Sara Nachamson Evans, the wife of Mayor Emanuel J. Evans, served as the “first lady” of Durham, North Carolina, from 1951 to 1963. Known affectionately as “Miz Evans” by her friends and family, she was, in her own right, a prominent local, regional, and national leader of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization with a national membership of 300,000 Jewish women.
Evans served on every level of the organization during her lifetime. She was president of her local chapter in Durham, president of the Seaboard Region of nine states from 1942 to 1945, national vice president from 1954 to 1957, and a life member of its national board for forty-four years from 1942 until 1986. She was a dynamic public speaker who was known as Hadassah’s “Southern accent,” and she traveled across the South in the late 1930s and 1940s organizing local and state chapters. During World War II, the Evanses signed fifty-five affidavits for refugees from Hitler’s Europe, personally guaranteeing jobs from American citizens in order for them to receive visas. Many worked for the Evanses, and she counted meeting their children as some of her most profound moments. “These are my children,” she once tearfully remarked at the bar mitzva of a child of one of the survivors. After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, she worked with her husband for the political support of Israel among North Carolina senators and congressmen, as well as among other political leaders in the South.
Born on July 2, 1905, she inherited her passion for Israel from her parents, Jennie B. and Eli Nachamson. Jennie Nachamson had founded Hadassah in the South in 1919 and devoted time to lead it in eastern North Carolina, even as she raised her nine children. Sara, the oldest of eight consecutive daughters and then a son, accompanied her mother on a memorable trip to Palestine in 1933 that handed her the torch of Jennie’s idealism and fired her passion for a Jewish state in the Holy Land. All eight sisters have served as presidents of local chapters of Hadassah across the South, and the family was such a legend in Jewish circles that when the sisters went to Israel in October 1968, for Evans’s fortieth wedding anniversary, the Jerusalem Post ran a photograph and a headline that read, “Sara and Her Seven Sisters.” In the synagogue, famous for its Marc Chagall windows, in the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem is a plaque commemorating the occasion.
Sara Nachamson Evans came to Durham as a young girl when the Nachamson family moved from Kinston in 1921 and opened United Dollar Store. She attended Duke University, where she played the flute in the Duke orchestra and worked in the family store. When her father became ill, much of the responsibility for running the store fell upon her.
She met E. J. “Mutt” Evans of Fayetteville while he was attending the University of North Carolina, and the unusual Duke-Carolina marriage in 1928 at the Washington Duke Hotel in Durham, with her sisters as bridesmaids and her brother as ring bearer, was a major social and religious event discussed for years. They had two sons, Robert and Eli.
“Mutt” and Sara Evans built the Durham store, renamed Evans United Department Stores, into a chain of stores in North Carolina and Virginia. She was both a talented business executive and a corporate officer of several corporations. She headed the Women’s Division of the United Way campaign in Durham in 1952 and was a member of the North Carolina Board of the American Association of the United Nations from 1961 to 1963, the League of Women Voters, and the United Fund Campaign in 1960.
Beginning in the early 1970s, and for seventeen years thereafter, she and her husband created, supported, and raised funds for the Judaic Studies Program at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The director of the program, Dr. Eric Meyers, spoke at her funeral and paid tribute to her life of service to the Jewish community, observing that she was transformed from a businesswoman with a “painful shyness” into a dynamic and passionate advocate at the speaker’s podium when she talked about Jewish causes. “She brought Durham to Jerusalem,” he stated, “and Jerusalem to Durham.”
Sara Nachamson Evans died on March 23, 1986, in Durham.
Evans, Eli N. The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South (1973), and The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner (1993).
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Evans, Eli N.. "Sara N. Evans." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 10, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/evans-sara-n>.