Jerome Summers is a big man with a big personality and an oversized laugh. At 62, he has been homeless twice and hungry often. He has been hurt by racism, helped by hustlers, and has hustled himself. Born and raised in Evanston, he is the son, grandson, and brother of city council members and was elected to the board of Evanston/Skokie School District 65 twice.
He is an entrepreneur, a writer, a storyteller (his book, Parables from the Outskirts of Polite Society, is part autobiography and part self-help), and a survivor. He has lived in five states and traveled abroad, but he has always called Evanston’s fifth ward home.
I interviewed Jerome as part of Piven Theatre Workshop and Fleetwood-Jourdain
Theatre’s collaboration, A Home on the Lake, which explores--through a fictional story partly informed and inspired by Dear Evanston's interviews with Evanston residents--the history of race and property in Evanston and the concept of home (Click here for tickets). The play was written by Fleetwood-Jourdain's Tim Rhoze and Piven's Stephen Fedo.
We met at Family Focus Evanston, a building of historic and current significance to Evanston’s Black community. Before desegregation in the late 1960s, the building was Foster School, the all-Black school in Evanston.
The building, which is itself home to so many Black families, is at risk of being sold out of the community. Jerome is part of a group of community members who are determined to purchase it and ensure that it remains of and for the community.
We talked about Jerome's life, race in Evanston, his book, and the meaning of home.
DE: How long has your family been in Evanston?
JS: My family’s been in the 5th Ward since 1890s. My great-grandfather came from South Carolina. A lot of the older black families are from there. I think he was the first Black city worker and there’s a picture of him with a horse and a great big wagon. I think he was a garbage man.
My grandfather was the first Black committeeman in the state of Illinois. He was Ward Chairman in the 5th Ward when the 5th Ward was the only Democratic ward in Evanston.
I remember people used to come to our house and say, ‘Will you help us get lights at this park? Or get this street paved, or get somebody a job, or help somebody get out of jail.’ My mother was a three-term alderman and township supervisor.
My brother was a two-term alderman in the 5th Ward also. I’ve been elected to the D65 Board twice myself.
My mother was born two blocks away [from Family Focus, at 2010 Dewey] in 1900 block of Jackson. My grandfather lived on the 1900 block of Asbury. I was born at Community Hospital three blocks away from here on Brown and Simpson, as were a lot of us.
There are a lot of families, a lot of Black families that have been in Evanston for 60, 80, 100 years, and this place [Family Focus] is home to all of us. This is the place where you come for counsel, for comfort. It’s a safe place. And the last thing that should happen is that we lose this place in our community.
DE: You went to Foster School. What grade did it go to?
It went from kindergarten to 6th grade. I got integrated for one year, I went to Lincolnwood [School] for one year. I never knew racism before that. We were always the jewel of our community. Brightness and hope for the future for everybody we ever saw. Teachers wouldn’t allow you to fail. ‘A, B, C, do it again, come to my house on Saturday, stay here another year but we will not send you to Haven and have Orrington and Lincolnwood teachers tell us we can’t teach.' They were not having that, period.
And not only that but everybody, everybody from this whole community, the Black community, went to school here. From the canal to the Church Street. And from Green Bay to the canal. You knew every yard you could cut through. Every mean lady that would keep your ball. Every good apple tree. Everybody waving out their windows. People walked their dogs, people who were at the bus stop, everybody’s older and younger brothers and sisters.
And now these kids in this very same neighborhood go to eight or 10 different schools. And it destroys our neighborhood. When children don’t know each other, then parents don’t know each other. And everybody’s a stranger in their own neighborhood. And it shows up as McDonald’s bags on your sidewalk, or kids that curse in front of you and might curse at you. It shows up as fights in high school and even after that maybe with people who shoot you.
DE: So what’s changed in the community?
JS: Integration. At first it was integration. But for 40 years, for a very, very long time, it’s just been desegregation. Integration is like this: black kids getting bused out—white kids getting bused in. Which is what happened here at first. But then when they closed the school and moved it to King Lab over on Lake Street, then it became desegregation— one way, one way, one way. And these children around here are never the jewel of our community or brightness and hope for the future for everybody they see. Which is a travesty as far as I’m concerned.
DE: As a Black man who has lived in Evanston and traveled abroad, what’s been your experience with racism?
JS: It’s the water we swim in. You know, it’s pervasive. Yes, every Black man’s been followed around in a store, stopped by the police for something. Maybe had guns pulled on you. Maybe been thrown in jail. I’ve been in jail few times. You know, sucks too.
But I got integrated [to Lincolnwood School]. The principal didn’t want us there, teachers didn’t want us there. The parents didn’t want us there. The saving grace is that the kids were great. They were just kids like we were kids. They were funny and curious and clean, just like we were.
