— by Rhonda K. Craven
After the Civil War, a number of blacks moved to Chicago and then to Evanston. Among them were men such as Daniel F. Garnett, Green A. Bell, Andrew Scott and William Ender. Some worked for prominent businessmen and politicians, while others started a variety of entrepreneurial endeavors. In 1870, many of these and others were listed in the Evanston census with their wives and children.
Born a slave in Virginia
Nathaniel Branch, more commonly known as Nathan, is in this number. Born a slave in Virginia to Esther and Nathan Branch in 1828, he had three brothers. His family was split up several times, and he lived in Kentucky and Tennessee, working for different plantation owners. He was a defiant slave who ran away briefly when he was 17, and he had several run ins with his masters over the years. Eventually, he became an overseer at one of the plantations.
When Branch heard about the war, he and his wife escaped to Columbus, Kentucky, where he found the 134th Illinois Infantry Regiment, as well as Green Bell, another slave who had also escaped. They served as cooks for Company D and in 1864, they were mustered out at Camp Fry in Chicago (the Clark/Diversey/Broadway intersection).
Branch worked two years as a waiter at the Sherman House (Randolph between Clark and LaSalle) in downtown Chicago. He learned to read and attended night school during this time. His first wife had died. He came to Evanston ca. 1867 and worked for various local families. After he married Ellen Gordon of Nicholasville, Kentucky, who had a daughter, Mattie, they continued growing their family. Nathan transferred his church membership from Olivet Baptist in Chicago to the Baptist church in Evanston on July 4, 1869. A Miss Wheeler taught him to write.
In November, 1872, after the Baptist church building had been moved from another location, half the floor collapsed during worship, and many members fell into the basement. Nathan was sitting next to a window in the gallery with other members and visitors. He decided to break through and jump out the window. The next day, he paid for the window repairs.
Branch, along with Bell, were appointed as lamplighters in July of 1873. A year later, the Evanston Index reported that Branch had brought the first dray (a cart) to town and was “ready to haul to order anything from a box of peaches to a load of lumber.” He was the sexton at the Baptist church and felt privileged that he could ring the bell. Nathan had an express company at Oak Avenue and Church Street near the train depot. The family purchased a home at 1705 Lake St. (now an Evanston landmark) in 1879. He was a participant in the union prayer meeting held at the Presbyterian Church and led a session that same year.
In December, 1880, during his first trip to the South after he had escaped slavery, Branch visited family and friends in Kentucky, including an aunt who had raised him after he was separated from his mother during his teen years. After he encouraged Jordan, one of his brothers, to move to Evanston, Jordan began his own express business.
The Branch family was well-respected in the community
In the summer of 1882, he and other black Baptists participated in union services with black Methodists in a room over the post office on Davis Street west of Chicago Avenue. Branch reported in an Index item published October 14, 1882 that the Baptists voted to organize as a mission on September 29 after the Methodists voted to establish their own church. During the November 8th Baptist church prayer meeting, Nathan and his wife Ellen were among ten black congregants to request letters of dismission, which they received a week later. The new church was established on November 17 with 20 charter members. It’s been said that Nathan named the church since it was indeed the second Baptist church in Evanston!
For at least 30 years, the two churches continued varying degrees of fellowship. First Baptist provided its facilities, counsel, financial and community support as needed, in part because they still saw Branch as “our brother”. He was invited to the church’s major anniversary celebrations, during which a poem written for the occasion mentioned his service at First Baptist. That ongoing closeness, however, is cited as a reason for the very public church split in 1894 that led to the establishment of the Berean Baptist Church, now known as Mount Zion.
The Branch family was well-respected in the community. At Second Baptist, he was a deacon and a trustee. In 1888, the post office hired him to carry mail to and from the trains. Soon after, he became the special delivery letter carrier, a familiar figure with his horse and buggy. Ellen and daughter Helen were dressmakers. Sons William and Robert were cooks who later worked for the railroad. Ida was a servant in private homes. Mattie had married George Brown in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1881, and she was an active churchwoman.
A September 1889 fire destroyed the schoolhouse that had served as the church building for six years. In spring, 1890, the congregation purchased an edifice from Second Methodist in North Evanston and planned to move it to a lot Branch owned on Wesley Avenue between Lake and Grove Streets, near his home. He and other church leaders petitioned the village to make this move, but his neighbors wrote a passionate counter-petition, citing the potential fire hazard (the fire department was ill-equipped) and damage to shade trees (house movers had destroyed many of them).
In October, 1890, the congregation sought to purchase from Northwestern University the original lot on Benson Avenue (the current church location) NU had leased to them in 1883. The plan was to have NU purchase Branch’s lot on Wesley; the church would then pay the difference for the Benson lot and move the building there. However, NU declined the original deed in Second Baptist’s name because of property line issues. A revised deed, in Branch’s name, was approved soon after. By December, the church was worshiping in its 20-year-old “new” building on Benson.
Many details about Nathan’s family, his life as a slave, his escape and his time in Chicago and Evanston were included in articles that ran in the Index. At Green Bell’s death in 1890, Branch spoke at length about their shared experiences. In 1897, there was a two-part feature story about his life. Two years later, he went to Macon, GA to find his brother, Lee, after a local businessman met him there, but they were unable to connect. The paper recapped his career when he retired from the post office in 1902 and covered Ida’s wedding to John Sherrod later that year.
Nathan died on March 10, 1911, and the local papers published extensive obituaries. William, who died in 1929, was a cook on the railroad. Ellen was a faithful Second Baptist member through her death in 1934. Robert became a deacon and a trustee after he returned from Colorado. He also died in 1934. There is a photo of him in the church foyer gallery. Helen, who never married, was an organist and a longtime Sunday School teacher. She died in 1970. Ida, another active member, died in 1972. Her husband, John, had attended St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Robert’s son, Nathan, died in Evanston in 1975, while living in the family home on Lake Street with his wife and children.
Mittie Conner and Effie Setler, the daughters of Nathan’s brother Jordan, were also involved in Second Baptist’s ministries. Mittie’s daughter, Thelma, who graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1923, worked at Wieboldt’s for many years and was an assistant church organist. Effie’s daughter, Ione S. Brown, was a longtime church clerk and one of the first female trustees appointed at the church. After her death in 1973, the church’s scholarship fund was named after her in recognition of her commitment to help young people get an education, even though she didn’t have biological children of her own.
Although Nathan Branch came to Evanston nearly 150 years ago, his family’s influence is clearly woven into the city’s history!