Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Bennett Johnson’s story, and others I’ve gathered over recent months, helped inform and inspire Tim Rhoze and Stephen Fedo, the writers of the play “A Home on the Lake.” The production, a collaboration between Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre and Piven Theatre Workshop, is a fictional story about race and property in Evanston, and runs from April 20 through May 20.
The idea for the play was sparked after Tim heard older Black Evanston residents remembering houses being moved--and Black residents being displaced--from white areas of Evanston in the 1940s to what is now the historically Black fifth ward.
I was honored and grateful to have spent a few hours with Bennett Johnson, drinking tea at Curt's Cafe South recently. He also took me on a drive to show me “his” Evanston--the Evanston where he grew up.
On our drive, as you’ll read, Bennett himself told me that he remembers a friend’s house being moved, and seeing another being moved, when he was about 11 years old. He told me so much more. Thank you, Bennett, for your willingness to share some of your many adventures and patiently answering my onslaught of questions.
Read a short story about Bennett’s life and excerpts from my interview with him below.
Listen to our tour of Evanston in the video.
Bennett Johnson, 89, is a walking encyclopedia of the Chicago (and national) civil rights movement, and the sports, music and literary scenes of his earlier days. Talking to him is like listening to a multi-chapter audio book about race, anger, activism, family, and history, with a twist of dry humor--read by the author.
Bennett is the middle child and only son of Kathryn Burnice Hill Johnson Casimere Samples and Bennett Jones Johnson. In 1931, recently separated, his mother brought two-year-old Bennett and his two sisters from Chicago to Evanston, where they lived with Bennett’s great-aunt and five boy cousins in Evanston’s Black fifth ward.
From Kindergarten to second grade, Bennett and his siblings attended Foster School, the city’s only Black school. The building, at 2010 Dewey Ave., is now home to Family Focus and a variety of nonprofit organizations.
When Bennett was seven, his parents reconciled. His father got a job working on the property of a wealthy businessman named George Bridges. The family moved from Dodge Street to the coach house of the Bridges’ mansion, which was located east of Sheridan Road on Milburn Street, right on the lake, and the Johnson children had to start a new school.
Bennett says his commitment to championing the rights and talents of African Americans began then, when he and his sisters were forced to walk a long way from the Bridges’ home to the integrated Noyes Elementary School (now the Noyes Cultural Arts Center), instead of going to all-white Orrington, the neighborhood school just blocks from the Bridge’s coach house.
“We would be walking to Noyes, and we’d pass white kids going to Orrington. And my first thought was, ‘if I was white I wouldn’t have to do this,’” Bennett told me one day as he drove me around “his” Evanston.
“And then I began to think. I said no! We got Joe Louis. We got Marian Anderson. We got Paul Robeson. They [white people] don’t know who we are, but I’m going to teach them who we are. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
In middle school at Haven, and at Evanston Township High School (ETHS), Bennett was an athlete: from age 12, he played semi-pro football with an adult league on Sundays, and he was a star football player on ETHS’ Junior Varsity team. Though he was an outstanding player, no Black students were allowed on the school’s Varsity team.
Bennett was devoted to football, and playing the game allowed him to release his aggression and channel the anger he felt at the injustices of racism. But ultimately it was the racism and discrimination of this very outlet that infuriated him: though he had excellent grades and could have attended the college of his choice, when he graduated from ETHS in 1946, he chose a small, historically Black college.
“When I left high school I was mad, I was just totally angry,” Bennet says. “I didn't want to go to school with white people, so I went to Paine College in Georgia. It was the best move I ever made, because although it was a small school, they played in a league that was fairly high class. Anyway, I got a big trophy for being the best all-around athlete. So I got my self-esteem back. It made me realize it wasn’t me, it was them. And the other thing it taught me--because then you had signs, ‘black only,’ ‘colored only,’ ‘white only'--I learned that the thing about the south is that they’re not subtle. They’re very direct about what you’re supposed to and what you’re not supposed to do.”
Stronger and more confident, Bennett left Paine in 1948 after three semesters, returned to Chicago, and attended Roosevelt University, a hotbed of civil rights activity and the only college in the area that did not have quotas for Jews and Blacks.
There he met friends, collaborators, and business partners including such notables as the writer Frank London Brown, Joe Segal, who founded the famous Jazz Showcase in the The Blackstone Hotel, Illinois Congressman Gus Savage, who Johnson calls “a genius, but dysfunctional, and not really much fun to be around,” and Congressman and Chicago Mayor Harold Washington who, at the time, was president of Roosevelt’s student council.
“Gus and I were thorns in Washington’s side,” Bennett says, “because we were radical students on the Student Council and he was its president and had to ally with the University. But we became fast friends.”
Bennett, who was a full-time student studying Chemistry, also held down a full-time job at the post office, but still managed to help organize a sit-in at a nearby restaurant that refused to serve Harold Washington. He also co-wrote the University’s first constitution--which stayed in place for the next 25 years--in one Saturday afternoon.
