February brings commemoration of black history. In 1973, Bradley sociology professor Dr. Romeo B. Garrett completed a manuscript entitled The Negro in Peoria. As the first black professor at Bradley, he chronicled the historic legacy of African-Americans here. His bound work remains on file in the reference section of the Peoria Public Library downtown.
As Dr. Garrett noted, “This Peoria study mirrors in microcosm the historical sociology of Negroes in the United States-their struggles and achievements.” He chronicled the fact that in 1846, the Ward Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church organized here. That church, its early school, and its efforts in the larger community played an important role from its earliest days.
Dr. Garrett also noted the anti-slavery activities of the Main Street Presbyterian Church as early as 1843 and the leadership of Moses Pettengill, whose post-Civil War home is owned by the Peoria Historical Society.
Black churches, lodges, social clubs, and a group known as “Old Colored Settlers” strengthened the social fabric of the black community in Peoria. Dr. Garrett also documented employment patterns and numerous firsts.
He devoted significant space to recalling the famous black Americans who’ve visited Peoria. On January 22, 1900, Booker T. Washington came to address the faculty and students at Bradley. The founder of Tuskegee Institute, Dr. Washington later wrote to the Colored Women’s Club of Peoria, thanking them for their $25 donation to his school.
Frederick Douglass (1817-1895), the former slave who became the leading spokesman for American Negroes in the 1800s, spoke several times in Peoria. Three days after Abraham Lincoln countered the arguments of Stephen A. Douglas here in 1854, drawing the line against expansion of slavery, Douglass was scheduled to play that same role in Aurora. Although hundreds of people crowded Aurora’s First Congregational Church, the Douglas-Douglass encounter was brief because both orators were reportedly taken sick.
In 1859, Douglass was at Rouse’s Hall in Peoria in late February and in early March delivering anti-slavery lectures from his personal perspective. By this time, Douglass had founded an anti-slavery newspaper in Rochester, N.Y.
Dr. Garrett noted Douglass lectured again in Peoria on March 10, 1864, under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Aid Commission. After the Civil War, Douglass returned to Rouse’s Hall, brought by the Library Association of Peoria. His last visit, on February 7, 1870, was for the benefit of Ward Chapel AME Church.
Douglass issued several iterations of his autobiography, the last version, in 1881, entitled Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. He tells of a lecture in Elmwood on “one of those bleak and flinty nights, when prairie winds pierce like needles, and a step on the snow sounds like a file on the steel teeth of a saw.”
He told his host, Mr. Brown, of his dread of proceeding to Peoria. “I expect to be compelled to walk the streets of that city all night to keep from freezing,” he said. A previous visit had consigned him to that fate when he could obtain no shelter at any hotel.
Brown counseled him, saying “I know a man in Peoria, should the hotels be closed against you there, who would gladly open his doors to you-a man who will receive you at any hour of the night, and in any weather, and that man is Robert G. Ingersoll.”
“No matter the hour,” he said, “neither he nor his family would be happy if they thought you were shelterless on such a night. I know Mr. Ingersoll, and that he will be glad to welcome you at midnight or at cockcrow.”
Douglass wrote that he found quarters at the best hotel in the city for the night, but in the morning called on Ingersoll. He praised Ingersoll and his family for their welcome-“one which I can never forget or fail to appreciate.” “Incidents of this character have greatly tended to liberalize my views as to the value of creeds in estimating the character of men,” Douglass wrote. Douglass concluded “that genuine goodness is the same, whether found inside or outside the church, and that to be an ‘infidel’ (as Ingersoll was often known) no more proves a man to be selfish, mean and wicked, than to be evangelical proves him to be honest, just and human.”
Ingersoll led efforts to desegregate Peoria schools. His portrait hangs at Peoria Historical Society’s Flanagan House Museum near his desk. Dr. Garrett noted that in 1883, Douglass introduced Ingersoll for a Washington, D.C., speech denouncing the Supreme Court’s repeal that year of an early civil rights act.
An 1894 book entitled America’s Greatest Men and Women described Douglass as internationally famous for over half a century and “easily the most famous living colored man” and Ingersoll as a famous orator who loved humanity but bitterly denounced the Christian religion. Both played important roles in black history in Peoria. AA!