Project. Yet Evanston’s reparations committee reports that out of the over 600 applicants, only 122 total “Ancestors” were able to qualify to have our name thrown in the hamster wheel. 

 

While out of the Great Migration we know that at least Edward and Ada and their over 200 Black successors have been affected by Evanston. So where are all of the Black people?! With the closure of the Black school, the Black hospital, the Black businesses, came the disappearances of  the Black spaces, the Black jobs, the Black culture, the Black neighbors, the Black friends, Black safety, Black comfort, and the exodus of the Black people. Out of seven generations, and 205 Black people on down from Edward and Ada, there are five, yes FIVE of us still living in Evanston. 

 

We’ve been left with a city that carries a reputation and a legacy of racial greatness that “liberal’, “progressive”, white people yearn for. We have it all figured out here in Evanston. We are diverse and welcoming. We hold hands, while skipping and singing along the lakefront, with our beach tokens of course.  But none of this is true. We are a city that centers whiteness. We are expected to leave our culture at the door and assimilate to whiteness.  With each and every new white person that moves in, taking advantage of vacated homes that may have once held Blackness, a Black family is moved to exit, not willing to live amongst an ever whitening town, a town whose reputation survives off of it’s handful of token Black neighbors and our ancestors. Where are the reparations for this reality? What are the lasting institutional changes our community needs to make to our racist systems to repair the harm done to our Black community? What efforts will you put forth to help recreate the foundation needed to bring about the justice, certainty, and peace of mind for our Black community to secure our Evanston roots?