In January 1950, after falling asleep during an exam, Johnson, 21, was diagnosed with TB. He left his studies and spent till April of the following year at the Oak Park Sanitarium.
“I remember sitting there and looking out the window,” Bennett told me, “and I was surprised to see the world was going on without me. I had been busy doing so many different things, I thought the world couldn’t continue without me. It was quite humbling.”
When he recovered, Johnson headed for California and UCLA, for the better weather and because his father lived there. He was forced to switch majors from Chemistry to English because TB had left him unable to be around Benzine gas.
Bennett was the President of the Board of UCLA’s NAACP branch, and It was at the 1956 NAACP national convention, held at the University, that he met Dr. Ralph Abernathy and Dr. Martin Luther King. They kept in touch in the years that followed, and Bennett played a key role in facilitating the famous meeting between King and Elijah Muhammad in 1966.
Johnson graduated from UCLA with a BA in English, a minor in science, and a concentration in education. After graduation, Bennett got a job with Douglas Aircraft as a riveter.
“I was the only Black doing anything skilled,” he says. “And then I got tonsillitis. When I got well, I’d lost my job.”
His next job--which he worked from 6 a.m. every Friday through 6 a.m. on Monday--was as a probation counselor just north of LA, working with kids ages 16 to 21 with indeterminate sentences. During the week, he’d spend his time hanging out in the office of attorney Herbert Simmons (“he had a very pretty niece who was his secretary,” Bennett laughs), also known as the Clarence Darrow of Central Avenue, whom he’d met through the Los Angeles NAACP, where Bennett was the student representative on the board.
“So what happened,” Bennett says, “is that Herb asked me to investigate police brutality out in Watts. So I went out to this club where all this stuff was taking place, and within a couple of weeks I got 150 valid depositions. There were these three white policemen who would constantly show up.
Every night. And they’d accuse Black men of being drunk when they weren’t, and take them in. That was their pattern. So my friend was a filmmaker, and we climbed onto the roof with a camera and filmed through the skylight. That’s how we got the evidence. So we sued the police for $5 million in 1956. That was a big number.
In 1957, Bennett returned to Chicago--he and his Roosevelt friends lived in Cabrini Green--and began to teach English, and, he says, manners, at Farragut High School. That year, Ralph Abernathy contacted him to ask him to arrange a meeting for King in Chicago with a wealthy couple who supported civil rights. Johnson drove King around and even played a game of pool with him in Evanston.
Johnson started the Chicago League of Negro Voters in 1958, which later became Protest at the Polls, a group that advocated electing Blacks to city positions. He closely advised Harold Washington through his career in Congress, his mayoral campaign, and his time as Chicago’s first Black mayor.
In 1961, Johnson co-founded Path Press Inc. -- the country’s first Black-owned publishing house--along with Gus Savage, and authors Herman Gilbert and Frank London Brown. He also organized the first Black-owned real estate investment, trust, Merit Trust.
In 1966, Bennett acted as the primary liaison for the historic meeting between Elijah Muhammad and Dr. Martin Luther King.
In later years, he worked as a consultant, which had him traveling to Teheran with Muhammad Ali during the U.S. embargo, consulting with the government of Lesotho, and, in 2008, he was named Uganda’s Honorary Consul General to the Midwest. He was also the first President of the Evanston Minority Business Consortium, and in May 2000, he founded and published the The Evanston Sentinel Newspaper, which focused on news about and by African Americans.
I can’t possibly include all the fascinating details of Bennett’s life in a Facebook post--this one is way be too long as it is. In the meantime, here are some highlights of Bennett’s adventures, in his own words, as he took me on his tour of Evanston!
Borders and Boundaries--a Tour of Evanston with Bennett Johnson
I met Bennett one afternoon, in the parking lot opposite the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center, on the corner of Church and Dodge. And right there, he shared this first piece of history with me--about Dr. William “Doc” Morrison, one of the men after whom the center is named [Thomas Gibbs, the other honoree, owned a gas station on the corner of Church Street].
BJ: Yeah, Doc Morrison. He was a pharmacist. His first place was on the corner of Lyons and Darrow. And we used to hang out there, on the steps of his pharmacy. Then he moved over here.
DE: And when you used to hang out here, was it to get sodas and things?
BJ: Yeah, and just to sit and talk. The bad kids were the ones that smoked cigarettes. Seriously.
DE: Were you one of those?
BJ: No, no, I didn’t smoke. I was a big-time athlete. So I only drank, I didn’t smoke. I didn’t do that for football team.
[Pointing out the window] Anyway, this was the border line [Church Street]. Black folks lived on the south side. The first guy to move on the north side of Church Street was Doc Morrison. He bought a house on the other side of the high school. Can’t remember what year it was, but William Morrison broke the barrier.