Shorefront Center
Big Momma and ‘dem” Made Their Way to Cook and Clean . . .
September 10, 2013
Katherine Jenkins (back Left) c1940 courtesy of Pricilla Giles
Katherine Jenkins (back Left) c1940 courtesy of Pricilla Giles

—By Doria Johnson

America is known as a country of suburbs, and the evolution of them during the 20th century is usually thought of in terms of elite, white enclaves. Some were industrial suburbs, which attracted factory and unskilled laborers. Some were, like Evanston, known as ‘domestic service suburbs’, which means Black people, and a few other minorities, were living and working within close proximity to wealthy employers. Their presence often drew attention once they reached 10-12 % of the population, according to sociologists, because only then do they compete with white people for services, jobs, and resources. Before those number, minorities often enjoyed a seamless integration into the communities, at least in terms of school attendance, medical care and recreational facilities. However, tolerance changed drastically as the influx of the Great Migration brought tens of thousands of southern African Americans to the north and western United States.

In step, in the early 20th century, white Evanstonians joined their southern brethren and too demanded separate facilities—a northern-version Jim Crow. Suddenly, but not surprisingly, African Americans in Evanston found they needed to establish institutions to provide their community with social services, medical care, employment agencies, and childcare. Like neighboring Chicago’s Black Belt migrants, Black Evanstonians would invent and fund their own benevolent institutions to answer the needs of its citizens, sometimes designed specifically for women migrants—who were especially in demand as maids, cooks, and child care providers to the elite. The press did not fail to take note of the activities and developments within the burgeoning Black community in its midst. There were more Black-owned newspapers in 1920 than now, but sometimes Blacks were interesting subjects in white-owned media. In 1925, The Evanston Review, reported simply, “Dr. Garnett, colored, dies.” In 1926, an article entitled “Helping the Colored Girls” appeared:

An unpretentious social enterprise which has proved its place in Evanston. . . This provides a home with wholesome surroundings for working colored girls. The backers of the home discovered the need here less that 2-years ago, and straight-way set about filing it. 200 girls have been given homes while they earned their living. The support of the home is interracial. Its usefulness in the community is unquestioned. Its needs are moderate. It should never have to ask a second time for what little it require.

North Shore Community House
North Shore Community House

The benevolent institution that granted the funds for the North Shore Community House provided perhaps the most important support Black working girls needed according to the white community—a stable environment in “wholesome surroundings” situated in the vicinity of the stately mansions where they were employed. Evanston and the wealthy North Shore inhabitants welcomed their servants into the community, but not in their hospitals, YMCA’s or churches.

The burgeoning Black community built its own infrastructure

The paternalistic concern of the white community regarding the “Negro problem” is evident— In 1926, articles began to appear in The Evanston Review advocating the need for a Negro hospital. A white women’s club boasted Evanston Hospital’s capabilities as a state of the art institution, and at the same time emphasized the need for a Colored hospital. The article also credited the white clubwomen for their extraordinary efforts to secure a Black hospital. Another piece entitled “What the Colored Folks Need,” tried to garner public support for a separate Black hospital. A week later, it appears that Blacks were overtaxing the system so that the hospitals became overcrowded and were forced to turn patients away. It is interesting to notice how the tone of the articles appears to show genuine concern for the African American community’s needs, alongside a growing sentiment among whites for segregated facilities. In the meantime, the migrants were busy building their own institutions without much apparent desire to frequent the white institutions, thus avoiding the paternalism and rejection of white folks, who felt they knew best how to direct the trajectory of Black folks’ lives.

The burgeoning Black community built its own infrastructure, supported by its cohesiveness, developed in the South well before Emancipation. The migration opened new opportunities to build institutions, like medical facilities, outside of the restrictions of southern Jim Crow, and controlled and constructed largely by efforts of the African American community’s women. In 1914, Dr. Isabella Garnett, daughter of pioneer Daniel Garnett, and Dr. Arthur Butler opened the Evanston Sanitarium, in the heart of Evanston’s Black Westside neighborhood. In 1930, Community Hospital opened (the only institution of its kind dedicated to serving north shore Blacks and minorities outside Chicago’s Cook County Hospital.) Both institutions had an interracial board of directors, a nod to the white community’s encouragement to construct separate hospitals for “Negroes.” Dr. Elizabeth Webb Hill organized the Woman’s Auxiliary of Community Hospital in 1939. She also became Illinois’ first Black woman hospital chief of staff in 1943. Dr. Hill led the accreditation efforts with the state and successfully raised the funds to build a new hospital, which became the central institution serving the medical needs of Evanston’s Black community until 1975. Literally thousands of Evanston’s African Americans were born, and died, in Dr. Hill’s care.

Domestic service suburbs sprang up along the railroad and trolley lines around major cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Baltimore. The cities’ most wealthy and elite white citizens preferred these chic addresses, as opposed to cramped city life. These suburbs, with their sprawling mansions, and manicured lawns were accessed only by rail, which made it difficult for white residents to obtain much-needed goods, services, and servants. As a result, these suburbs conveniently contained “bustling communities of shopkeepers, mechanics, industrial workers, and the servants who made it possible to live comfortably in the palatial homes that made these places famous.” The sheer numbers of the Great Migration allowed African Americans access to these service jobs, and increasingly, Black laborers provided the workforce. Evanston became both work and home to the low-wage service workers, but their post-migration experiences would be somewhat different from their counterparts just eleven miles away in Chicago’s “Black Belt.”

