On the second floor of the Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church, 405 Euclid Ave. in Oak Park, there are five deftly decorated multipurpose rooms named for iconic people of color: the African American writer James Baldwin, the Asian-American activist Fred Korematsu, the Latinx singer Celia Cruz, the African American poet Audre Lorde, and the African American activist Ruby Bridges.
“We’ve had a challenge in the community for a while around having spaces that are owned, so to speak, by folks of color,” said Linda Francis during an interview earlier this month inside of the Audre Lorde Library. “Folks have asked how we can get more people of color to the table, but it’s always been this model of a table that is owned and structured by someone else.”
Francis is one of five volunteer board members of The Echo Center, the formal name and governing entity of the second-floor Euclid Avenue space that had its soft opening in November.
The center is “intentionally designed … for exploring the narratives of marginalized people and coalescing the community’s equity efforts,” according to its website. “The center promotes art, theater and other modes of storytelling, serves as a hub for nonprofits and other initiatives led by people of color, and advances equity and social justice efforts.”
Moments after stepping out of the Ruby Bridges Family Lounge — a colorful space featuring orange walls and a tie-dye-colored rug that has the feel of a Montessori classroom — Maui Jones, the center’s inaugural executive director, said that the space should allow marginalized people in the community an area to practice self-empowerment and just be themselves.
“All of those elements — storytelling, activism, organization and community — are about recapturing that spirit of the Civil Rights movement, recapturing that spirit of civil disobedience and empowering each other; not waiting for someone else to tell us that we’re good and pat us on the head, but to empower ourselves,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”
Francis said the center has been open since late last year but doesn’t have regular hours yet. The board is currently fundraising in the hopes of garnering enough money to bring Jones on full-time by the spring, which would allow for scheduled hours, regular programming and enhanced community access.
In the meantime, there’s plenty of activity at the center, which has partnered so far with a range of area organizations, including the Echo Theater Collective, One Earth Film Festival, Success of All Youth, Race Conscious Dialogues, Revolutionary Oak Park Youth Action League, Oak Park Call to Action, Ase Productions, Reparations Working Group of Euclid Ave. UMC, Live Cafe, Black Residents of Oak Park and Workout Warriors, among others.
There have been parent meetings and visioning sessions and, most recently, a Uniquely You Tea Party. In the future, Jones envisions a podcast and music classes, among many other possibilities that the community can collectively imagine for the space.
The tea party, held Feb. 23, is emblematic of why the center exists. The party offered “a safe space for girls that identify as members of the African diaspora, ages 8-11 to share their stories,” according to a Facebook description of the event posted by Ase Productions Inc., the nonprofit that planned the tea.
“It is designed to strengthen the social and emotional development of pre-adolescent, girls that may have been effected by systems of oppression and colorism, under the guidance of intelligent, self-actualized, professional, women from the Oak Park community,” the nonprofit explained.
The Echo’s antecedent?
“Around here, are there really places that are gathering spots for black residents that while not exclusively for black residents, are comfortable spaces that are focused on their needs?” Frank Lipo, the executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, asked aloud during an interview last week.
Lipo hadn’t heard of The Echo Center, but he is familiar with what may be its closest progenitor — the Mt. Carmel Colored Baptist Church.
Built in 1905 after a battle between the congregation and “concerned” white homeowners who didn’t want a black church in their neighborhood, Mt. Carmel was the most the significant communal space for the village’s burgeoning black community. The church, located at 1138 Westgate, was the site of political mobilization, spiritual renewal and social bonding.
Writing in Wednesday Journal in 2005, local historian Doug Deuchler wrote that the church “was a busy, active congregation,” where potlucks and musicals took place every Thursday evening “because that was when cooks, servants and coachmen had their one night a week off.”
But as Oak Park’s downtown emerged during the 1920s economic boom, Mt. Carmel and the “colored neighborhood” that surrounded it were in the path of development.
“After several mysterious fires, the church was sold and razed,” Deuchler wrote. “The clapboard cottages and rooming houses were bulldozed. Many of the church members moved to Maywood; some settled in the city.
“During 1930, the area where Mt. Carmel stood was developed as an ‘Old English’ shopping district (Westgate),” Deuchler wrote. “There is no trace of the early African-American community that stood there first.”
Lipo, who co-authored Suburban Promised Land, the 2009 book about the first 100 years of Oak Park’s African American community, said he wasn’t aware of any other Mt. Carmel-like space in Oak Park, where African Americans can “meet and have a presence and come together,” where they can set the terms of understanding and fellowship — until he heard about The Echo Center last week.
“It must have been powerful to have a place to come together as your own during a time when racism and prejudice was particularly heinous,” Lipo said. “It will be interesting to see the parallels as the Echo Center evolves.”
