A Publication of WTVP

With a legacy of action and activism, the Peoria NAACP turns 100 years old in 2015.

On August 14, 1908, Springfield, Illinois exploded in rage. A white woman had accused a black man of rape, and a furious mob rampaged through the hometown of Abraham Lincoln. Over the course of two days, 3,000 black residents fled the city. Two black men were lynched, five others were killed and more than 70 were injured. Dozens of businesses and homes were set ablaze, and Springfield’s black community was left in ruins. The charges were later proven false.

When Mary White Ovington, a New York journalist and suffragist, read about the riots in Springfield, she was outraged: the vicious anti-black sentiment of the South had become a national problem. Heeding a call to come to their aid, she and a small group of activists met in a tiny New York City apartment, and the following May, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was organized. Its mission: to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of all persons and eliminate racial hatred and discrimination. And it all started just 70 miles from Peoria.

“Acts of Intolerance,” Preston Jackson’s bronze sculpture—located near the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield—commemorates the 1908 Springfield race riots. Its “ten-foot towers are symbolic of the chimneys that remained standing after numerous homes and businesses of black citizens were destroyed by white rioters.”

Organizing in Peoria
Though it was the site of Lincoln’s famous anti-slavery speech, Peoria was always divided on the issue. In fact, Lincoln lost Peoria’s vote twice. As early as 1843, the Main Street Presbyterian Church agitated against slavery, but for every Moses Pettengill, an ardent Abolitionist, others were equally committed to the opposing side.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Peoria’s black community began organizing to improve its lot, but the city’s first civil rights group wouldn’t be founded until 1895. During its decade of existence, the Afro-American League of Peoria fought for voting rights, equal public accommodations and anti-lynching laws. While there is no record of lynchings within Peoria, there were two known attempts—in 1887 and again in 1903.

Peoria’s NAACP chapter was founded six years after the establishment of the national organization, on February 1, 1915, by civic leaders both black and white. More than 150 people attended its first meeting at Peoria City Hall to hear Kathryn Johnson of the national NAACP speak on the organization’s mission. Many others could not attend, however, as the gathering was mysteriously bumped from its original location at the last minute—an act cited as the group’s first case of discrimination.

In its early years, the fledgling Peoria chapter focused primarily on supporting national anti-lynching legislation, while organizing regular educational and entertainment programs. Under the leadership of Mrs. Birdie West, who succeeded original president Charles S. Ruff in 1923, the group expanded its focus on civil rights and employment. It called attention to the lack of black facilities at the Peoria Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium in 1925; the following year, the Peoria City Council voted to require rooms for blacks at the hospital.

In 1940, the first extensive survey of Peoria’s black community found living conditions not unlike those in the South. Forty percent were unemployed; 32 percent worked part-time or held jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The few black workers at the area’s major employers were relegated to menial jobs as janitors, domestics, porters, garbage collectors and meatpackers. Nine out of ten reported being denied employment because of their race; 67 percent reported instances of police injustice or brutality.

The majority of Peoria’s black community was confined to substandard housing in two neighborhoods. Just two downtown restaurants—and no hotels—served African Americans. Movie theaters were segregated, and city swimming pools admitted blacks just one day per week.

Reconciling the Law of the Land
When the commission behind this survey dissolved without addressing the abysmal conditions it had exposed, one of its advisors dedicated himself to doing just that. During the war years, Harry Sephus secured job training for black youth with the National Youth Administration, negotiated with Caterpillar and R. G. LeTourneau for the placement of African-American employees, and guided efforts to acquire the present-day Carver Center, serving as the Carver Community Center Association’s first president. In 1944, he assisted in the reorganization of the Peoria NAACP—which had gone dormant for most of the 1930s and early ‘40s—and became its president.

As the Peoria NAACP focused on employment issues, C.T. Vivian moved to town, taking a job as a director at the Carver Center. In the next decade, the minister, author and organizer would become a trusted lieutenant to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but in the mid-1940s, he honed his role as an activist in Peoria. Along with an interracial group of about 20 people, Vivian helped lead nonviolent demonstrations at Peoria’s segregated restaurants, hotels and lunch counters—among the first in the country. At the center of these efforts was Bishop’s Cafeteria, a popular downtown restaurant. After more than a year of protests, it desegregated its downtown facilities, and slowly but surely, other Peoria establishments followed.

In response to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the Peoria NAACP issued a statement of optimism and confidence:

“Monday, May 17, 1954, will be remembered as one of the greatest dates in the history of American democracy. On that date, the Supreme Court of the United States decided unanimously that segregation in public schools anywhere in the United States is unconstitutional… Now the highest law of the land is completely on our side. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence have at last become reconciled. After this, can a public housing authority justify a policy of segregated housing? Can Peoria restaurants refuse service to persons because of race? Can Peoria employers hire and fire on racial grounds? The answer to these questions is ‘Not for long, if we use the law of the land and our NAACP with courage and skill.’”

