Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Writer Mary Barr tells Chicago magazine how her hometown lost the battle for racial integration.
Evanston, Illinois, doesn't really feel like a suburb of Chicago. It's kind of an extension of the city. I lived there during grad school because it was safer and quieter than many Chicago neighborhoods but retained a city vibe; it was lively, and walkable, and most importantly, affordable.
Some of these same factors attracted young white and black families to the college town just north of Chicago in the 1960s. By then, this progressive place was poised to be a model of racial integration—a glaring contrast to the rest of the city. But it never succeeded.
Evanston native Mary Barr, now a professor of sociology and anthropology at Clemson University, has written about her hometown's fight for racial integration in her book Friends Disappear: The Battle for Racial Equality in Evanston. Barr recently spoke to Chicago magazine's Whet Moser about how the failure to integrate the school system in Evanston has shaped her life, as well as the lives of her interracial group of friends (pictured above).
By 1960, Evanston was 12 percent black, Moser notes. Its African American residents lived mostly on the West of the 'L' train tracks, in the middle of town. (The 1960 map below shows the percentage of blacks living in various Evanston neighborhoods.) Barr lived in a house located roughly on the boundaries of this racial divide, and went to school in the area.
In 1966, Gregory Coffin, well-known for his civil rights work, was called in to desegregate local schools. Coffin's greatest challenge was smoothing out the logistical hurdles of integration, writes Moser. In the absence of integrated housing, the physical barriers that separated the white and black students in the school deterred friendships.
"Because black students were bussed they had to wake-up earlier and got home later," Barr tells CityLab via email. "Whisked away at the end of the day, it was hard to make friends. There was also a stigma attached to busing."
Black and white students could have interacted at lunchtime. But back then students typically went home for lunch, and the school board wasn't in favor of school-administered lunches. In her book, Barr writes that some people believed "communal feeding was part of a dangerous triumph of socialism."
At middle school, black and white kids spent more time together as a result of an after-school program Coffin started—the "most integrated experience" that Barr recalled to Moser. In an email to CityLab, Barr expands on Coffin's role in making that program happen:
He set about achieving what he called a “salt and pepper” mix in the schools through redistricting and a massive busing program. Coffin understood that true integration required more than mixing bodies. He was an advocate for more a permanent solution to the lunch problem (i.e. he wanted to build cafeterias in the elementary schools). He was determined to hire and promote black teachers, staff, and administrators.
But some of Coffin's efforts irked the conservative school board, which voted to fire him in 1970. "As a result the schools were desegregated but never really, in a meaningful way, integrated," Barr says via email.
In high school, Barr's cohort of black and white friends re-segregated into different classrooms. The white students typically took classes with an academic focus, while the black kids took classes with a vocational focus. (This was partly because of the way their curriculum was structured, and partly because of family guidance, Moser writes.)
"This is where our friendship ended," Barr tells Moser.
A 2010 demographic map of Evanston isn't all that different from the one above from the 1960s. The suburb is 18 percent black. Although some parts have gentrified, African American households are still mainly clustered in the same region, west of the tracks. Some are also located in the southern fringes of Evanston, bordering Chicago. Racial segregation within the school system has remained a topic of discussion in recent years.
But for Barr, the repercussions of Evanston's failure to integrate go beyond the sociological—they're personal. They don't know it in that photograph, but the white and black kids sitting on that stoop ended up leading starkly different lives. While success wasn't limited to Barr and the white friends in her photo, it was certainly concentrated among them. Of the black kids in her photo, one is doing extremely well, but three of them are dead: one killed by the police, one killed while fleeing the police, and one killed by addiction.
Here is how Barr sums her feelings up to Moser:
I'm so happy I grew up here. I think it really shaped me into the person I am. It’s why I care about these issues. It’s why I care about racial and other social inequalities. But … half of my black friends are dead.
So I can’t just say, well, we tried.