Resurrecting Ebonyville

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Ribbon cutting attendees listen to Sidney Hurst explain tell the story of his family’s path to home ownership in Maywood. From left to right, Mayor Perkins, Rep. Welch and Mrs. Stone (Photo by Tina Valentino).

By Michael Romain

SATURDAY, MAYWOOD — Mayor Perkins, Trustee Michael Rogers, Eugene Moore, State Rep. Chris Welch and other community leaders and Maywood natives listened reverently as 88-year-old Sidney Hurst, the embodiment of the history that they were gathered to commemorate, talked about the past.

If you were an aspiring landowner in the late 1800s in Maywood, you may have gone to Fourth of July picnics in hopes that one of the rockets shot in the air had your number on it. If it did, you obtained the privilege to buy land. If not, you may have done what Sidney Hurst’s grandfather, Iva, did.

“My grandfather didn’t get one of those numbers, but he bought two lots [anyway],” Mr. Hurst said. And in 1887, they moved into a home at 417 S. 13th Avenue, making the Hursts the first African-American family to live in Maywood. But the Hursts were destined to be more than isolated pioneers.

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Rep. Welch addressing the crowd (Photo by Tina Valentino).

More African-Americans would follow their lead, building homes and lives in and around the Hursts’ two virgin lots and eventually developing what, over the years, would turn into one of the most vibrant black communities in the western suburbs.

Northica H. Stone, the president and CEO of Operation Uplift, the parent organization of the West Town Museum of Cultural History, grew up in the area that the Hursts pioneered. She reminisced on a town that was starkly different than what it is today.

“We could leave our doors open and get on the Aurora-Elgin train on 11th Avenue and nobody would do anything. You could leave your clothes on the line and nobody would take them,” she said. “What we see today, we just didn’t have that.”

Living in Maywood at that time, though, didn’t come without tremendous costs. After all, it was due to racist housing codes called restrictive covenants that kept black and Jewish families confined to a ‘colored neighborhood’ that spanned eastward from 10th Avenue to 14th Avenue and northward from Madison Street to St. Charles Road.

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An aerial view of the neighborhood (outlined in black) in which African-Americans were confined in Maywood from 1887 to about 1960.

“We’re hoping that what we’re calling Ebonyville will become part of the Comprehensive Plan in Maywood […] We’re trying to get that entire district landmarked for the State of Illinois […] The stories and sacrifices contained in that area are worth landmark status,” said Mrs. Stone.

Her organization, along with the Maywood Special Events Commission, the Maywood Historical Society and the Proviso East Digital Arts Department, is sponsoring African-American Heritage Trail Tours of important places in that historic district. Some highlights of the tour include a “Forgotten Business District,” that was the home to numerous black-owned small enterprises; the home of world famous chemist and inventor Percy Julian; the Underground Railroad stop at 1st and Lake Street; and the home of Al Capone’s bookkeeper, Jim Martin.

The tours, which will run every weekend through September, are only an aspect of what seems to be something of a nascent cultural renaissance happening in Maywood. Mike Gregory, professor of urban community archaeology at DePaul University, was on hand to give some remarks. He and a crew of graduate students were lured to Maywood by the West Town Museum and Commissioner Rone, who first contacted Professory Gregory.

For the past several months, the home at 216 S. 10th Avenue has been a satellite site for DePaul’s archaeology department. The Village hopes to get the home listed on the National Historic Register due, in large part, to what Professor Gregory and company have found—Native American, European and African-American artifacts that date back centuries. “They represent our unbroken 150 year history in this town,” Lennel Grace, a member of another historic family in the Village, said of the artifacts.

In addition to Professor Gregory’s ongoing excavation, the Old Timer’s Picnic and the Maywood Special Events Commission have sponsored the installation of special entryway signs commemorating the accomplishments of notable residents in areas such as science, medicine, law, business, athletics and the arts.

Anchoring all this cultural activity sits the West Town Museum, the site of the Heritage Trail Tour’s formal launch. Mrs. Stone, along with Mrs. Stenson, the museum’s curator, are responsible for virtually every aspect of the 5th Avenue institution’s functioning.

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Mrs. Jeri Stenson, curator of the West Town Museum and Lennel Grace (left). (Photo by Tina Valentino).

“She does it not for herself, but for the community […] It takes a strong person to do what she’s doing,” said Mayor Perkins, who joined Mrs. Stenson, Maywood Special Events Commissioner Dawn Williams-Rhone, Trustee Rogers and Mr. Hurst in cutting the ribbon for the tour.

“This organization [Operation Uplift and the West Town] is what brought me to [Maywood],” said Trustee Rogers, a former member of Operation Uplift’s board of directors. “There’s more to Maywood than what you see.”

“I grew up in Maywood,” said Rep. Welch. “I had to come here and be part of this. I’m going to be sitting down with [Mrs. Stone] to find out how the State can make this organization thrive.”

The ribbon cutting was Mrs. Willy Lee Hart’s first time hearing and seeing Maywood’s historic pedigree. Mrs. Hart is affiliated with the DuSable Museum and is a member of the Amistad Committee of Chicago.

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Attendees at the quaint ceremony gather for a picture. (Photo by Tina Valentino).

“I wasn’t sure what I was coming to, but this is the most wonderful thing […] to come here and hear about what you are doing,” she said, before explaining that the very same restrictive covenants that confined blacks to Ebonyville in Maywood were prevalent in Chicago.

For Mrs. Stone, Mrs. Stenson, Mrs. Rone and others who pour their time and energy into what can often seem like a thankless task, the motivation has less to do with any short-term gains than it does with the long-term compulsion to be remembered. As Mrs. Stone said during her remarks, “If we didn’t tell our stories, they wouldn’t be told.” VFP

Upcoming tour dates:

Saturday, August 24th (11am to 1pm; 2pm to 4pm)

Sunday, August 25th (3pm to 6pm)

For more information, please contact the West Town Museum of Cultural History at 708.343.3554.

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