Talking with Roy King, Harriet King, Bruce Allen King, and Lonnie Wilson
It’s a cold winter night and I’m sitting in 89-year-old Roy King’s house at McDaniel and Davis. With us are: Harriet King, Roy’s youngest sister; Roy’s son Bruce, 64, a chef; and Lonnie Wilson, 62, a friend of Bruce’s and a well-known Evanston activist.
I’m here to talk to Roy and Harriet as part of a new series of interviews--in collaboration with Bruce and Lonnie--of Evanston’s Black elders. The objective: to capture the memories of the aging population of African Americans in Evanston whose parents or grandparents came to settle here from the south.
Bruce and Lonnie readily attest to the pain and suffering (then and now) of Evanston’s Black community--and their own. But they’re also in awe of their elders who escaped the south’s brutal racism only to face the barriers and constraints of segregation and discrimination in Evanston, yet created a self-sustaining “Village” in the 5th ward, one in which they felt safe and loved.
Lonnie Wilson, below
The men's mission: to work toward reviving the Village by sharing stories and encouraging the younger generation to connect with their elders and the community.
Though Roy, who spent his career as a carpenter and builder, and Harriet, who worked for 30 years at Illinois Bell, were the intended interviewees, Bruce and Lonnie also shared some of their memories, opinions, and hopes for the future.
Both men have stories enough to fill a book. They have a fierce love of and loyalty to friends and family. They’re devoted to their culture and to recounting the history of their people. Both are wordsmiths with mellifluous voices and many opinions. They’ve suffered devastating losses and battled and overcome addiction. They’re passionate, angry, loving, hopeful, driven, and determined to make a difference in their community. I hope to tell their stories at greater length soon.
But on this night, we ended up having a wide-ranging conversation about the Village: about slavery, racism, segregation, and integration and their effects on Evanston’s Black community; we talked about ‘moving houses’ and family, hats and feathers, Mothers Day and fruit trees, sounds and smells, and about knowing your neighbors.
Here’s an introduction and some excerpts from the conversation.
Nineteen-year-old Arthur Chester King was walking on the sidewalk in downtown Abbeville, South Carolina, when a group of whites walked towards him. It was 1910, and as a black man in the south, Arthur knew he was supposed to get off the sidewalk and into the road to let them pass. But he didn’t.
“He resented that,” says Roy King, 89, Arthur’s son. “He’s spending his money, whatever little money he had, as much as they were, and they made him get off. Calling him names, the favorite names and all that. He kept going because he knew if he didn’t, he’d be dead. A few days later he was going to Georgia. He had to leave in a hurry.”
After fleeing Abbeville and spending a few weeks in Atlanta, Arthur--an orphan who had grown up on a plantation--made his way to Evanston.
“He had no family, no parents, no brothers or sisters,” says Roy. But a friend, whom the family called Aunt Sarah, lived in Evanston, and helped him get settled in a rooming house.
Arthur Chester King with Bruce, photo courtesy of Bruce Allen King
“He came to Evanston looking for a better way of life,” Roy explains. “And the people that were here who had made it from the south, when they went back home to visit, they put the word out.” A large number of the African Americans who made Evanston home were from Abbeville, McCormick, Due West, and Anderson, S.C.
Three years later, Roy’s mother Ella Childs King, whom Arthur knew in Abbeville, joined him in Evanston. Also an orphan, she and Arthur were married in 1917, and Arthur built a house for her (“He built a house for his queen,” says Bruce) at 2031 Dodge.
The couple had nine children, each two years apart: Arthur Jr., Mildred, Richard, Elizabeth, John, Roy, Harriet, George and Nancy. Arthur worked as a carpenter and Ella as a domestic all along the North Shore. By the time Roy was born in 1928 the family had built a new house at 2025 Dodge.
Did Arthur tell his children about the incident that brought him to Evanston?
