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.
DE: But you didn’t say why.
DR: My parents didn’t see me cry. I kind of kept it to myself, went to bed and cried a bit, and I got mad. I thought, I’m crying too much. And that kid and nobody has any right to call me that and do that to me.
DE: You knew that.
DR: Yeah. And from that day on I said nobody’s going to get away with it again. I figure it could've gone three ways: I could’ve become reclusive and have it affect me in that way; I could’ve been extremely angry and rebellious and act out; or I could empower myself. And I chose to empower myself. I kind of knew inherently to stand up for myself. That’s what I saw my dad do. I mean, he was strong, you know, he was working in corporate. Vice President of a bank at one point. My mom was a schoolteacher. So, she was always about education.
The daily activity was, my dad comes home. The first thing after talking to mom was to come up to us and say, 'Let me check your homework.' 'Your standards are too low, you need to raise your standards. That's what defines who you are.' So, you know, that was repeated over and over and over again through our education and career. Now, were we stellar students? No, not exactly. We all struggled. I had my strengths and my weaknesses like every kid does. I was interested in arts. So, I did a lot of creative stuff.
Dino (left), age 6, his dad, Morris Sr., and Dino's little brother Warren in front of Dino's grandparents home in Englewood, Chicago.
DE: Where did you go to college?
DR: Loyola University Chicago. And then my profession was in advertising design. But my second interest was history.
DE: So going back to you childhood visit to South Carolina. After your grandmother told you about the people in those photo albums, you said it stayed with you. What do you mean?
DR: At school, I started questioning things. I remember specifically taking a test. You know, Christopher Columbus discovered America. And I’m like, wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense. How do you discover something where people were already there? I really started looking at alternate views of a story line. So as I’m reading, and we’re supposed to be learning what we’ll be tested on, I’m asking questions between the lines: this doesn’t make sense; and who's telling the story?
DE: Did you get into trouble?
DR: Yeah, on the Christopher Columbus one I got in trouble. I said, he did not discover America. And the teacher, I remember, she yelled at me for being a smart ass. And I said, 'I’m not trying to be a smart ass, I’m trying to learn something. It doesn’t make any sense to me how you’re saying that Christopher Columbus ...' And she cut me off and said, 'That’s what’s in the history book, that’s what in the lesson plan. That’s what you better put down or I’m marking it wrong.' So I said, 'I'll get it marked wrong then, because he did not discover it.'
DE: And what did the other kids say?
DR: They were kind of quiet and they kept their heads down. But I knew I’d get it wrong and I'd rather, just for integrity, I’d rather have it wrong knowing that I’m right.
DE: I had never, until very recently, heard of Juneteenth. I mean, I’ve lived in this country since 1978, when I was 15. No-one ever taught me what Juneteenth was.
DR: Juneteenth is more heavily celebrated in the south than the north. So, it’s catching on in the north more and more. And you know the reason why it’s Juneteenth?
DE: Because it’s June the 19th and it was the Emancipation Proclamation --
DR: But it also took several days for various areas of the south to get that information. So, there’s no exact date when slaves actually knew they were free. They just knew it was the in teens, around that time. So, they say Juneteenth.
DE: Aren’t you frustrated that more people don’t know this?
DR: I’m frustrated on many levels. But I also still know it’s important to continue the struggle with it. I know within the communities that we do reach, they’re extremely grateful that Shorefront is here.
What’s interesting is that other communities, other states, recognize Shorefront and organizations recognize us more than our own home town where Shorefront is housed. You would think that this is a gold mine. Other institutions have given us awards for what we’re doing and some places treat us like the model institution of what a community archive should look like and how it should operate. Our philosophy with Shorefront is kind of multi-level. One is to present Black history as American history, because that’s what it is.
The second thing I really try hard on is that the Black community needs to own and control its message. And sometimes I’ve gotten into interesting, meaning heated, discussions about diversity in Evanston. And the one thing that comes up from whites all the time is well, Evanston was the first to desegregate schools. I’m like yeah, well, the writing was on the wall. We had no choice.
DE: So, tell me more about controlling the message.
DR: Well it's not so much that, as who knows the real history. So, even me being a newcomer to Evanston for example ... I've been here for 30 years, but I'm still considered a newcomer. I wasn’t born here. I don’t have ancestry here. It took a while for people to trust me.
