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Report claims city racial bias in housing WWII vets

A report presented to Evanston's Reparations Subcommittee claims a city official enforced racial segregation in emergency housing built along the canal banks following World War II.

Nicholas Cummings.

A report presented to Evanston’s Reparations Subcommittee claims a city official enforced racial segregation in emergency housing built along the canal banks following World War II.

The claim is one of dozens made in a 76-page report by Dino Robinson of the Shorefront Legacy Center and Jenny Thompson of the Evanston History Center presented to the committee at its Friday meeting.

In a memo accompanying the report, Deputy City Attorney Nicholas Cummings says the report documents claims sufficient to make “at least a prima facia case” of discrimination by the city against Black Evanston residents that could defend the city’s reparations program against equal protection challenges.

Cummings cited a 1989 case in which the Supreme Court overturned efforts by the City of Richmond, Virginia, to require that a portion of a city contract be awarded to minority businesses. The court said the city had failed to show that it had discriminated against minority contractors in the past.

For the veterans housing claim, the report relies on minutes of City Council meetings in which the city’s first Black alderman, Edwin Jourdain, argues that the city-appointed supervisor was engaging in discrimination — limiting Blacks to only a handful of units on the south bank of the canal.

However, it also says that a Special Committee on Housing appointed by the mayor categorically denied that the official engaged in any discrimination.

The subcommittee has proposed a housing reparations program focused on addressing alleged wrongdoing by the city from 1919, when it began considering its first zoning ordinance, until 1969, when it adopted an ordinance banning housing discrimination.

The report by Robinson and Thompson focuses largely on discriminatory practices by other entities — ranging from federal agencies to banks, real estate brokers and private land owners as well as local school districts and Northwestern University — which the city might have chosen to challenge, but did not.

The report also claims that the city’s 1921 zoning ordinance “tacitly served as an effort by city officials to segregate the city by race.”

The use map from Evanston’s first zoning code, as published in the Jan. 24, 1921 edition of the Evanston News-Index.

However, the same zoning classifications applied to the area that became the predominantly Black section of town — roughly defined by the North Shore Channel, Green Bay Road and Church Street — were also applied to most of the rest of the community under the 1921 code.

The report also alleges that racial animus motivated a slum clearance program in the late 1940s.

Under that program the city moved to acquire homes on both sides of Hovland Court and Grey Avenue between Church and Emerson streets and on the east side of Wesley Avenue between Emerson and Foster streets, as well as a few lots on the northwest corner of Lake Street and Elmwood Avenue.

While the Elmwood Avenue property is now the Evanston police station, the other lots were eventually redeveloped with new homes largely owned by Black residents.

At Friday’s meeting the Reparations Subcommittee, which was appointed as a temporary group, directed city staff to seek City Council approval to have the subcommittee converted to a permanent standing committee.

That move is designed to make it possible for the group to receive reports from a yet-to-be-named Reparations Stakeholder Commission that would have representatives from various community groups focused on the reparations issue.

Upgrading the subcommittee’s status may be addressed at a Rules Committee meeting Monday, Oct. 5. The subcommittee is next scheduled to meet on Friday, Oct. 23.

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