There was one teacher I had would put me out in the hallway every single time. She came twice a week; twice a week I’m out in the hallway. ‘You’re chewing gum, you’re talking in class. You’re reading when you should be looking at me. Out in the hallway.’
Another teacher, I was out in the hallway, and said, ‘Do you have a pass to be in the hall?’ ‘No, I do not.’ ‘Go on down to the principal.’ ‘Okay fine, I haven’t done anything.’
I go to the principal. she says, ‘Summers, you’re a problem child.’ And I said, ’No ma’am, I am not a problem child. I went to Foster School. I was a patrol boy. I always got good grades. I said the Pledge of Allegiance in front of the school two or three times. I am not a problem child. The only difference between me now and then is three months over the summer and coming here. I’m not a problem child. You’re my problem. This place is my problem.’
Now I’m 11 years old, okay, but I was very clear about who I am and where I’m from. And this place, this place right here where we’re sitting right now, phenomenal foundation. She couldn’t tell me I was a problem child, I didn’t believe it. And I got kicked out. First time I ever got kicked out of school.
And you know, my mother had to come back, and my mother, God bless her, she just told me, ’Don’t say anything. Let me do the talking,’ which she did. I’d never had teachers lie on me until then. When I ran for Board of Education, I went to every single school except that one. For some reason I would pull into the parking lot and just leave. That was 30 years later, 40 years later. It just, you know, I didn’t want to go in there.
This building, this campus actually, because I think of Family Focus and Fleetwood-Jourdain in the same breath, to lose one of them would be horrific. It’s like cutting off an arm or a leg, really. This place, it’s in the fabric of our community.
DE: What do you do as a profession?
JS: Lately I’ve been writing. But I’ve done many, many things. I started my first business when I was 17.
DE: What did you do?
JS: I was given these old ladies facials. They were like 30 years old [laughs]. Let’s see, I paid my first year of college shooting pool.
My first year I went to Morris Brown College in Atlanta. I finished at Alabama A & M University. I paid my second year—I’d rent a carpet cleaner, three carpets — 35 dollars. My junior year I painted addresses on curbs—seven dollars a pop. And my senior year I had a landscaping business. So, I thought I went to school to get a degree. What I learned is how to take care of myself with or without a job, that’s what I learned.
DE: And I know you’ve been homeless.
JS: Twice. I mean it sucks. Yeah, I’ve been homeless, I’ve been hungry. The first time I was in college I slept in my car and made a deal with a guy who owned a gas station. I’ll clean both bathrooms if you let me park my car here and sleep. And he was lazy, but to me it was hot and cold running water, electricity. I could wash my clothes, iron my clothes. It was light so I could study at night, and a safe place to sleep.
I didn’t have money for college, but more importantly than that, I was not living a honorable life for a while. I came from a good family. I mean, I knew better, just totally ignored all that good home-training I had.
And one year between 19 and 20, I was a pallbearer at three of my friends’ funerals in one year. All of them drug- or alcohol-related. And at the third one’s funeral, I’d saved his life when we were like 10 years old, at his funeral it was just too painful.
But for an instant, I was at the repast and I just blanked for an instant, and I see three drops, one, two, three. They land between my feet and from God’s mouth to my ears I heard, ‘Straighten up your life or you’re the next one in line.' And then everybody was back. It took me decades before I told anybody about it because it sounds too fantastical, you know what I mean.
Three days later, I moved 800 miles away.
DE: What drew you to, as you say, the dishonorable life?
JS: Well, I was a very sickly child. I almost died a couple times. So when I got healthy I just wanted to live. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. Do everything one time, go where I wanted to go, do what I wanted to do, and that’s what I did. I mean I wasn’t aiming at anybody. I wasn’t robbing and stealing and selling drugs, but I was doing other things I had no business doing.
DE: So you left and went to college.
JS: Yes. Three days later. I hadn’t even applied. A new school year was just starting. I told my parents, I said, I’m going to school. I had moved out of home two or three years before that when I was 18. I was 21, that was my 21st birthday. And so I just looked at some catalogues and went.
And so I lived on campus for three or four days, hated it. Cause I’d had had my own apartment, two 10-speed bicycles, a nice car, making $20,000 a year before I went to college. And then I’m in this little tiny room with this other guy and shared a communal bathroom with 30 other guys.
DE: And after college did you come back to Evanston?
JS: No. I lived in five states. I lived in Georgia, Alabama, which is where I finished college. Texas, I lived there for nine years. Then I came back here. My parents were getting older and sicklier, but my father and I didn’t get along well, so you know, God bless him, but we couldn’t make it.
So I started some retail shops and moved to Wisconsin and I ultimately had four retail shops, and then when he died I came back. I took care of my mother for five years, my ex-wife and I. She loved my mother. My mother loved her, and she took fantastic care of my mother. And then I bought the house. The place I couldn’t wait to get away from, I bought that house.
