A Brief History of Evanston

Evanston residents march to demand that the city council pass anti-discrimination laws governing the sale and rental of housing, 1968

Please note: This page is under construction.

Evanston’s history is complicated, multi-layered, and still being written.

“About 5,000 Indians were transported at the expense of the government . . .thus the region in which Evanston is now situated was cleared of the Indians and immigrants began to flock in from Eastern states in great numbers.”

For thousands of years, Native Americans lived on what is now Chicago’s North Shore. People of the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Odawa, the Menominee, Miami, and Ho-Chunk nations lived in and near what is now Evanston. The area of the North Shore was a major trading site, and a place of  “gathering and healing” for more than a dozen other Native tribes. Today, it is still home to over 100,000 tribal members in the state of Illinois. (See Evanston History Center’s Land Acknowledgement here.)

Beginning in 1795 the U.S. government signed treaties to force Native Americans to move west, a policy later promoted by newly-elected President Andrew Jackson and codified as the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  Through a series of treaties, many Native Americans living in the Evanston area were forced to relinquish their land. Others were coerced and physically attacked in order to get them to leave their territories. Over the decades, the American government, white merchants and settlers, and military personnel engaged in a pointed and sometimes violent effort to remove all Native Americans from any lands deemed valuable or necessary to white society’s “progress.”

As Chicago expanded so did routes to and from the city.  Merchants traveled by stagecoach up the old Indian trail known as “The Ridge,” the stretch of dry land running along the north shore of Lake Michigan.  They called the road the “Green Bay Trail” as the road led to Fort Green Bay.  In 1836, Edward Mulford and his wife Rebecca purchased land along the ridge and built the 10-Mile House, which served as a tavern for travelers and a community center (post office, meeting house, church, and school) for the growing number of residents in the area.

In 1850, Ridgeville Township was formally incorporated with 441 residents calling it home.

In 1853, a group of men looking for a site for a new Methodist-affiliated university chose the marshy lands along the lakefront in Ridgeville Township. The board of the newly-chartered Northwestern University purchased land from John Foster and began making plans not only for the university, but also for the town that would surround it. In 1854, Northwestern’s founders of sketched out their plans for a city to be named “Evanston” after John Evans, one of the founders. In 1855, Northwestern University opened its doors to its first (male only) students. Evanston was platted the following year, in 1854.

Upon its founding, Northwestern amended the school’s charter to establish a four-mile limit against the production or sale of alcoholic beverages.  After the town of Evanston was officially incorporated in 1863, the board of trustees voted to create an ordinance enforcing the four-mile limit around the community.

Developing City

By 1861, Evanston had just 1,200 residents. Nearly a decade later, after the 1871 Chicago Fire, many city dwellers looked to the suburb as a welcoming place away from the crowded city.  These new residents began to build lavish homes that would soon give Evanston the reputation as being a “city of homes.”

In these early years, residents focused on creating necessary institutions for the growing community.  A water works began operating in 1874, giving residents access to fresh lake water.  Drainage ditches and railroads were constructed to facilitate movement within the town, and to and from Chicago.  In 1873, Evanstonians voted for a tax to support a free public library.  The volunteer fire department was organized in 1875.  Gross Point Lighthouse was constructed in 1874 to bring security to the lake shore. In 1893, a new street railway began operating.

Over the years, Evanston grew by an influx of residents, and also through annexation. First, the village of North Evanston was annexed, followed by the village of South Evanston in 1892. That same year, the city of Evanston was officially incorporated.

Eight Black citizens were recorded in an 1850 census. By 1900, 737 Black residents lived in the city, out of a total population of 19,259. The decades of the Great Migration would see many Southern Black Americans come North, choosing to settle Evanston. By 1910, 1,200 Black residents called Evanston home, and by 1930, that number grew to 4,000.

As the number of Black residents grew, white residents responded by imposing segregation throughout the city. In 1914, the city’s YWCA barred Black members; restaurants, hotels, and stores began to restrict access; the city’s hospital refused to treat Black patients; and Northwestern University imposed strict segregation in admissions and its facilities; from about 1903 into the 1950s, no Black students were allowed to live in campus housing.

Redlining was also in effect in the city’s housing. Black renters and home owners were barred from living in a majority of city neighborhoods. By the 1920s, clearly segregated neighborhoods were established. The vast majority of Black residents lived on the city’s west side. Segregation was the result of many white residents forming “syndicates” and working in tandem with banks and property owners to ensure that certain neighborhoods would be preserved, in the words of the city’s West Side Improvement Association, “as a place for white people to live.”

As a result of segregation, two Evanstons would form. One, dominated by a Black residents, with numerous Black-owned businesses, clubs, churches, and recreations in operation. Black residents established a YMCA branch on Emerson Street, a hospital, and a variety of stores and businesses. White residents continued to dominate the real estate in the city and as as result, the majority of businesses were white-owned.

From: David Bruner, “A General Survey of the Negro Population,” 1924.

For years, the city government, as well as the majority of the schools, were dominated by white residents. It was not until 1932 that Edwin Bush Jourdain, Jr. (1900-1986) was elected as Evanstons first Black city council member.

In the 1920s, Evanston’s downtown commercial center boomed. Evanston became known as the shopping center of the north shore, with numerous department stores and movie theaters. Traffic and parking became a problem and so the city created an Accident Prevention Bureau, the first in the nation.

Postwar Boom

Before 1940, Evanston housed only 6 industries with 25 or more workers. After World War II, industry expanded with 130 companies moving to Evanston.

During the years following 1960, the city began to lose many of the institutions that defined it.  Factories and department stores closed and workers moved to new areas or struggled to stay without jobs.  The community had to re-think its identity to keep people here and attract new businesses.  In 1967, a new zoning ordinance was passed to allow for the construction of tall buildings in limited areas of the city.  The city became known as “Headquarters City” for all the non-profit organizations that had their headquarters here.

Simultaneously, residents began a process of self-examination that resulted in a push to provide equal opportunities for all citizens.  Evanston’s social and political identity began to change.  In 1964, for the first time, more Evanstonians supported the Democratic candidate (Lyndon Johnson) than the Republican.  Schools were officially desegregated in 1967, and a new housing ordinance was passed in 1966 that made it illegal for real estate agents to discriminate on the basis of race.  In 1972, the city council voted for a new liquor ordinance and the first legal alcoholic drink was served.  In 1985, Joan Barr was elected the first female mayor of Evanston.

A Destination City (1990-present)

Transit-oriented development, new retailing, and a changing populace brought new life to Evanston at the end of the 20th century. An enormous influx of eating places, apartments and condos, entertainment, and other signs of urban vitality turned the downtown once again into a thriving urban area and a model of “mixed-use” development.  The City built a new four-story public library in 1994, continuing the community’s long commitment to free access to library services and creating open community space in the heart of the city. The construction of the Century 12 movie theater complex (completed in 2000) kicked off years of growth and change in downtown. Downtown Evanston emerged once again as a retail destination and as the restaurant center of the North Shore.

The community continued to grapple with issues of income disparity and racial inequity. Jobs, affordable housing and the “achievement gap” in schools remained topics of discussion, while rapid growth took hold throughout town. Preserving Evanston’s livable neighborhoods while encouraging growth, a more diverse tax base, and job creation became issues during these years. Lorraine Morton was elected the first African-American female Mayor in 1993. Morton was also the first Democrat to hold the office and was the longest serving mayor in Evanston’s history when she retired in 2008.