No strings attached
Mt. Carmel may not have been built if Elijah Hoard hadn’t left a small lot to his maid, “a member of the Mt. Carmel congregation, who in turn sold it to the church for $1,000,” according to Suburban Promised Land.
The church broke ground thanks to the “the proceeds from the sale of the Chicago Avenue lot, contributions from members, support from black Baptist churches in Chicago, and assistance from white Oak Parkers like flamboyant millionaire John Farso.”
Similarly, The Echo Center wouldn’t have materialized if not for the support of Sally Stovall, the prominent Oak Park activist who died last May.
“Last spring, Sally came to me to pick my brain about where I thought there might be an opportunity to support folks of color,” Francis recalled. “She belonged to Euclid Avenue’s Reparations Working Group and they were in the process of figuring out how they might support blacks in the community and were talking about this need to have space.”
Francis told Stovall about the need for a space where older young people can go after school. At the time, Euclid Avenue’s second floor space was vacant after the church’s former tenant, the nonprofit New Moms, moved to another space. Stovall said that the Reparations Working Group might have seed funding, as well. She vowed to pass the idea on to her colleagues in the group.
“The next week, Sally passed and so we didn’t know for a while if she had been able to share that information with the group, but it turned out, she had,” Francis said. “That summer, I ran into Maui at the Juneteenth celebration and asked him to follow up on it. He did.”
“I’ve wanted to do this for so long,” said Jones, the founder of the Echo Theater Collective, which is based in Oak Park and Forest Park, and “designed to promote unity and cultural understanding in our community using theater and music,” according to its website. The theater is not formally affiliated with the center.
Jones said he had twice unsuccessfully pitched what was essentially something of a blueprint for The Echo Center at the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation’s Big Idea competition, which awards $50,000 grants to local organizations dedicated to community improvement.
Jones also posted what he called his manifesto on Facebook, which outlined his vision for a community center premised on the needs and wants of people of color.
“And then I had a personal tragedy,” he said. “My daughter-to-be died about halfway through the pregnancy and I went into this pretty dark place for a while. And then this past June was like the first time I had really come out of the house and I saw Linda at this Juneteenth celebration. She was asking me how the community center dream was going and I hadn’t been working on it. Then she told me about these conversations she was having with Sally Stovall, who died like the same week my daughter passed.”
During the encounter, Jones said, something “clicked in my head and pulled me out of my funk. This project in a very real way saved me.”
Jones pitched his vision to members of Euclid Avenue church and its trustee board, who connected him to the church’s Reparations Working Group.
“They said, ‘Yeah, that sounds amazing,’ and they cut a check for $18,000. No strings. No reporting. Here’s an $18,000 check to do the work on your terms, on the terms of you and your board. That’s how much they trust not just us specifically, but marginalized communities, in general, to have the competence to advocate for themselves and that is revolutionary.”
Dot Lambshead Roche, a member of the Reparations Working Group and an Echo Center board member, said the multiracial group raised funds within the Euclid Avenue church community that “went above and beyond people’s pledges.” The group had been meeting each Sunday and asking some tough questions about how to disperse the funds.
“The money came in, but we had some pretty clear language around what this is,” Roche said. “I believe that it’s, first and foremost, like wages owed. When someone wins a settlement and is awarded a sum of money, no one gets to tell them what to do with the money. It’s their money. Communities impacted by racism know what they need and can make the best decisions on how to use money, which is why I believe that reparations is a critical financial component of justice.”
Roche helps lead Race Conscious Dialogues, an affinity group that meets regularly in the center and is a partner organization. The group helps whites address their own racism and biases. Roche said that she’s clear about her role as a white ally in The Echo Center’s ecosystem.
“The important thing is that we are included into the space,” she said. “This is not for us. I feel honored to be included in this space, but I have a high degree of mindfulness around who it is designed for, who it’s centering, who it’s uplifting and who it’s celebrating. It’s flipping the power dynamics we often see around the word inclusion. When you do a power analysis around the word inclusion, who is doing the including? It’s often people who are white who are including folks of color and other marginalized identities.”
Jones said the center is currently focused on raising the necessary funds it will take to adequately staff the center, so that it keeps regular hours and can operate a slate of programming that he said will be decided by whatever community members say they need.
“Our youth of color are the very, very center of what we’re doing,” Jones said. “They’re at the top of the food chain here. And those who are used to being at the top of the food chain are at the bottom and you have to learn to be OK with that.”
The board has created a GoFundMe page. As of Feb. 25, the center had raised roughly $4,000 of its $25,000 goal. To donate, visit: bit.ly/384I9iE. For more information on The Echo Center, visit: www.echocc.org/.