There are families that have been here for multiple generations, who themselves don't realize the impact their ancestry had here. Some do. But there are some kids now who have no idea that their great grandfather did XYZ. They may have heard something their parents said, but they didn’t pay no mind. Kids listen, but they’re not soaking it in until it gets to a point where, say, their mother and father die. They had a grave illness, and all of a sudden, it's, 'Oh my God, I got to learn my family history.' Like yeah, you should’ve been talking about this since you were a kid.
What we get challenged on a lot is the accuracy of the history. Like someone will say, 'So-and-so was the first Black police officer in 1930.' And I’ll say, 'Yeah but what about the person 1898?' So, what we’re trying to do is create a more comprehensive timeline.
DE: Was there a black police officer in 1898?
William Logan, Evanston's first Black police chief
DE: So, the first thing is to present Black history as American history. The second is controlling the message. And the third?
DR: The third is building an archive, so there’s a permanent record. Sometimes I get these fun phone calls: 'I hear you do this history stuff and you have no information on so-and-so. Why don’t you have that information?' I say, 'Well we can’t conjure it out of thin air. So, do you know about him or her? They'll say, 'Yeah, I grew up with them.' I ask, 'You have any information on them?' 'Oh yeah, I do,' they say. I ask them, 'Would you like to share it?' 'No, I wouldn't,' they say. Well, then how are we supposed to know?
So, we do a lot of education in the community. We really advocate for families to care for their own history. And we give you points and tips for how to do that. We encourage elders to give over information to the younger generation. Not just like, you can come over and look at it. But hand it over to them. Make them responsible for something. Teach them along the way and pass it on. Don’t wait till that last person dies and then you’re in the house and you have all these things and you have no idea what they are. And then you just toss them because you have no idea what they are.
So, we're building an archive so people can come back and do research and look into what the Black community was like in the northern suburbs. Now we have firsthand documentation from families who are donating things to the archives.
DE: And who comes here?
DR: People from all over the country. We have scholars that have come here to work on their books, their dissertations, their articles. Sometimes it’s over the phone. I helped the author Rachel Swarns who wrote the book American Tapestry, about Michelle Obama’s family history. And she asked general questions about Evanston, the makeup of Evanston, Black Evanston specifically.
She reached out to some other descendants of Evanston who were directly related to Michelle Obama. And it turns out that Obama's great-grandmother lived in Evanston in the 1920s. And whose to say that she wouldn't have stayed here if we did not basically decimate that whole community, the community where she lived over by Haven School, a Black community. And at one point, the residents there were told they had one week to vacate or their house would get leveled.
That’s where Michelle's great-grandmother lived. She and her husband had a shoe repair shop.
DE: So, there was an African American community around Haven.
DR: Around the 1920s. What we see today wasn’t Evanston 100 years ago. We had pockets of communities throughout. Everybody lived everywhere, so it wasn’t like a Jewish community, a German community, a Polish community, a white community. Of course on the lakefront were the wealthier houses.
DE: Blacks were not allowed to live among whites. Jews weren’t either.
DR: Well, some were. There were some pockets--at Forest Avenue and Dempster--there was a Black community there.
DE: And then they redlined.
DR: Yeah. Basically, just redlined everything. There were different ways they did it. Some real estate agents refused to sell to Blacks and Jews and Polish and Germans in certain areas. They upped the standards of housing codes, so if you were Black and living on the lakefront, they'd tell you, 'This house doesn't have indoor plumbing. You have to put indoor plumbing in now.'
So you go to the bank to try and get a bank loan to do it. But banks weren't going to lend me any money to do that. So, then you're forced to sell the house below market value. And when you want to buy a new house, the real estate agent says, 'Well, we can sell you a new house, but not over here. You can live over there, take it or leave it. Or just get out of Evanston all together.' There have been articles about pushing Blacks out of Evanston.
DE: Many Black people say that’s happening now.
DR: Well, there’s always discussion about it. You know the word: 'gentrification.' And there’s some real strong evidence of how that's happened. It’s a model of 'Let’s transform this community to make it ours. Let’s put up the Starbucks and we’ll go into this home nearby and immediately do major renovations so that way their property tax jumps up.' And because their property tax jumps up, all the surrounding houses' taxes go up as well.