Welcome to Peoria Magazine’s February edition, in which we shine a spotlight on Progress & Achievement, specifically by those who not uncommonly have faced barriers to both: people of color. It’s a thick issue. There’s a lot to illuminate.
The term “people of color” casts a wide net, of course, as it includes those of many ethnicities. That said, it is not by accident that this edition coincides with Black History Month, the seeds of which were planted in 1926 by African American historian, author and teacher Carter G. Woodson, who pushed for the observance of what then was called “Negro History Week.” It debuted in the second week of February because of the proximity to the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In the 1970s, that celebration grew into a full month.
As Woodson wrote nearly a century ago, “It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is a History Week. We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in History. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hatred and religious prejudice.”
Of course, it also has been noted by no less an authority than comic Chris Rock that “Black History Month is in the shortest month of the year, and the coldest — just in case we want to have a parade.” Point made, with a laugh. It’s an observation the late Richard Pryor, one of the most famous people Peoria has produced, might have made.
All comedy aside, the gains are obvious.
A quick look at Peoria’s leadership roster shows people of color in the mayor’s seat for the first time, in the top ranks of the Illinois House of Representatives, behind the school superintendent’s desk, in the majority around the School Board horseshoe, in the Park Board president’s chair, in charge at the Chamber of Commerce, etc.
Meanwhile, we profile and/or interview those at the top of their games in business, finance, medicine, literature, law, politics, social services, entertainment, education, religion, the hospitality industry, etc. “We Shall Overcome” was the theme of America’s civil rights movement, and overcome, many of these folks have. (Peoria was a significant civil rights player, by the way, between C.T. Vivian, John Gwynn and others.)
Why is that important?
“Representation matters,” you’ll read repeatedly in this issue. For much of America’s history, people of color did not see themselves depicted accurately or at all in the nation’s story or its plans. Children, especially, need to see prominent people in the community who look like them because that has so much influence on how they perceive themselves.
In short, if we see it, we can be it.
The alternative is that the “soft bigotry of low expectations” may prevail, both as a limitation imposed by others and as self-fulfilling prophecy. Peoria cannot prosper, America cannot fully prosper, when too many of its offspring are permitted to fall short of their potential. If you expect nothing, you’ll never be disappointed, I suppose, but if you expect a great deal, sometimes you get that and more. We are reliant on one another for our collective success.
The daily headlines don’t always provide the most charitable impressions, of course. There’s no denying the challenges faced by some of our most diverse, inner city neighborhoods. Peoria ZIP codes 61602 and 61605 are among the poorest in Illinois and the nation, with unacceptable rates of unemployment, crime, decay and despair. But sometimes, the reality is a bit more nuanced than the reputation.
In this issue, Peoria Councilwoman Denise Jackson tells the stories of three South Side anchor families who defy the stereotypes and wouldn’t live anywhere else. Other Black Americans are making contributions not only in Peoria but in surrounding communities.
There’s just more to the story. At Peoria Magazine, we want to help tell it.
Enjoy, and happy Valentine’s Day.