What We Leave Behind: Bernice Rogers Holmes’ Legacies on Evanston’s Black Community

What We Leave Behind: Bernice Rogers Holmes’ Legacies on Evanston’s Black Community

Welcome to the story of Black Evanston through the lens of one of its dedicated community members, Bernice Rogers Holmes! 


This digital exhibit is a supplement to the Evanston Public Library exhibition. The exhibit asks how we remember our elders and the legacies they left behind. By remembering the life and legacies of Bernice Rogers Holmes, the exhibit offers stories about her life and contributions to Evanston’s Black community. 


The majority of the material and histories below come from Shorefront Legacy Center’s archival collection. To learn more, please visit us!

Bernice Holmes in her Evanston Township High School Yearbook in 1939
Bernice Holmes and Wilson Holmes with their daughter Deborah circa 1960s

Bernice Rogers Holmes was born on September 3, 1918 in Evanston, IL to Fred Rogers (1889-1963) and Sally Fleming (b. 1898). At the time of her birth, Evanston was experiencing an influx of African American residents. The Great Migration, a mass movement of African Americans from the South to Northern cities, brought thousands of new Black residents to the suburb. Between 1900 and 1930, the African American population grew from a little over 700 residents to more than 4 thousand Black Evanstonians. Holmes’ family consisting of her parents, and her sister, Eleanor Rogers (b. 1916), made up 4 of those residents. 

Photo inside Community Hospital, the only Black-serving Hospital in Evanston circa 1920s. Holmes was likely born in a hospital room that looked just like this.
Armed National Guards and African Americans during the 1919 race riots published in NPR’s 100 year commemorative article about the violence


A few years before she was born, in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People  was founded to ensure the US lived up to the constitutional rights given to all citizens. Just outside of Evanston, Chicago experienced race riots between July 27 and August 3, 1919. Holmes was just a child during these attacks–old enough to be aware of prevalence of racial violence, but young enough to still be learning what being Black in America meant. 38 people died in the riots–23 Black people and 15 white people.



Headlines like this one in the Chicago Defender, famed African American newspaper, reported on the violence. Mainstream media, including the Chicago Daily Tribune, also reported the racial unrest. News of racial violence no doubt entered Holmes’ orbit. Perhaps she heard whispers of the violence as her parents read the newspapers or as members of her church discussed it before Sunday service. 

Meanwhile, African American Evanstonians, like Holmes and her family, endured racial segregation. The Great Migration continued to bring more African Americans from the South to Evanston. From 1940 to 1960, the Black Evanston population continued to grow. By 1940, there were more than six thousand African American Evanstonians which accounted for almost 10 percent of Evanston’s total population.

Bernice Rogers Holmes as Community Leader

Holmes graduated from Evanston Township High School in 1939. This is what her days at going to class from 1935 to 1939 at ETHS looked like. Imagine walking through the entrance to head to class and stopping in the halls to chat with a friend afterschool! Scroll through to take a look!  

As she lived through what would become historical events, Holmes was an active member of the Ebenezer A.M.E. Church community. Founded in October 1882, the church was the first Black church in the city.


“Members of the Sunday School at Ebenezer A.M.E., Evanston’s first Black church, circa 1920.” Holmes likely grew up seeing these folks around the church and her community.
Photo of Holmes and Other Ebenezer Church Members circa 1950s
Photo of Ebenezer Gospel Choir circa 1950s



Photo of Bernice Holmes and other Ebenezer church members circa 1940s


At the church, Bernice Holmes served as President of the I.K.S. Club.


Margaret Palmer, Silvia Butler Richards, and Juanita Bibbs created the I.K.S. Club on October 15, 1940. The club’s motto was “It doesn’t matter who comes or goes, we’ll always be the same.”  The club produced plays, teas, dinners, and sponsored special sermons.


The clubs official colors were pale pink and green. Imagine Bernice Holmes wearing an all pink outfit paired perhaps with green accessories drinking her favorite kind of tea in a room surrounded by other Black women on Sunday afternoon.




Photo of Bernice Holmes and other Ebenezer church members circa 1950s

Wilson Holmes was the middle child born to James and Jesse Holmes. He was born on October 22, 1917  in Cokesbury, South Carolina. Like Bernice, he attended Evanston public schools and was an active member of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church. He worked as a Heater Operator at Clayton Mark Steel Company for 40 years before he retired.









Bernice and Wilson Holmes both sang in the Ebenezer A.M.E. Church’s Shekinah Chorus. The couple are pictured in the February 13, 175 edition of the CCC Newsette,  a weekly Black newspaper circulating from 1971-1985.

Bernice Holmes as Matriarch


Together, Bernice and Wilson Holmes had three children: Wilson Holmes Jr., Dorothy Williams, and Deborah Elizabeth Ruffin.



Left: Bernice and Wilson Holmes Sr. with Deborah Elizabeth in May 1950.


Right: Dorothy and Wilson Holmes Jr. in May 1950.




