Updated: Jul 22, 2020
Catherine "Kitty" Johnson looked up at the more than 800 looming six-foot steel monuments hanging down from the ceiling at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Each monument was hard and cold, rusty-red--like dried blood, like earth. Each bore the name of a county, a state, and a list of names and dates: the names of more than 4,400 men, women, and children who were lynched from 1877 to 1950, mostly in the 11 former confederate states, with Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana among the deadliest.
And then Kitty saw the monument for Richmond County, Augusta, Georgia.
And a realization swept through her.
"My dad's name could have been engraved on this monument."
Kitty was one of 100 Evanston residents who went to Montgomery, Alabama on Dear Evanston's Uncomfortable Journey to visit The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial this past September.
On the bus returning to Evanston, Kitty cried as she shared a small part of her dad's story--how, in 1931 aged 12, Charles Williams fled his grandmother's house in Augusta for Evanston by train, aided by his uncle who was a railway porter [and, it turns out, father of world-famous Evanston-born musician Junior Nance].
He had punched a white boy in the nose following a game of marbles (Charles won, the other boy demanded his lost marbles back, Charles refused). Later that afternoon, as the boy's father and the sheriff approached the house, Charles' grandmother--knowing what terrible fate could be in store for her grandson--hid him under the porch and made hurried plans for him to leave town.
I sat down with Kitty, a beloved retired Evanston/Skokie School District 65 teacher, in her apartment on Lyons Street just before Thanksgiving, to hear the story in more detail and to learn about her family's life in Evanston.
Charles, who came to be known as "Speed" because of his athletic prowess, died in 1982.
I hope you'll take the time to watch the video: Charles' story, Catherine's story, they're stories of love and determination in the face of overt and systemic racism in Evanston.
Here are some takeaways:
**At age 12, Charles evaded possible lynching in Georgia**
He fled Georgia by train for fear of being lynched for punching a white boy in the nose.
"He never went back," Kitty said. "We would always ask, 'Dad why you never want to go back?' And he'd tell us, 'Ain't never lost nothin' in Georgia.'"
[He eventually went back for a family reunion the year before he died].
** He experienced racism at ETHS**
Charles was an outstanding middle-school and high-school athlete, but refused to play sport at Evanston Township High School (ETHS) because Black athletes couldn't change in the locker rooms.
"My father felt some racism here, but he loved Evanston. He said there was no better place to raise a family," Kitty says. "But he had some drawbacks that he did not let us know until we were grown. My father had so much pride, and he was his worst enemy. He played sports for the city of Evanston. But never over in the high school. He said he refused to do that."
**He experienced racism at work**
Charles was a WWII veteran trained in mechanical engineering, but when he got home he was denied the job he wanted at Glenview Air Base because he was Black.
He used the GI bill to go back to college. Afterwards, he worked a job at a store on Central Street, but soon found out that his white co-worker was making more money.
"He quit. He walked off the job," Kitty says. "He said 'No, I won’t take this.' It was very heartbreaking to him that they looked at him, you know, his color."
To make money, Charles drove a cab, then worked for Rustoleum driving a truck, and his last job was as and inspector for the City of Evanston.
**He faced racism in heathcare**
Charles was an outstanding baseball player who played for semi-pro Evanston team The Thrashers. He was scouted from there to play in the Negro Leagues.
One Sunday, during a Thrasher's game at Foster Field, Charles broke his neck when he collided with another player. He was rushed to Community Hospital, the only hospital in Evanston that treated Black patients.
Kitty was eight years old.
"I was frightened. He was lying there in a semi-coma," she remembers. "They kept him there for a couple of days and then Dr. Hill called Evanston Hospital and said, 'There's nothing more we can do for him. We're not equipped.'"
Black hospitals frequently had far fewer supplies and less technology than white hospitals.
"Dr. Hill asked if he could be transported there," Kitty says. "And they would not admit him."
Realizing that he was a veteran, Dr. Hill arranged to have Charles transported by ambulance to Heinz Veteran Hospital, where he was treated, ironically, by a white doctor who, ironically, lived in Evanston, who Kitty says saved her dad's life.
"You would never know he had been paralyzed," she says.
**Racism in housing**
Kitty grew up in Evanston's Veteran Homes, housing units that were brought down from the Great Lakes Military Base to address the severe housing shortage that followed the war.
There were 12 units in the 5th ward for Black veteran families--Kitty's family first lived at 1719 Payne Street and later moved to 2150 Dewey--and 100 units for white families on the other side of Greenbay Road.
"We knew that there weren’t any Black people living in north Evanston. I think there was one family that lived in north Evanston, I think it was on Brown Street on the other side of the canal. But we knew that Black people couldn’t buy property," Kitty says. "I knew I lived in the 5th Ward, but that’s where all my friends and family were."
**Kitty talks about the vibrancy of the Black community and the effects of desegregation**
She reminisces about Black-owned stores, like Flemings, Gary Brothers, Wemberly Cleaners, and Mr. Watkins' grocery store--a southern style store with sawdust on the floor and big barrels of pickles--the Emerson Street YMCA (which was established because Black residents were denied membership to the main YMCA), the Swedish Hall, which hosted famous bandleaders and dances, and the Masonic Temple.
"We had a very nice neighborhood. But when integration came, that was when we kind of went ... this way," Kitty gestures by spreading her hands apart.
She tells me how, in 1967 when her oldest son was headed to kindergarten, he was going to be bused to Lincolnwood School, even though the family lived two blocks from Foster School. By that time Foster had become King Lab, and kids had to apply to get in. Kitty's son wasn't accepted.
"I did not want my son going across the canal being bused to Lincolnwood, I'll be honest," Kitty says. "You figure they're five years old. That was too much. We took all the burden [of desegregation]. That was what was bad about it."
**Kitty talks about racism in policing**
I asked Kitty how much she thought things have changed or stayed the same in Evanston. She raised the issue of police/community relations.
"You know, you give The Talk to your sons. I was so nervous with [my younger son] because he liked to prove his point. He did it with us, in a very respectful way, but, you know I had to give him The Talk.
"And parents still have to give their Black sons The Talk: when you leave the house, you have to act a certain way, and this and that," she explains.
"I still think we have problems with police--white and Black policemen--the way they approach Black males, you know. There’s a long way to go."
Would Charles Williams have been lynched?
We'll never know.
But could he have been lynched?
Did he escape violent racism by coming to Evanston and did he make a good life for his family in the 5th ward?
But were his dreams and aspirations--and his children's, and their children's--thwarted by redlining and other racist policies and practices in Evanston?