'Gatherings' and black community


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For years, locals have debated whether or not Evanston and Oak Park are really that different. Without a doubt there are some differences: proximity to the lake, population, size, housing patterns, and Northwestern University being just a few.

Still, many find more things in common than in conflict.

People in both places might agree one of the most common threads is the sense of community within these seemingly tolerant suburbs.

Dino Robinson's newest work, a book called "Gatherings: The History and Activities of the Emerson Street Branch YMCA," focuses on one community within the community, a Black institution in Evanston that once was the center of activity for its community of color, yet was allowed to wither, not unlike how some here recall the demise of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church that used to be in the Harlem/Lake area before a few arsons hastened the church to vacate this place in the 1930s.

"Evanston, and its western Chicago counterpart of Oak Park, are metonyms for racial tolerance as it relates to the late twentieth century open housing movement," Robinson writes on page three. "At the same time, it has cost the African-American community the loss of several important institutions held near and dear to the community."

Researchers discovered that the gray, brick, non-descript Emerson Street YMCA was formerly dedicated on Sunday July 5, 1914 as a segregated department servicing the Evanston African-American community.

During its lifespan, the Branch's glib outward appearance was dwarfed by the colorful activities inside that embodied culture, pride, commitment and community involvement within its doors and had a lasting effect on past generations formative years as evidenced by this reporter at several Evanston events where old-timer Blacks would testify to the Branch's importance.

The book features a forward by Bennett J. Johnson, a veteran writer-publisher who heads the Evanston NAACP, who writes: "The Emerson Street YMCA was an anchor to the social and civic life of Evanston's Black community for many decades, starting with its founding in 1909 to its closing in 1969. We had our homes, our churches, Foster School, Foster Field and the 'Y.' This was the sum total of all the places in Evanston where Black folk could socialize and fraternize without the confronting feeling like an outside, a guest who was not welcomed, a dark intruder."

According to Robinson: "Its closing in 1969 was met with varied emotions within the African-American community. The Branch's social impact does not cross the minds of today's younger generations. People who didn't know didn't care. If people knew and not reminded they also might not care?..until now."

Robinson, a dreadlocked, thirty-something, author-publisher-curator, is an oral historian who has worked for six years as an advisor on a book on the history of Blacks and Biracials in Oak Park.

"Gatherings" reminds us of our own gathering places and the ghosts of ancestors past. To continue the ongoing dialogue on Oak Park and Evanston?#34;similarities and differences?#34;feel free to contact Dino Robinson at: robinsondesign@comcast.net.

Robinson can be heard discussing "sister cities" Evanston and Oak Park oral histories on the screen and on the page on my "City Voices" show, Sunday, September 4, 6:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., WNUA 95.5 FM.

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