Gregory Wilson, former Peoria Public Schools Board president, says the names of schools should reflect the values of the students and teachers who learn and work within them.
He wasn’t seeing those values when he joined the Board in 2017, Wilson said.
“When I looked at some of our buildings, they still had the names of people who were slave owners or presidents that discriminated in one form or another against minority populations,” he said. At the time some of the schools were built, local Black children weren’t even allowed to walk through their front doors, he added.
Wilson set about working to identify suitable name replacements. Since 2018, Peoria’s School Board has approved name changes for seven local facilities, five for noteworthy local men and women of color:
- Calvin Coolidge Middle School became Harold B. Dawson Jr. Middle School in 2022.
- (William Henry) Harrison Community Learning Center is now Annie Jo Gordon Community Learning Center.
- (Theodore) Roosevelt Magnet School became the Elise Ford Allen Academy in 2022.
- Thomas Jefferson Primary School was christened Dr. C. T. Vivian Primary School in 2021.
- In 2018, Woodrow Wilson Primary became Dr. Maude A. Sanders Primary.
Two other schools, Lindbergh Middle and Washington Gifted, also have new signs. Lindbergh became Liberty Leadership Middle School, while Washington, in a nod to the building’s history, has returned to Reservoir Gifted Academy.
Who were these local luminaries?
Harold B. Dawson Middle School,
2708 W. Rohmann Ave.
Harold B. Dawson Jr. touched thousands of lives as a local spiritual leader and advocate for education in the African American community.
Born in 1970 to Harold Sr. and Mattie Pearl Dawson, Dawson earned a degree in marketing from Jackson State University before getting a master’s degree in divinity from Virginia Union University.
In 2010, he was appointed president of the Peoria Christian Leadership Council, a collaboration of ministers dedicated to addressing social, economic and political concerns in the Black community. He founded New Life Christian Church in 2012 and was pastor of New Hope International Ministries. He served on the boards of the NAACP, Peoria Ministers Economic Development Organization, Catholic Charities, Peoria Airport Authority and other organizations.
Dawson passed away in 2019 at age 48.
“It is gratifying to know that other people acknowledge the impact of the work that he did,” said his oldest son, Harold Dawson III. His father “was always in the mood to learn … If you ever saw him preach, you know that his preaching style was teaching.”
Annie Jo Gordon Community Learning Center, 2727 W. Krause Ave.
Annie Jo Gordon was the first African American employee of the Peoria Journal Star. Over a four-decade career, she would become affiliated with many impactful community organizations, including the Peoria Citizens Committee for Economic Opportunity, YWCA, American Cancer Society, League of Women Voters, District 150 School Board Advisory Committee and Easterseals.
Gordon is most known for her work at Tri-County Urban League, which she joined in 1965, working her way up from secretary to director of employment by her 2006 retirement.
Gordon’s influence came into play as she campaigned tirelessly to help her daughter, Jehan, win election to the Illinois House of Representatives in 2008 as Peoria’s first Black legislator.
“My mother was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things,” said Jehan Gordon-Booth. “I have always been incredibly inspired by my mother’s life and the way she dedicated herself to serving God, her family and the community.”
Elise Ford Allen Academy,
1704 W. Aiken Ave.
Elise Ford Allen Academy is named for the founder and longtime publisher of The Traveler Weekly, a newspaper that has given voice to Peoria’s Black community since 1966. Allen also was the first Black woman to run for Peoria mayor.
She was born in 1921 to Dr. Cecil Bruce Ford, Peoria’s first Black dentist, and Florence Harrison, a well-known seamstress. The mother of 10 children lived to be 100, collecting many awards along the way including Outstanding Business Woman from the National Association of University Women and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Service Leadership Award in 1989. The Peoria NAACP recognized her for Outstanding Community Service.
Even while Allen and her husband, James, were busy publishing the newspaper, she found time to serve as president of the Parent Teacher Organizations at Roosevelt Junior High and Manual High School. Each year since 1985, the school has presented the Elise Allen Award to an eighth-grade boy and girl for high academic achievement. She was the first Black member of the YWCA and Peoria Girl Scouts boards and founder of the first 4-H Club for Black girls.
Allen’s daughter, Angela Henry, now runs The Traveler Weekly.
“My heart fills up every time I drive by (the school),” Henry said. “For our family, it is just the most wonderful and beautiful thing that could happen. She did so much for people, but she never told anyone about it. She just did it.”
Dr. C. T. Vivian Primary School,
918 W. Florence Ave.
Dr. C. T. Vivian was a renowned author, minister and civil rights leader with strong Peoria ties.
Born in Boonville, Missouri, Cordy Tindell Vivian migrated with his mother to Macomb, Illinois as a boy. He graduated from Macomb High School in 1942 and attended Western Illinois University.
Vivian’s first job was as recreation director at the Carver Community Center in Peoria, at a time of strict segregation. He participated in the first of many sit-in demonstrations, leading to the successful integration of Barton’s Cafeteria in Peoria in 1947.
Vivian went on to study for the ministry at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. He and civil rights leaders in Nashville organized sit-ins and other nonviolent action against segregated lunch counters and discrimination at other public accommodations. By 1960, Vivian was working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., becoming one of King’s closest friends. The famed civil rights leader is said to have called Vivian “the greatest preacher that ever lived.”
He participated in the Freedom Rides and took major leadership roles in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He developed the Alabama educational program that became known as Upward Bound.
Vivian published Black Power and the American Myth in 1970 and continued as a champion of civil rights for the rest of his life. He founded the C. T. Vivian Leadership Institute in 2008 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2013. Vivian died in 2020 in Atlanta, at age 95.
It’s no surprise that Vivian’s oldest daughter, Jo Jo, a retired Peoria art educator, is “very proud.
“Education was always praised in our whole family,” she said, adding that the name change was a fitting one. “Daddy continued the same work upholding the rights of those that Jefferson left out.”
Dr. Maude A. Sanders Primary School,
1907 W. Forest Hill Ave.
Maude A. Sanders was Peoria’s first Black female doctor.
Born in 1903 in New Orleans, Sanders was the youngest of 10 children. She attended Xavier and New Orleans universities, then medical school in Nashville. After starting a medical practice in St. Louis, she moved to Peoria in 1942. As no local hospitals would give her office space or provide medical care for Black patients, she opened a practice above an automotive garage.
Sanders retired in 1990 at age 89. Up until her death in 1995, she continued to help Blacks and poor whites get the medical care they needed but were often denied due to discriminatory practices and poverty.