In March 1956, on the eve of trials related to the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, Harry Sephus and the Peoria NAACP organized a prayer service at the Rialto Theater in downtown Peoria to promote racial understanding. “Some 350 people attended,” reported the Peoria Journal Star, and “a collection was taken for the purpose of assisting the people of Montgomery.” Sephus “lauded the response,” saying Peoria was “the first city in the country to call on the entire population to assist in race relations.”

By the end of the ‘50s, the chapter had expanded its efforts on housing, charging the Peoria Housing Authority with discrimination and writing letters to the Peoria mayor and City Council members demanding a policy of “open occupancy.” In 1959, Dr. James Stafford, an optometrist and NAACP activist, became the Council’s first African-American member. Meanwhile, a charismatic, young postal worker led picketing efforts at the Mac-Hy Market on MacArthur Highway, which eventually closed for lack of black patronage. At the dawn of the Civil Rights Era, this man would become the pivotal figure in a movement that left no stone unturned on its quest for justice.

An Explosion of Energy
Upon replacing Sephus as president of the Peoria NAACP, John Gwynn, Jr. immediately intensified the group’s picketing and boycott efforts. In 1962, he and five members of the NAACP Youth Council were arrested at Bob & Pearl’s Café in Peoria. “We ordered six Cokes, three hot dogs and three pieces of pie, and they charged us $30—even though the price on the wall showed 15 cents for hot dogs and pie for 15 cents apiece,” he later recounted to The Washington Post. Upon paying the bill, Gwynn was refused a receipt, and the owner called the police; the group was later found not guilty on charges of disorderly conduct.

The next summer, Peoria’s civil rights movement coalesced in an explosion of energy, as the NAACP and its increasingly active Youth Council took on public transit and the utilities. The bus company—which had no black employees—was their first target. Within a week, a boycott aimed at forcing Peoria City Lines Inc. to hire black drivers proved successful. Picketing at CILCO—with just a single black employee on a payroll of 600—began in July with a sit-in.

“Three dozen people, most of them teenaged or younger, walked into Central Illinois Light Co.’s downtown offices on a Wednesday afternoon,” wrote Pam Adams in the Peoria Journal Star 50 years later. “In a well-dressed act of civil disobedience, they sat on the floor… and refused to move. About three hours later, the adults, seven men and seven women, were arrested. The adults, including Gwynn, spent a night in jail. The juveniles were released after a tense stand-off with supporters at Peoria County Jail.”

When CILCO agreed to open up job opportunities to minorities, activists moved on to Peoria Water Works. It, too, had no black employees. Early one August morning, a group of demonstrators led by Gwynn lay across the street, blocking the company’s trucks from moving. During this protest, one young activist—John Stenson, who later became Peoria’s first black police chief—suffered injury when a driver ran over his foot. After two weeks of demonstrations, the company announced the hiring of two African Americans, and demonstrations ceased.

Four days later, in a bus chartered by the Peoria NAACP, a delegation of 50 left Peoria to link with the national movement at the legendary March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They returned more energized than ever.

Though based in the black community, the civil rights cause was also taken up by the Catholic Diocese and many of Peoria’s white leaders, notes Pam Adams. “There was a feeling on the part of the business community that Peoria needed to move forward on the civil rights front,” Byron DeHaan, retired director of public affairs at Caterpillar, told her in 2013. “Many of us were active behind the scenes supporting John Gwynn.”

The Fight Continues
Following the watershed summer of 1963, the Peoria NAACP continued to serve as the movement’s backbone. The next year, it led six months of demonstrations against the Big B Barbershop near Bradley University for denying haircuts to black customers. Then the organization turned its focus to housing and education.

Though the City Council had voted unanimously for open housing in 1962, Peoria’s black families were still relegated to a few select neighborhoods and often could not obtain homeowner’s insurance—a practice known as “redlining.” Demonstrations against the Peoria Board of Realtors and numerous real estate firms, led by Gwynn and the NAACP, were ultimately successful in breaking the housing barrier. About the same time, a wave of demonstrations against the Peoria Board of Education—including a massive walk-out by Manual High School students in November 1967—paved the way for the integration of Peoria public schools, the hiring of more black teachers and administrators, and overdue changes to curricula.

Following the 1968 assassination of Dr. King, restraint on the part of both activists and the police spared Peoria significant damage as riots raged across the nation. The NAACP led 2,000 marchers—including Peoria’s mayor—from the County Courthouse to First Methodist Church, and urged the city to honor King’s legacy by enacting civil rights measures. Later that year, Gwynn was elected president of the Illinois NAACP, overseeing 120 branches across the state.

At the end of the sixties, employment remained a significant concern, with Gwynn’s NAACP targeting the building trades in efforts to open more jobs to African Americans. Although protests led to the establishment of a construction job training program in 1970, progress was slow, and the issue smoldered into the middle of the decade.

