Shorefront Legacy Center is tucked in the basement of Evanston's Sherman United Methodist Church, which is set back from the street near the corner of Ridge Avenue and Noyes Street. There's no big sign to let you know you've arrived, and from the outside, you'd never know that this is the spot that's filled choc-a-block with local Black history--including archives, a library, and a gallery. It's one of Evanston's (and the North Shore's) best-kept secrets, and time that secret was out.
Morris "Dino" Robinson, an ETHS grad who is a production manager at Northwestern University Press by day and a graphic designer by training, founded Shorefront in 1995 (it gained nonprofit status in 2002), after he began researching the history of African Americans in Evanston and six other communities along the North Shore and found little, if any, documented information about their more than 150-year history here.
Photo: Dino at Shorefront on the day of our visit
Since then, Dino has devoted his talent, time, and energy to gathering stories, photos, facts, artifacts, and memorabilia from local African American residents--many of whose parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and other family members escaped oppressive economic conditions, lynchings and other horrors of the south--who settled in Evanston and the North Shore during the Great Migration. Today, Shorefront is the place and Dino your man if you want to know anything and everything about Black history on the North Shore.
Dino is an archivist, advocate, activist and teacher. He's written many of the stories and family biographies in Shorefront's Journal. Last year he presented before the Evanston Preservation Commission and the Evanston City Council to call for the Family Focus building (formerly Foster School) at 2010 Dewey St. to receive landmark status to protect it from being sold or demolished (the status was granted).
And he, along with Shorefront board member Steve Lemieux-Jordan, recently produced A Life Worthwhile, the 45-minute-long documentary about Evanston's first Black mayor, the late Lorraine Morton. The documentary debuted last June, just three months before Mayor Morton died at age 99.
I've known Dino for about three years, and one Saturday, we sat down in Shorefront's Rose Jourdain room to chat about his life, his labor of love, his dreams for the future of Shorefront, and his opinions about a variety of Evanston issues.
I realized that ... we're part of American history. We're not a subset of history.
And that stayed with me."
Of course, the first thing I wanted to know was how Shorefront came to be, so Dino took me back to one hot summer day in South Carolina in 1981--he had just turned 14--when his family was visiting his grandparents in South Carolina.
"I think that was my pivotal moment," Dino told me.
"You know it’s 102 degrees outside, 104 degrees inside. They didn’t believe in air conditioning, so I had a hot fan blowing on me. It’s a rural part of South Carolina. You can go down to the creek and fish if you want to. You can ride a bike. We had a TV, but it was just three channels. I Love Lucy marathons running all day long," he remembers.
"I was in that heated living room and my grandmother had this bookcase. And it had about 14 photo albums in it. I just picked one up and started leafing through it. And she had a photo album for each of her siblings, and one for herself. She had one for her husband. She had one for various groups, like general family history, as well. So, I was going through these photo albums. You know, just something to do.
"My grandmother was in the kitchen doing her dishes, and folding aluminum foil, and getting her candy out of her drawer, and saw what I was doing. And she dried off her hands and sat next to me, turned back to the first page and said, 'This is your great-great grandfather. This is what he did on the docks in South Carolina.' And that just opened up my world.
"And the stories behind each photo. What it taught me is that we are a lot more that the narrative I had learned till then at school, basically that we were once slaves and King freed us, summed up in one or two pages out of 300 in the history book. I realized that we're a lot more than that. We're part of American history. We're not a subset of history. And that stayed with me."
Dino's extended family in Sandy Springs, SC, on his grandparents land. Dino standing front, second from left. To the right is Dino's younger brother Warren. His grandmother stands behind Dino and his grandfather sits in front. The summer Dino's grandmother shared her family photo albums.
Here's more of our conversation, edited for length.
DE: Tell me a little about your family.
DR: My roots are in South Carolina and Missouri. My maternal grandmother was born and raised in South Carolina outside of Anderson, in a place called Sandy Springs. My grandmother and her siblings moved to Chicago during high school and she lived here, got married. After my grandfather retired, they went back to South Carolina to live on land they purchased right next to the original homestead land.
My father was born in Missouri, but most his family was from Chicago and he grew up on the west side of Chicago and in Maywood.
My mom went to Englewood High and my dad went to Marshall High. They met when they were in college, and married. My dad was drafted into the army and stationed in Italy on a military base, where we lived for nearly three years. We came back to Chicago, then we moved to Glenview. I went to Pleasant Ridge Elementary, then Springman Junior High. We moved to Evanston in 1980, and I finished middle school at Nichols and then went to ETHS.
Dino, with his mom in Italy.
DE: You lived in Glenview.
DR: Yes. In Glenview. I integrated my school. That was fun.
DE: Tell me about that.
DR: That was during the ’70s and, you know, I ran the gamut with race-relation type things. I had teachers telling me I was unable to learn because I’m Black. And another teacher trying to convince my parents that I need to see a psychologist or psychiatrist because 'there’s something wrong with him.'
So, yeah. But I had enough awareness about myself that I knew something was not wrong with me, it was something wrong with them.
My first exposure to racism was in kindergarten. And it was pretty direct. It wasn’t anything subtle, it was a kid that came and kicked me in the stomach and said, 'N----rs aren’t allowed to play with the toys.'
DE: What did you do?
DR: I shut down that day. The teacher was a few feet away from me. She kind of turned her head. Because I looked to her like, 'What’s going to happen? What do I do?' She said nothing. I didn’t tell my parents what happened till years later. But also, that shaped me in many ways. I cried when I got home.