Recently, Evanston, Illinois became the first US city to begin issuing slavery reparations. And this week, the House voted to create a commission exploring legislation on further reparations for all Black Americans. It feels like change could be in the air.
I grew up in Evanston. Racial diversity was one of the reasons my parents chose to move there, as it had the only sizable Black community on Chicago’s North Shore. When I was in third grade, our school system was desegregated. The lines were redrawn, and the students of a previously segregated Black school were split between a number of grammar schools — one of which was mine, Miller Elementary.
To me, it didn’t seem like a big deal — I had a couple of Black friends in my class already who had lived within the old boundaries — but, of course, to most others, it was. Our desegregation made national news. Dr Martin Luther King mentioned Evanston in his speeches; he even visited. I knew none of this. I was eight years old.
A gregarious little kid, I developed a fast friendship with an outgoing Black student named Arthur Hutchinson who’d joined my class via desegregation. Everyone called him Earl. My best little buddy at the time was named Tim, and he and I immediately folded Earl into our lunch routine.
Every day, all the kids at Miller walked home for lunch. (Mothers back then were expected to be non-working homemakers waiting in their kitchens to feed their children: Miller didn’t even have a lunchroom.) As Tim and I lived close to each other, we would eat over at one or the others’ house each weekday, splitting time between them. With Earl living off in the other direction, we invited him to join us.
Us three little boys, two white and one Black, spent countless hours strolling home for lunch under the cool, green canopy of Evanston’s beautiful, century-old trees, or throwing snow at each other in the winter, all bundled up in scarves and mittens.
We laughed as we ate the egg salad sandwiches my mother served with soup or the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Tim’s mother cut on the diagonal and served with potato chips. Tim and I didn’t ask Earl why he never invited us back to his. He lived somewhere over in the neighborhood that the white people I knew did their best to ignore. Maybe Earl’s mother worked, or maybe he felt bad because his house wasn’t as close to the lake as ours. I’ll never know.
We didn’t care where Earl lived. He was Loud, Daring and Funny, just like us. And now that Evanston had leveled the playing field by equalizing our educational opportunities, a sparkling future lay ahead for all three of us, we were sure. Our very friendship was the result of Evanston’s commitment to the Promise of Equality.
But reality got in the way of all that. A couple years later, a fellow white student told me Earl had invited himself over to his house for lunch and his mother said Earl was “out of control” and no longer welcome. That hit me. I’d never thought of Earl as any more “out of control” than me, and my invitation hadn’t been rescinded. My childhood was filled with episodes of being yanked out of this class or that by one teacher or another. I was known for my pranks, and I had never been banned from anybody’s house.
The next school we moved on to as we grew older — Nichols Junior High School — had a cafeteria, so the whole going-home-for-lunch thing ended. Tim moved to California, and Earl and I drifted apart. Earl started dating a white girl who was a year or two younger than we were, the two of them becoming the anchors for a popular new crowd that formed around them.
The high school we ended up at, Evanston Township High School, was huge; my graduating class alone was over seventeen hundred kids. Earl and I laughed when we saw each other in the halls, but it was a big place and we lost track of one another. Word got back to me that Earl was in trouble now and then, but so was I. I figured that’s just what happened to guys like us who were Loud, Daring and Funny.
No matter how turbulent my time at school, I managed to slide through and graduate. Earl was not so lucky. I learned years later that he’d dropped out. I also learned that years after that, he was shot in the chest and killed by a Chicago police officer. The cop, whose name was never revealed in the police report, said that Earl had threatened him with a knife. Earl was carrying a fork. He was forty years old.
I don’t know what challenges Earl and his family faced in Evanston, but I can imagine. He and I were friends a lifetime ago, yet many of the problems he faced are still prevalent for Black boys and men. Evanston set the pace by moving in the right direction — but ultimately, America failed Earl. I now know that I, too, failed him, by believing that through desegregation alone we’d already achieved “equality”.
These days, I’m glad to see reparations programs making national news. If they’re able to advance what desegregation started, I have renewed hope for the little boys on those streets back in Evanston that Earl, Tim and I once walked on our way home for lunch. But for many like my Loud, Daring and Funny friend, progress is coming tragically late.
Jack Merrill is an actor and writer. He has a spoken memoir podcast called That Life Then