“Yes, little bits of it,” says Roy. “That hurt him. That was why he was so hard on us. ‘You’re gonna make something of yourself,’ he’d say. ‘You’re not gonna be subjected to that kind of thing. Stand up and be a man.’”
The King children attended Foster School at 2010 Dewey, which Harriet calls ‘the red brick house,’ now the home of Family Focus. Foster’s student body was 99 percent Black, but Harriet and Roy remember that their principal was white, there were no black teachers, and only later were there any black janitors. Following eighth grade at Foster, they went to Evanston Township High School (ETHS).
I ask Roy and Harriet what the transition from segregated elementary school to integrated high school was like.
RK: We had the feeling, we’re going to high school, and we’re gonna have to learn how to …
HK: Get along.
RK: Dance to the music.
DE: Were you afraid?
RK: We had our anxiety. And we had to compete with those white kids. My dad would say, ‘Don’t come back here telling me you can’t.’
HK: I mixed with rest of group and we got along fine. I didn’t have a problem.
DE: What did you think about the fact there were these two completely separate communities?
RK: That was just what it was. We didn’t know any different. That’s the way Black folks lived. White folks didn’t want to be bothered by us.
HK: You accepted it. We don’t want to be bothered. You know, you go your way, I go mine. You don’t want to push yourself on somebody. I know I didn’t.
DE: Did you ever wonder why white kids had thing and opportunities you didn’t have?
HK: We accepted what we had.
RK: We had to prove ourselves. We had to be as good as they are. Yeah, we had to be, in order to get by, in order to be seen, we had to be twice as good as they are.
During high school, Harriet had a baby. Her parents sent her to complete high school in Los Angeles, while they took care of her son. She returned to Evanston three years later.
While Ella worked as a domestic at homes along the North Shore, Arthur worked at a gas station in the city. “He was a grease monkey,” remembers Roy. But he also did carpentry work on the side, and soon that became his full-time job and he left the gas station.
I asked Roy and Harriet to tell me about their daily family life.
HK: We had to be home when the streetlights went on. And we had dinner as a family every night.
RK: Our mother was a cook. Not canned stuff. Biscuits made from scratch. She also was working for the people on the North Shore so she learned new things. This is how our diet wasn’t limited. We ate everything.
HK: We didn’t have much, but my mom would fix breakfast. Then she’d say ‘I don’t know what we gonna have for lunch.’ But lunchtime? We sat down and ate. And it wasn’t no sandwiches. Dinner time, she’d say, ‘I don’t know what we’re gonna have.’ But we had a full meal on the table. This was every night.
My dad worked down in Chicago. He worked long and hard. Then he would come home and work on his carpentry work. He brought his proposals to me. I’d type up his proposals. He was a carpenter at Ebenezer AME Church at the time.
We had good parents. They were good to us. We never wanted for anything. We didn’t suffer for anything. We didn’t know what it was to suffer.
After high school, Harriet spent eight years working at a gift shop in Wilmette and then applied for a job at Illinois Bell.
“But something happened that I never heard of,” Harriet says of how she got hired at the phone company. “The supervisor came to see where I lived. She came to 2025 Dodge. And her question was, ‘This is your house?’ I said, ‘No, this is my parents’ house. I live with my parents.’ Had that been my house, I wouldn’t have been hired.”
Roy tells me a lot of his friends went off to college. I ask about him.
“I ... was riding a bike. Just riding around the community,” Roy remembers. “I rode by my dad’s partner, Mr. Burles. ‘Hey boy, you wanna work? You wanna job?” he asked. ‘Meet me at my house tomorrow at 8 o’clock.’ At 10 mins to 8 I met him at his house … and never looked back.
Burles was a graduate of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, which was founded in 1881 by former slave Lewis Adams and whose first president was Booker T. Washington.
“That threw me head and shoulders above most my peers,” says Roy. He smiles. “He was first class. He taught me the trade. My daddy was a carpenter, but he didn’t have the book knowledge. He was self taught.”