DE: And you mentioned to me before that you’ve been shot.
JS: I was young and stupid, you know, what can I say. A fight broke out [at a party]. I was standing there looking and then this guy pulled out a gun. Instead of leaving like I was supposed to … a fight breaks out, you know, leave. Guy pulled out a gun, then he looked right at me. That’s when I ran. You know, just in time to be too late. And he shot me.
DE: Did you go to the hospital?
JS: No, I came home. I talked to my father. My father was a grizzled World War II veteran. My old man was rough cut from the word go. I said, ‘dad, I got shot.’ I showed him my bloody leg. He said, ‘That’s what you get for messing with those people’s wives,’ and we cracked up laughing. That’s not what happened at all. But, you know, he was kind of smart-alecky like that. Man, we cracked up laughing.
So, he said, ‘You want to go to the hospital?’ I said, ‘No, if I go to the hospital they got to call the police.’ Well there’s not a Black man in America wants to get involved with the criminal justice system if they don’t have to.
So, we went to Walgreen’s, got razor blades, tweezers, gauze, tape. Back to the back yard and he said, ‘Be patient son. I want you to cut at this angle, go in this way. If you feel this or that, stop.’ And I’m thinking, wow he’s done this before.
I mean nobody imagines their father doing field surgery, you know what I mean. But if you think about it, on D-Day Omaha Beach there were 3,000 people dead before lunchtime. Not only that, but I realized that, I mean I’ve seen his body a 100 times, and some of the scars on his body were wounds like my bullet wound. I didn’t know that until then. Not only that, but I’d never seen such a look of concern for me on his face. I was like, whoa, maybe he does, you know, give a rat’s butt about me.
DE: So your dad was there for you.
JS: Absolutely. So I cut, he dug. It seemed like it took a long time, it didn’t take, probably two or three minutes. But it really hurt really bad.
And finally he comes out with this bullet and the tweezers, right. And I could see the relief on his face, and he held it up and with a hint of a smile he said, 'Be careful son.' And he just throws it over his shoulder and walks away.
Now him and I, we gained something for each other that day. We never talked about it, he never asked what happened. But that’s the coolest my father has ever been in his whole entire life right there. That’s my number one favorite memory about father.
DE: What do you love about Evanston? What are its challenges?
JS: First of all, this is the land-where-my-fathers-died-land-of-the-pilgrims-pride for me. But I think that Evanston’s image of itself is not even close to the reality of itself. You know, we talk about ‘We love our diversity,’ and it’s true. As long as it’s gone by 3:30. That’s how I feel about it.
You have very wealthy people, you have very poor people here. And you know, a good thing about it is no matter where you live or what your situation is, you still know rich people. You know them, you sometimes been to their home. It’s not some far away thing for you, it’s part of this place.
The wealthier people here they think they … [Jerome takes a deep breath] here we go. I think a lot of white people just don’t see you. They don’t see us. They say, ‘Oh I don’t see color.’ Well it does exist. I’m not a white guy with a black face. I’m not. I’m a Black man, I’m an African American man. I am. Our issues are not necessarily the same. Now in the whole world people are people, you know what I mean. But our issues are not necessarily the same and our communities are not necessarily the same. They are not.
I’ve been in several countries on three continents and I’ve found that the people who are the dominant culture—whatever that is, they have some common assumptions. One is that they think their stuff is better. Two, they think everybody wants to be like them. And three, is that if you don’t want to be like them, something’s wrong.
Well, that’s not necessarily so. So a lot of times like I said, they don’t see you or they think your concerns are the same as theirs. And you know, they don’t necessarily … it’s not like they’re aiming at you … but you keep getting hit.
Like here’s something that happened to me a few years ago. I was at a place up here in Wilmette. And there was a wealthy white woman that came in, I was working. And she realized that I lived in Evanston and she said, ‘Well, where do you live? And I said, ‘Well, without being politically correct, I live on the Black folks’ side of the canal.’
She said, ’It’s not like that anymore, is it?' I said, ‘Ma’am, I chose my house just like you chose your house. And you have zero Black, Latino, Asians on your block, I know where you live. If you have zero of them on your block, you don’t loose one minute of sleep. If I don’t have any white people on my block, I don’t loose one minute of sleep.
'You know, if other races move into my neighborhood and they’re good neighbors, I’m okay with that. However, every time one of them moves in, one of my dear neighbors who I love has to go. That’s not a joyous occasion for me. I picked my home. I don’t want to live where you live. I love my neighborhood.’
DE: Tell me about your book.