Bernice Holmes as Matriarch: Her Daughter, Dorothy Williams

Dr. Dorothy Williams, director of Family Focus circa 2000s


Bernice Rogers Holmes supported her daughter’s, Dorothy Williams, dreams of becoming a doctor. Dorothy graduated from Haven Intermediate School in 1957 and from ETHS in 1961.  She later spent years teaching public school at Dewey Elementary.



Dorothy married James W. Williams Jr. and together they had a daughter, Whitney Rae Williams. Whitney attended ETHS and Spelman College where was a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. 

As a teenager, Dorothy wrote for the Chicago Defender Teen News Edition and her family kept a scrapbook momento. Click and hold the image to scroll through the scrapbook.


Bernice Holmes as Matriarch: Her Son, Wilson Holmes Jr.



Shown left, Bernice Holmes’ son, Wilson Jr. (1938-1999), served in the United States Air Force for twenty years. He was a 1960 graduate of ETHS where he was on the football, baseball, track, ETHS choir, and male choir. Wilson Jr. married Helen Holmes with whom he had three children: Wilson Holmes III, Karen Holmes Osentowski, and Richard Holmes.


After he retired from the Air Force, he remained active in his community. He coached little league baseball and football. He was also a member of the Francis Assisi Choir and Knights of Columbus. 

Bernice Holmes as Matriarch: Her Daughter: Deborah Ruffin

Deborah Holmes in Girls’ Choir her junior year of high school-1966 (fourth row second from right)

Her daughter, Deborah Ruffin (1949-2021), also attended Evanston public schools. She graduated from ETHS in 1967 where she active in the girls’ choir and ETHS choir. She also participated in YAMO, a student run variety show.  She married Robert Ruffin with whom she had Elizabeth M. Ruffin. 


Deborah Holmes ETHS 1967 Yearbook photo

As a child, Deborah was a member of the Brownie Troop 60 Foster School. Wonder what a typical day at the Brownie Day Camp looked like circa 1950s? Let a young Deborah Ruffin tell you! She wrote a letter just to share what her typical day at camp looked like!

Text Transcription:

"I am Deborah Holmes from brownie troop 60 Foster School. I am here to tell you about day camp. We go Monday, Wednesday, Friday for three weeks. Rain or shine. We have a very nice day camp site in Glenview. The girls bring there lunch only on Mondays. On other days  we cookout. Some of the things we cook are brownie stew, mad dogs, somemores, pancakes and bacon. Some of the things we do in arts and carfts are name tages, leave books, but hotles, leave prints, and buddy burners. There are about 15 to 20 girls in a unit. Each unit divides the girls into groups. Each group has different duties to perform each day. Some clean the palace better known as the bath room. Some are water carriers, cooks, house keepers. We have a naturalist..."

Text Transcription:

"that comes once a week. He shows us how to catch insects and how to kill them. We have allcamp at the close of each day. Each unit has charge of one of the allcamp programs. So you see how we have fun in the out of doors by camping. By the day."

While her daughter was a member of the local Brownie troop, Bernice Holmes also led the Junior Girl Scouts Troop No. 117. The History of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church describes her involvement with the Junior Girl Scouts as having “a nineteen-year record in Girl Scouting and in 1965, she was awarded the Thanks badge, the highest adult honor bestowed.”


This is the uniform Bernice Holmes wore during the 1960s as she taught girls how to sew and knit!

Bernice Holmes as Matriarch & Community Leader

Bernice and her family were active participants in the Holmes-Jackson Family Reunions. During the 1980s, Bernice and her husband served on the Family Book Committee. Her daughter, Dorothy Holmes Williams, served as the family genealogist.


Take a look at the Family’s 1984 Reunion Booklet below!

What We Leave Behind: Bernice Holmes & Her Legacies






Bernice Holmes lost her only son in February of 1999.










Exactly 4 and a half years later, Bernice lost her husband, Wilson Holmes Sr. 



Bernice Rogers Holmes passed away in 2017. She was laid to rest at Sunset Memorial Lawns Cemetery next to her late husband. She lived in Evanston for nearly 100 years. Her legacy can be found in her commitment to her community–to the larger Black Evanston community. The documents, photographs, and artifacts that she left behind tell stories about what Bernice Holmes cared about, who she interacted with, who she uplifted, who she supported, and, in some senses, who she was. While there is more to her history, her activism, and her life, we can use her legacies to learn  what life was like for Black Evanstonians.


Bernice Holmes circa 2000s

Special thanks to Bernice Holmes’ daughter, Dorothy Williams for sharing Bernice’s life and legacy with us as well as sharing her archive at Shorefront Legacy Center.

This exhibit was curated by Alex Keith, Shorefront Intern. Alex is a History doctoral student at Northwestern University where she studies Black women’s cultural and political histories. As part of the Black Metropolis Graduate Assistantship, Alex had the opportunity to spend the year working with Shorefront. She hopes to use the exhibit to tell the story of Bernice Holmes’ life and legacies within Black Evanston.