Roy would fix neighbors steps and porches. “You’d get 50 cents, if you got anything,” he says. Roy went to classes at Chicago Technical College that, he says, advanced him further than a hammer and nails. He became a truly skilled contractor.
GET UP AND GO
“Where did your get up and go come from, and why do you think we lost it?” asks Lonnie.
HK: The parents.
BK: They were driven because they came from driven people. Their parents did in 50 years what other people did in 200. They came from nothing. By the 20th century there were over 100 self-sustaining Black communities in America. That’s the attitude that made them.
Now what happened to us? We bought a lie. ‘If you give up yours, you can be a part of ours.’ Now, I’m not opposed to integration, but you have to let us bring something to the party. Let us bring something. Don’t tell me I can’t bring what my grandparents gave me. From 1936 to 1966 Blacks didn’t get the benefit of going to the bank to get loans. We had a village. But in order to ‘come with us,’ we had to leave some things behind.
LW: Since we couldn’t go to banks, we lent each other money and financed our own ideas and community. When integration came, we thought it was a big deal to be able to go to a white bank, and this in effect killed the very village that brought us our strength.
As we talk about Arthur King and Roy’s carpentry professions, Roy explains that back then, many houses were moved, in tact, from white areas of Evanston and the North Shore to the 5th ward.
“When I was coming along they were moving houses,” he says. “People, let’s say, in Wilmette or North Evanston for whatever reason they were gonna sell, but we couldn’t buy them there, so they brought those houses to the ghetto. It was good product that would be lost if it was demolished. We went in and we worked on those houses. If they were in bad shape, we’d put them together.”
DE: What did it look like to see a house being moved?
RK: It was normal. They had those great big trucks and trailers. They had timbers to roll the house on. You had timbers, so long, depending on how big the house was. We had one house mover back then, Foster, over on Dewey and Payne. He and his daddy, they were the movers. They had trucks. They would have to go sometimes [to drive the house] up to Wilmette to where the railroad tracks weren’t as high up and there weren’t viaducts.
When that house was jacked up, you got timbers under it. To jack it up, there was a hollow tube made of lumber and they got screw jacks. You put these screw jacks in a vertical box and screwed that house and raised that house up to get it onto a truck.
Now, we didn’t bother that house unless that house needed something to structurally hold it together. The foundation was sitting there waiting for the house [to arrive]. We had concrete people, bricklayers, waiting. They’d bring the house in. The house two houses over is from Hinman south of Dempster.
DE: So how many houses were moved to the 5th ward?
RK: Hundreds. Oh, we’ve got communities of houses moved in.
HK: In the block we lived in there were six houses moved ... to the 2000 block of Dodge.
BK: This happened all their life from when they were born. In the late 20s, early 30s. Evanston’s west side was blowing up. And we’re talking the depression. In the middle of worst depression people were moving here in great numbers.
DE: Tell me about the idea of the Village.
RK: That was no idea. That was where we lived.
DE: How has it changed?
RK: We were neighbors.
HK: If you had a problem, it was everybody’s problem. And today, you don’t even know your neighbors. As kids, if you were in the street acting up, it was at your parents house before you got home. They knew about it. And by the time you got home, you knew what you were gonna get.
BK: And no homelessness. If someone found you were down in the dumps, you were living in somebody’s basement or stacked up somewhere. There was love, there was a kinship.
DE: What do you miss the most?
RK: I miss walking down the street speaking to people by name.
HK: You leave home, go to downtown Davis Street, you knew everybody that you passed. Now, you walk down Emerson Street or whatever, you don’t even know them.
BK: Familiarity, comfort, safety, being a part of, identifying with.
Remember how on Mothers’ Day you got flowers on the corner of Emerson and Dodge? ‘Come get your flowers for Mothers’ Day!’ As a little kid it was just, Oh my God.
HK: Mothers’ Day was special.
LW: I remember all them hats. A parade of hats. Hats and feathers.
