The Incredible Life of Maria Murray, Evanston’s First Black Resident

By Sophia Weglarz, Summer 2021 Evanston Women’s History Project Intern

My name is Sophia Weglarz, I am a current undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania studying cognitive neuroscience and Africana Studies. While I have worked with the Evanston History Center and the Evanston Women’s History Project in previous summers, this summer I have the unique opportunity to work as an intern with the Evanston Women’s History Project. My work this summer, as it did in previous summers, centers around the narratives that are integral to African-American history in Evanston. I started this work with a focus on Maria Murray, the first Black resident of Evanston.

Murray’s story is particularly captivating, as what we knew about her life previously was often intertwined with a narrative of fragile white benevolence. While early white allyship still played a large role in Maria’s life, putting this theme at the forefront takes away from the compelling story of who Maria Murray was.

Maria Murray was born in the late 1830s to the early 1840s, as an 1850 Chicago Census lists her as 12 at the time.[i] In multiple censuses to follow, her birthplace is often either listed as Virginia or Maryland. Maria came to Evanston, when Allen and Mary Vane, both born in Cambridge, MD, bought her freedom and traveled with her to Chicago in the late 1840s.[ii]

How Maria came into the Vanes’ possession is unclear, but one such anecdote told in her obituary states that Mary Vane saw Maria at her uncle’s plantation in a group of “pickaninnies” and asked if she could have one. Her uncle agreed and told Mary that she could have Maria.[iii] While there is no concrete evidence to suggest that this story is true, as there indication that Mary Vane even had a slave-holding uncle, there is an 1850 slave schedule of a ‘Murray’ living in the Cambridge, MD area that records several young female slaves, a few of which would’ve matched the Maria’s age at the time.[iv]

Accordingly to Maria’s obituary, after Maria came into the Vanes possession, she was brought to their home in Wilmington, DE, where there remained a high likelihood of being abducted and sold into the Maryland slave trade again. To prevent this, Mr. Vane paid $300 for her, which is equivalent to $10,488 in today’s money, and then secured legal emancipation papers for her.

She came to Chicago with the Vane family where several abolitionists and others were suspicious of Mr. Vane’s right to her and whether her safety was threatened. One older Black woman claimed her as her long lost daughter, separated from her when a baby, but Maria would not be claimed, saying, “No, I’m not your daughter. Don’t you suppose I’d know my own mother. Go away.”

A few years after arriving in Chicago, the Vanes went up north to Evanston, where they built a house at the northwest corner of Davis and Forest – at what is now 305 Davis Street.[v] In the 1860 census, Maria is listed as about 20 years old, meaning that she was approximately 15 years old when she first arrived in Evanston; 10 years old when she came to Chicago.[vi] Maria would work at the Vanes home as a ‘domestic’ or ‘servant’ for almost ten years before she met and married her husband George Robinson. During the early years, she attended First Methodist Church of Evanston with the Vane family.

As for George’s story, there’s less information on how he arrived in Evanston. All we know is that George had come to Evanston from Virginia (where he was enslaved) in 1865 or 1866 after serving as the “house servant” for Major Ludlam in the Civil War and that he may have been the first Black man to live in Evanston.

It’s unclear as to how Maria and George met. However, in 1868, the two were married at the Vane family home by Rev. Minor Raymond, pastor of First Methodist Church.[vii] In 1870, they petitioned to transfer their church memberships to First Baptist Church. They both may have also been members of Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago—an early Black church in the city. They were also founding members of Second Baptist.

There is no record of Maria and George’s marriage. This could be for a number of reasons. I consulted with research that Shorefront Legacy Center founder Dino Robinson had done previously, and Robinson found that Maria and George’s marriage was treated as spectacle by the townspeople. There was even a sense of spectacle around Maria herself, who was called “Black Maria” by the people of Evanston and thought to have mystical powers.[viii]

For a long time, there had been a lot of lore around the idea that Mrs. Vane and Maria were friends, given the Vanes’ kindness and so-called benevolence towards Maria. However, it’s important to note that their relationship was still that of an employer-employee relationship. Maybe the lack of marriage certificate can be explained by a complimentary lack of legitimacy felt by the Vanes towards Maria, as a marriage certificate would’ve offered a sense of autonomy and objective freedom. Even from a retrospective standpoint, without a marriage license, there are key details about both Maria and George’s story that are erased in favor of constructing their legacy through white people.

The Robinsons purchased a home at 124 Dempster Street (now 325 Dempster) in 1870 and lived there for the remainder of their lives. There were several houses grouped together in this section of Dempster going west to Judson that were owned by other Black families. Robinson’s house still stands. George worked as a laborer, a coachman, a gardener, a milkman, and a general “man of all work.” Maria, on the other hand, is not listed as having a profession, and in the 1880 Census is listed as being ill with “tumors on her sides”.[ix]

Interestingly enough, while they were previously thought not to have any children, in the 1900 Census record before Maria died, she is listed as being the mother to two children, both of whom were not alive at this point in time. Additionally, there are a few matching records to George (also listed as ‘Geo’ in some census records) and Maria Robinson that indicate that the pair had three children, all of whom were born in Virginia.[x] While this makes for a fascinating revelation, this doesn’t seem accurate, seeing as George is listed as living in Evanston for every census after the 1860 census, and it is unlikely they would’ve moved between the census years. Additionally, there is record of an black servant living with the Robinsons named Emma Johnson who is listed as being born in Tennessee in 1856.[xi]

Maria died in 1901 and was buried in the all-white Vane plot in Rosehill Cemetery,[xii] while George, who died in 1911, was buried in the “colored” plot. Why would George consult with the Vane family almost 30 years after Maria left working for them to bury her in their all-white, family plot? While it does seem that the Vanes were sympathetic to social reform causes undoubtedly linked to their basis in Methodism, Maria’s burial in the Vane family plot indicates a closer relationship, one still bridled on the fact that Mrs. Vane was Maria’s employer. 

In the coming weeks of summer, I will continue to write about other instances of fragile white-black alliances in Evanston and how the power dynamics established between all parties influence how we retrospectively view them in history.


[i]  See attached Illinois 1850 Census Record from Ancestry.com.

1850 Census Record for Allen Vane

[ii]  Evanston Index, May 19, 1900, 3.

[iii]  Ibid.

[iv] See attached Maryland 1850 Slave Schedule Record from Ancestry.com.

1850 Maryland Slave Schedule

[v] All of this information about the Vane’s residences is from the 2016 EHC House Walk booklet.

[vi] See attached Illinois 1860 Census Record from Ancestry.com.

1860 Illinois Census

[vii] Evanston Index, May 19, 1900, 3.

[viii] Yarvis, Olivia. “First Black Evanston Resident’s Home Named Heritage Site.” The Daily Northwestern, 6 Aug. 2020.

[ix]  See attached Illinois 1880 Census Record from Ancestry.com.

1880 Illinois Census

[x] Illinois 1900 Census.

[xi] See above Illinois 1880 Census Record from Ancestry.com.

[xii] Evanston Index, May 19, 1900, 3.