JS: Well. the name of the book is "Parables from the Outskirts of Polite Society." I can make the adjustment, but I feel like I live on the outskirts of polite society. Close enough to get to it, but not necessarily feeling the need to be there. I’m well educated. I have a college degree. I take a class every six months for 30 years now. Well-traveled. I speak King English basically. I was a publicly elected official, homeowner, blah, blah. I’m clean cut, all-American, short hair, all that.
But I am from the neighborhood. I grew up with 15 people, lot of love, no money. I’ve been hungry, I’ve been homeless. I’ll never forget that. You get some humility when you’re out there like that. I have literally lived on the kindness of strangers, on the fat of the land, by the grace of God, literally. I never forget home, where home is. I never forget that, regardless of how I appear.
This a book of short stories. They’re all true. And there’s a parable, a lesson in every single story. I’ve had a very exciting life, I still do. And there are different topics, some about just general lessons. Some about business, what is money, what is wealth, what is welfare. Some about family, because they’re always with us no matter what.
The hardest chapter to write was the one about forgiveness. That was a challenge. There’s a chapter on freedom, that’s the last chapter. You know, the price of freedom is you have to be willing to be your own master. It’s not free.
It’s like a reference book for your life, that’s what it is.
DE: What made you run for school board [Jerome was elected in 2002]?
JS: I knew that there were going to be no Black folks on the school board in a district with 50-plus percent Black and Latino kids. And I asked probably 30 other people to run, and nobody would do it. And you know, we always hope other people will do things. You look in the mirror and you realize it’s you.
It was January and the particulars needed to be turned in on Tuesday like January 15th and it’s like the 12th now. Saturday morning, I opened the curtains. I see these two little kids walk past my house. I know them. They live on my block. I opened up the door—it was freezing outside. ‘Put your hood on boy, it’s cold out here.’ Little snaggletooth six-year-old turns around and he smiles and he puts his hood on. And from the grave, my grandfather, my mother, called me. ‘Summers, the world does not revolve around you. It’s the service you give to others that makes your life more valuable. Where’s the greatest need?’
And I’m looking at the greatest need walking down the street. But it’s almost like looking at myself walk down the street. I grew up on this block too. I backed away from the window. I was like no, no, no. Cause I knew it was too much work and too much time and no money. And whatever you do, half the people disagree. And in Evanston people disagree very loudly. And I mean, I grew up with political people, I did. I knew what it was. I never wanted to do that.
Then I asked myself a few questions. First question, would the little boy I used to be, would he still admire me today? Yes. Next question, is this something that my grandfather, who is my hero, my elders, and my ancestors—would they be proud to see me step up, represent the whole community? Yes. Then this other question came out of nowhere. It was a zinger: if I do not win, would I still do the work? Would I still go to bat for these children to help improve their lives?
Now understand at the time I was a greedy fat caterpillar, eating up all the leaves. You know, me, me, me what I need, what I like, what I want. But the answer came back: yes. So at that point it’s the warrior's creed: it’s a good day to die; grab your rifle. Let’s go.
DE: And is there something you’re proudest of?
JS: Yes. Before my mother died, you know she was kind of losing it mentally a little bit. But one day, in a perfect moment of clarity, she said, ‘Son, I apologize for taking you out of the bosom of Foster School and sending you to a school where first of all they did not treat you well. But more importantly, they did not expect much of you.’ She said, ‘Losing Foster School was the worst mistake we ever made. It pulled the thread that unraveled our community.’
She started sobbing. Said, ‘I’m sorry son.’ I mean, I’m holding this old lady in my arms and she’s sobbing. ‘I’m sorry son.’ It just engraved into my core.
So when I ran for school board, on my brochure, you know, ‘School in the 5th Ward,’ number one. Seven years later it went to a $24-million referendum and lost 49 percent to 51 percent. And so, like I said, the people say they love the diversity. Yeah. Long as it’s gone by 3:30.
Because there should be a school here. These are not just Black kids and Latino kids, they’re Evanston kids and every other neighborhood has its own school. And there should be one here. Bottom line. When there’s enough white people over here, they’ll build a school.
When I was growing up in this community, in the 5th Ward, we had all of our own stuff. We had a Black hospital, Community Hospital, where I was born, all my siblings were born, most my relatives were born. We had our own school—we had Foster School. We had the Foster Center which is now Fleetwood-Jourdain.
We had delicatessens, Doc Morrison [he owned a pharmacy on Church and Dodge, where Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center now stands], we had gas stations, we had restaurants. We had little mom-and-pop grocery stores and corner stores. We had two taxi cab services. We had a bus service. We had a newspaper, the CCC. We had our own stuff.
And after integration .. all of that? Gone.
I’ve been very candid with you.
NOTE: Jerome Summers' book is available for purchase at Family Focus Evanston, 2010 Dewey. The cost is $14.95, and Jerome is donating $10 from each sale to the fund to save Family Focus. Cash or check. Make checks payable to Jerome Summers.