… I miss the safety factor. I was never policed by police. I was policed by community. Ain’t no police on my block. The men were the police. They don’t play with me. I was so connected to this overall thing I knew better than taking a gun out in my yard, just shooting it the air would have caused...everybody in the neighborhood would have addressed it. Now people are scared to even confront children or call police. And the police don’t know the kids … so it’s just a disjointed village.
Which is my real want to try and find a way to rebuild it. I want to spend the rest of my life trying to figure it out. It was too beautiful. Just the smells and the sounds. I remember I could walk down Hovland Court and know which lady was cooking, frying, baking, whose house I’m stopping by. Oh my goodness!
I just remember the safety, how safe I felt, when you guys ran this community. I knew that if I was in trouble I could go to any house, any place because somebody knew who my family was; someone would look out for me.
HK: Families had gardens. What my folks had our neighbors didn’t have, so they’d switch with each other.
LW: And the fruit trees. When I was a kid, we’d go all around the neighborhood getting grapes, getting peaches, apples from whoever had a fruit tree growing in their yard.
HK: We had apples, we had grapevines, we had two pear trees, an apple tree ...
RK: Cherry tree, gooseberries, blackberries, rhubarb.
BK: Black raspberries.
REPAIRING THE VILLAGE
LW: How would you rebuild and repair this village you were raised in?
HK: That is hard.
RK: First of all you’d have to get the people’s attention. That’s difficult today.
HK: Everyone’s doing their thing going their separate way.
BK: And most of the time there must be an overriding reason for someone to help you, not just their spiritual values or that they care. That’s been lost. Their parents could create a village because everyone in the village was running from the same thing.
LW: But don’t you think that still exists for us?
BK: Yes, but it’s not accepted as such. Because I can disappear from the Black village and never look back and not be missed. Because of integration, in the best sense of the word, affording me the ability to go it alone to meet success our here as an individual, within reason. I don’t get the privileges that some others do, but I’m not angry. I’m in awe of where I come from and I want to try and get it back.
It boils down to you gotta get their attention, their interest.
LW: How can you bring village back?
BK: For me, it’s first making a connection with our people. There should be a connection with our elders. We should know who our elders are in our community. Those elders should be able to pick up a phone and say you know what, my gutter is spilling over, I need my gutters cleaned. There should be something in place for that. To help them where they need help.
We got a whole bunch of people coming home from penitentiary. We got a whole nobody as tradespeople. It’s time to bring trades back. It’s time to show the kids who want to. Because if this village is rebuilt it’s only going to be a few. I want to grab those few who want to do something. We need to care for one another. We need to open our arms and heal.
DE: [to Bruce and Lonnie] You both had major struggles in your lives. As you grew up, do you think you respected your elders?
BK: I was running. I was running and I was running. I was lost. I was lost because I didn’t get the mentorship I needed. He [Roy] gave me everything he could.
But there’s a component in my existence and I’m gonna use his words: 'from the pulpit to the pool room.' My family consists of all of it. My one grandfather was a hustler. Their father was an outstanding carpenter. My mom’s mom was an illiterate common worker. She was light enough to pass for white. As matter of fact, she did--so we could get clothes from places we couldn’t have gotten them from.
RK: Boy, she was something.
BK: She was an angel. But my dad’s mom was our rock. She set me straight. As I look back on my life, I have no regrets. I have a lot of remorse. For all that I destroyed and hurt. For all that I did not to live up to this guy’s dream. I have remorse, but not one regret. Because now I’m in the position to do something. I live it. I give from my heart. I’m in the hood trying to make it right, and I’m going to do that till I die.
I’m grateful to the simplicity of where I come from, but at same time I’m hurt because I’m up against some serious odds and ain’t a bunch of people running to help.
LW: I’ll be honest. I went to a party in 1997 and got back in 2009. And the only reason I was allowed to do this was my because parents and grandparents worked so hard and gave me such a strong platform to stand on. I disrespected that, and I shouldn’t have.