Evanston’s Black community began to build and own their homes at three times the rate of Chicago’s Black Belt, a reflection of their ability to use their North Shore affluent location, job stability, higher incomes and access to better educational facilities to their advantage. The white power elite, and real estate brokers, allowed Black homeownership in Evanston namely for two reasons; first, Black people were relegated to specific areas, and secondly, whites enjoyed the cushion of segregation which shielded them from potential Black neighbors, and shielded their high property values from depreciation. The availability of vacant land, coupled with no concerted effort by the white community to prevent Black homeownership, allowed African Americans to own homes at the same rates as whites. While the bulk of Evanston’s African Americans were service workers and domestics, the desire to own their own homes began in the South, and they carried the desire with them to the North. Moreover, the dependable domestic worker economy of Evanston’s Black women certainly supported, and financed, homeownership among Black families.

Many residents came from the Abbeville, Greenwood and McCormick areas of South Carolina. It is difficult to ascertain the first Abbevillian to migrate to Evanston, and plenty of current residents lay stake to that claim. Some folks boast that not only did their family come first, but also that they offered a link of the chain that facilitated many other families’ arrival. Most will admit, however, that their grandmothers and great grandmothers “did day work,” meaning they worked as domestics and service workers in white folks’ homes throughout the North Shore. The Evanston Review printed an obituary in September 1925 of Mrs. Sarah Crump, born in Abbeville in 1881, who came to Evanston in 1901. Records indicate other early migrants from the Abbeville area, such as M.D. Morris, a Black minister who died in 1911, and whose body was taken to Abbeville for burial. When Mrs. Louis White passed away in 1912, her body was also returned to her former home in Abbeville. The migration of African Americans from the South did not begin with the Great Migration, for scores of Black people left the South in the post-Civil War years. However, most historians agree that the momentum certainly picked up in 1916. Evanston’s in-migration was no different.

African Americans established a stable Black community on Evanston’s West Side

The railroad commuter suburbs, in the United States, grew rapidly from 1910-1940, both in population and in building construction. Therefore, ten years is a long time during the development of the suburbs in the United States in this period. The population of African Americans increased significantly, so much so, that the 1920 census only really provided a snapshot of the actual days it was enumerated in Evanston. People were moving in daily. Already, the Black populace had more than doubled from the 1910 census and the city was “startled and surprised” by new “racial problems the Polish and Negro populations present.” The Black population continued to grow and by 1924, the U.S. Post Office reported 8,000 Blacks in Evanston; the Chamber of Commerce reported 5,000 and the Evanston Associated Charities estimated 7,000—up significantly from 2,522 enumerated in 1920. Exact numbers aside, it is safe to say that African Americans were approaching the magical ten percent ratio that made white citizens both concerned and nervous. In Evanston, Black women’s residency was disproportionate to Black men in the early century, and by 1920, women were 55 percent of the African American populace. This lopsided balance was typical of domestic service suburbs. Black women’s employment secured the stability of Black migrant families and their determination to continue to support the familial unit was evident with the sheer numbers of women that appeared on the North Shore.

African Americans established a stable Black community on Evanston’s West Side, constructed purposely within the framework of the lessons they learned in the South. They would be best served, they felt, if they could inculcate purchasing “in the community,” leaving themselves less vulnerable to surveillance and violence and at the same time, supporting Black businesses. They could build their own institutions that would provide life and death essential services, such as medical care. In addition to Black churches, they opened businesses, such as Madame H.M. Taylor’s Hair Dressing salon, Twiggs print shop, and Hansom’s Cab. They also attended Evanston’s integrated schools, and offered services, such as Laura Owens’ dressmaking service, that provided much of what they needed, besides employment.

For example, in 1926 The Evanston Review reported the opening of a “colored” nursery. Many of Evanston’s Black women did “day work” and needed childcare, so women formed a Black co-operative, The Community Union. Mrs. Martha Twiggs, a wealthy African American woman and wife of Twiggs print shop owner, William Twiggs, became the group’s president and probably was the chief financial backer of the daycare center. Located in the heart of Evanston’s Westside, domestics could drop off their children as they headed east towards the train that would take them to their jobs as domestic workers throughout the North Shore. One resident commented that the main thoroughfare, Emerson Street, looked as if Black women were walking in a parade each weekday morning as “Big Momma and ‘dem” made their way to cook and clean in white folk’s homes. The women, domestic workers on the North Shore, shared an occupation that many Black migrants found available to them upon their arrival in their new urban homes. They used their wages to bring remaining family members to safety “up North”, and perhaps as a stepping-stone to something better.

Gathering of Women in Evanston c1930s
Gathering of Women in Evanston c1930s. Shorefront photographic collection

For the Black women of Evanston, domestic work was plentiful and dependable. White people in the affluent suburbs, such as Evanston, purchased more than their majestic abodes, they bought a way of life. The elite desired leisurely lifestyles that called for many caretakers, and domestic laborers were the answer. The wealthiest employed a whole staff, but the middle class also employed some form of domestic assistance. This insatiable need for maids and chauffeurs helped to create large African American neighborhoods in suburbia, and women were disproportionably service workers. In 1920, Black women were one-third of the workers nationwide, but in the elite suburbs, like Evanston, they represented between 40 and 50 percent of laborers, thus their work was more dependable and could support the family, if necessary. The informal network, known as the chain migration, depended on women and their work both inside and outside the home and played a large role in facilitating the migration of African Americans from the South.

Sources: Excerpt of the work of Shorefront Resident Scholar and Historian Doria Johnson (PhD Candidate, University of Wisconsin, Madison) examining the influx of Black women workers into Chicago’s north shore, Evanston in particular, during the early 20th century.

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