Happy birthday, Mr. King!


Dear Evanston,

Yesterday, well-known lifelong Evanston resident Roy King celebrated his 91st birthday. In his honor, I'm reposting an interview I did with Mr. King, his sister Harriet, his son and devoted caregiver Bruce Allen King, and Lonnie Wilson on a cold winter night in December 2018.

Happy birthday, Mr. King!

LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING: Evanston's Elders and Rebuilding the Village

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.

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. You can watch the whole discussion below.

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.

“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 seven children, each two years apart: Arthur, Jr.; Mildred; Richard; Bette; John; Roy; and Harriet. Arthur worked as a carpenter and Ella as a dometic 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.’”

SCHOOL

The King children attended Foster School at 2010 Dewey, which Harriet calls ‘the red brick house,’ now the home of Family Focus Evanston. 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.

FAMILY LIFE

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 any