DE: Do you think the paths your lives took are a result of the pain of the past?
BK: How can you not have it? It’s never truly been admitted. We’re in a place where in the history of the world where do people who lose a war be glorified by statues. So yeah, where’s the 40 acres? Where’s the mule?
DE: Can you talk about racist incidents that have been directed toward you?
RK: I spent a lot of time avoiding being a part of anything like that.
DE: So you don’t have an equivalent of your dad having had to step off the sidewalk?
RK: No. very few people would buck me. I tried to do what I had to do, and to do it in such a way that race wasn’t a part of it. This is how it’s done....by anybody.
BK: I witnessed something when I was four or five that’s forever stuck with me.
My grandmother used to work for Northwestern University and they would go into the building at Sherman and Emerson to punch in, punch out, and change out of their work clothes. I was in the car with my mother to pick her up. And we were there late. It was like 7 … and as she was coming out … back then, Blacks had to be west of Sherman by 6:30 p.m. If you weren’t, you get your head whipped. And I saw that happen.
The police came up to a guy. Walking aimlessly. The officer pulled over and got out. No ‘Put your hands up,’ but he immediately started whaling on him with that stick.
Fast forward. I’m 17, going to college and we’re going over bridge to Mississippi State to watch a football game. A guy in the car had stolen my pistol. It didn’t have clip. We get stopped on the Mississippi Bridge. 4:30 in afternoon. The cop finds pistol and strips us all down to our drawers on that bridge that afternoon. ‘I’m gonna find that clip and you’ll go to tail.’ Well, he never found the clip. But yeah, that’s because we were black.
LW: My grandmother was 4’1.” We were at the Jewel on Chicago Ave. I was five or six. And my grandmother was putting groceries on the belt to be added up. A white lady gave her the elbow like she should move. My grandmother was a very feisty short woman. She’s not playing. And the lady says, 'Listen N--r lady, you gotta move.'
My grandmother reaches up and grabs her by the hair and she’s in there whaling on this woman. As a little kid I was like, What do I do? It’s like everything that ever bothered my grandmother came out on that poor lady. I ended up feeling sorry for the white lady. It was like she had a tiger on her head.
I’ve had white women hit their locks on me. Once it happened to me and I pulled up next to her and hit my lock. I was like, okay, let’s lock each other in.
BK: Yeah, doors, elevators. I’ll bet you this: I have never had anybody sit next to me on the train going into the city, except a Black person. Never have I EVER had a white person sit next to me on the El. And I’m 64 yrs old; been riding since I was 10.
Look. There’s only one race, the human race. I cannot find in me the hate that I’ve been given to give to someone else.
LW: This group of people we come from will sing about their pain. I can’t even imagine if that same amount of power had been used to hate, what kind of balck population you would have.
BK: It makes me think about the song Lift Every Voice and Sing.
Lift Every Voice and Sing By James Weldon Johnson, 1871 - 1938
Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the list’ning skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chast’ning rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed? We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, Out from the gloomy past, Till now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou who hast by Thy might, Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand, True to our God, True to our native land.
Ella Childs King died in 1963. Arthur Chester King died in 1967. Both died in Evanston and were buried in Waukegan.
"When my grandparents arrived in the area, circa 1915," explains Bruce, "segregation ruled the day, to the point that a Black person could not even be buried anywhere in this community or area. So, they bought plots up in Waukegan before the advent and opening of Sunset Burial Grounds in Glenview where the majority of early Black Evanstonians are buried today."
Thank you to the amazing Stephanie Saunders who met me at Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center on a cold, cold Saturday so I could record her singing Lift Every Voice and Sing. Watch the video and you'll hear her!
Read more about Arthur King, and Bruce's grandmothers written by Bruce King, in the Shorefront Journal and visit Shorefront Legacy Center for outstanding stories and information about the history of Evanston's Black community.