Great strides had been made, yet job opportunities remained slim. In 1976, the Fair Employment Practices Commission cited Peoria for a lack of minority hiring in both the private and public sectors. Meanwhile, the school district was found to be noncompliant with state desegregation guidelines. The same report noted that the gains produced by Peoria’s open housing ordinance were offset by a re-segregation of the city’s public housing population: as black families moved into the once predominantly-white Harrison Homes, white families moved out.

After 32 years as president, Gwynn retired in 1993. The Peoria NAACP went through two successors in as many years before again finding stability in attorney Don Jackson, who remains its leader to this day.

The Jackson Era
A native Peorian, Jackson’s roots in the community stretch back to the late 19th century, when his great-great grandfather Henry C. Gibson served as Peoria’s first African-American constable. Gibson was also the first Peorian to file a successful civil rights lawsuit, bringing suit against a downtown theater in 1904 for refusing him admission to the lower floor and ordering him to the balcony. “He was awarded $25 in damages,” says Jackson.

Inspired by his work at Peoria’s Urban League, where he helped integrate the building trades and create an apprenticeship outreach program, Jackson entered law school at the University of Illinois in 1971. Today, his downtown practice focuses on race, sex, retaliation, hostile work environment and disability discrimination. Besides serving as Peoria NAACP president for the last two decades, he was also president of the state branch from 2004 to 2011.

Under Jackson’s leadership, the Peoria NAACP again broadened its scope of activity, tackling environmental issues and healthcare, as well as its traditional concerns of employment, education and voting rights. “My job is to make sure we address those problems on a local basis,” Jackson explains. “We got involved in healthcare, promoting the Affordable Care Act… Our office was one of the places where individuals could go and sign up.”

Having wrapped up a voter registration drive and get-out-the vote campaign last fall, the organization is currently backing state legislation to change the allocation formula for school funding so it’s distributed where the need is greatest. Jackson has been an outspoken critic of Peoria’s current school administration, while supporting Quest Charter Academy—despite the national NAACP’s general opposition to charter schools. “Somehow Quest has found the formula for educating youngsters who come from poor families,” he affirms.

But as proud as he is of the organization’s work over the last half-century, Jackson has been frustrated to watch as some of its accomplishments have appeared to slip away. “For example, we’re currently sitting with the City of Peoria to resolve a problem we thought we had resolved 20 years ago—getting African Americans employed in positions with the police and fire departments. The fire department hasn’t hired an African American since 2008. The City of Peoria just hired 20 new police officers—all white males, most of them from outside the city.”

It’s a mission complicated by the subtler nature of racism in the 21st century. “It’s not in your face like it used to be,” he explains. “Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s… [African Americans] couldn’t get jobs, except for janitorial positions. You couldn’t live in certain places… You couldn’t even eat in certain restaurants in Peoria. People had to demonstrate because it was the only way they were going to make a better life for themselves and their children.”

With that progress, however, some amount of complacency set in. “Young people don’t always realize the sacrifices older folk… made in order for life to be what it is today,” says Jackson. “They don’t experience discrimination until it hits them in the face. We still get a lot of young people who come to the NAACP for assistance—but only after they’ve been impacted. Up to that point, they don’t always see the need.”

Is the NAACP still relevant? It’s a question asked of many century-old organizations, and in this case, it’s “even asked by some African Americans,” Jackson notes. “One of the reasons the NAACP was formed was because of lynchings… 70 miles from here in Springfield, Illinois. But lynchings are still going on in this country.” Citing a number of unarmed African Americans shot and killed by law enforcement, he asks, “If the NAACP doesn’t address these issues and expose them to the light of day, who else is going to do it?”

On the Frontlines
In the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner verdicts, faith in the criminal justice system in the black community stands at an all-time low. But what about Peoria? Could it become the next Ferguson? “I am definitely fearful of the possibility of an unarmed African-American teenager… getting shot by the police,” says Jackson. “We get complaints all the time from young African-American males that they get harassed by the police for what I consider to be rather minor issues… It would be very easy for one of those situations to get out of hand and a youngster end up getting killed as a result.

“However, because of our relationship with the new chief and the police department, I feel like it’s less likely to happen here,” he continues. “I serve on the police advisory committee, and the question has been raised in the past. The police department… seems to be satisfied they have ongoing training for officers that would prevent such a situation from happening. I hope they’re right, because I would hate to see that happen in the City of Peoria.”

In December, a gathering at the Peoria Civic Center was held to open up a dialogue between the African-American community and the police department—with the intention of preventing that very thing from occurring. Police Chief Jerry Mitchell, who attended the meeting, says better communication can prevent Peoria from becoming another Ferguson. Greater awareness of the city’s police advisory committee will help, adds Jackson.

As the fight for social justice continues, the NAACP—the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization—is sure to be on the frontlines. “Our job is really to agitate… and bring to the community conscience things that need to be changed in the community,” affirms Jackson. iBi

Special thanks to Linda Aylward and David Pittman for research assistance, and to the late Dr. Romeo B. Garrett, whose 1973 book, The Negro in Peoria, was an invaluable source of information.