African-American history

Book, Address Relate ISU Prof's Journey From Fields to Scholarship


The life of Illinois State University’s Professor Mildred Pratt was a fascinating one, leading from the rural cotton fields of Texas to the hallowed halls of academia.

Pratt’s daughter, Menah Pratt-Clarke, chronicles her incredible path in a new book, A Black Woman’s Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor: Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America. Pratt-Clarke will visit Illinois State and give a talk on the book Thursday, March 29, in the Old Main Room of the Bone Student Center.

There will be a reception at 5:30 p.m., followed by the book talk and signing from 6:30-8 p.m. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the Mildred Pratt Student Assistance Fund at Illinois State.

Sponsored by Illinois State’s African-American Studies program and School of Social Work, the event is free and open to the public.

Raised by her mother as one of eight siblings in rural east Texas during the Great Depression, Pratt became a college professor when less than one percent of full professors were black women. Pratt-Clark’s book explores her mother’s journey through Texas, Indiana, Kansas, Los Angeles, Michigan, Pittsburgh, and Illinois. Teaching at Illinois State for decades, Pratt is credited with first suggesting a child care center at the University in 1970. “Her inspirational story from the outhouse to the White House, lifting others as she climbed, provides an insightful look at issues of race, class, and gender in America,” said Pratt-Clarke.

“My hope is that this book inspires high school and college students, regardless of their race, gender, and economic status, to dream of more and to believe that more is possible,” said Pratt-Clarke, who is vice president for strategic affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, vice provost for inclusion and diversity, and a professor in the College of Education. To learn more, visit

For additional information on the speaker, contact the School of Social Work at (309) 438-3631.

Black History Project Reboots Oral History/Collections Project

This early 1960s clipping from the State Farm ALFI News is among the treasures preserved and digitized by the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project.

This early 1960s clipping from the State Farm ALFI News is among the treasures preserved and digitized by the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project.

Bloomington-Normal Black History Project (BNBHP) 2.0 Saturday presented "Resistance and Progress: 1960 to the Present," a special program to reboot the Black History Project’s oral history and collections efforts. The Bloomington-Normal Black History Project was founded in 1982 and its collections span the 19th and 20th centuries.

The program featured a public reminiscence panel discussion between long-time Bloomington-Normal residents and area youth, as well as a local history performance by students in the community and a dance performance by Breaking Chains and Advancing Increase (BCAI).  "Soul food" fare was provided by Cooking with Love.

The McLean County Museum of History is the repository for the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project, collecting stories and preserving them for future generations. The Bloomington-Normal Black History Project was founded in 1982 and its collections span the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection contains photographs, portraits, booklets, articles, and photocopies related to club organizations and churches of the local black community. In 1989, the Black History Project was affiliated with the McLean County Historical Society, which now serves as a repository for the project's collections. 

To learn more about the BNBHP, visit

The Letter: Litmus Test for '60s Clergy, Inspiration for B/N Leaders

The Letter from Birmingham Jail, also known as the Letter from Birmingham City Jail and The Negro Is Your Brother, was an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The letter defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism. It says that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action rather than waiting potentially forever for justice to come through the courts.


Responding to being referred to as an "outsider," King writes, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The letter, written during the 1963 Birmingham campaign became an important text for the American Civil Rights Movement. The Birmingham campaign began on April 3, with coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The nonviolent campaign was coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against "parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing." Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12, King was roughly arrested with SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy, ACMHR and SCLC official Fred Shuttlesworth and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on.


King was met with unusually harsh conditions in the Birmingham jail. An ally smuggled in a newspaper from April 12, which contained "A Call for Unity" -- a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods. The letter provoked King, and he began to write a response on the newspaper itself. King writes in Why We Can't Wait: "Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me."

The letter responded to several criticisms made by the "A Call for Unity" clergymen, who agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not the streets. As a minister, King responded to these criticisms on religious grounds. As an activist challenging an entrenched social system, he argued on legal, political, and historical grounds. As an African American, he spoke of the country's oppression of black people, including himself. As an orator, he used many persuasive techniques to reach the hearts and minds of his audience. Altogether, King's letter was a powerful defense of the motivations, tactics, and goals of the Birmingham campaign and the Civil Rights Movement more generally.

King began the letter by responding to the criticism that he and his fellow activists were "outsiders" causing trouble in the streets of Birmingham. To this, King referred to his responsibility as the leader of the SCLC, which had numerous affiliated organizations throughout the South. "I was invited" by our Birmingham affiliate "because injustice is here," in what is probably the most racially divided city in the country, with its brutal police, unjust courts, and many "unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches." Referring to his belief that all communities and states were interrelated, King wrote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."

King also warned that if white people successfully rejected his nonviolent activists as rabble-rousing outside agitators, this could encourage millions of African Americans to "seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare."

The clergymen also disapproved of tensions created by public actions such as sit-ins and marches. To this, King confirmed that he and his fellow demonstrators were indeed using nonviolent direct action in order to create "constructive" tension. This tension was intended to compel meaningful negotiation with the white power structure, without which true civil rights could never be achieved. Citing previous failed negotiations, King wrote that the black community was left with "no alternative." "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."

The clergymen also disapproved of the timing of public actions. In response, King said that recent decisions by the SCLC to delay its efforts for tactical reasons showed they were behaving responsibly. He also referred to the broader scope of history, when "'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" Declaring that African Americans had waited for these God-given and constitutional rights long enough, King quoted Chief Justice Earl Warren, who said in 1958 that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." Listing numerous ongoing injustices toward black people, including himself, King said, "Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.'"

Along similar lines, King also lamented the "myth concerning time," by which white moderates assumed that progress toward equal rights was inevitable, so assertive activism was unnecessary. King called it a "tragic misconception of time" to assume that its mere passage "will inevitably cure all ills." Progress takes time as well as the "tireless efforts" of dedicated people of good will.

Against the clergymen's assertion that demonstrations could be illegal, King argued that not only was civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but it was necessary and even patriotic. "I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

King stated that an unjust law was a law that degraded a human personality. Citing Augustine of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich—and examples from the past and present—King described what makes laws just or unjust. For example, "A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law." Alabama has used "all sorts of devious methods" to deny its black citizens their right to vote and thus preserve its unjust laws and broader system of white supremacy. Segregation laws are immoral and unjust "because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority." Even some just laws, such as permit requirements for public marches, are unjust when used to uphold an unjust system.


King addressed the accusation that the Civil Rights Movement was "extreme," first disputing the label but then accepting it. Compared to other movements at the time, King finds himself as a moderate. However, in his devotion to his cause, King refers to himself as an extremist. Jesus and other great reformers were extremists: "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?" King's discussion of extremism implicitly responded to numerous "moderate" objections to the ongoing movement, such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's claim that he could not meet with civil rights leaders because doing so would require him to meet with the Ku Klux Klan.

King expressed general frustration with both white moderates and certain "opposing forces in the Negro community." He wrote that white moderates, including clergymen, posed a challenge comparable to that of white supremacists, in the sense that, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection." King asserted that the white church needed to take a principled stand or risk being "dismissed as an irrelevant social club." Regarding the black community, King wrote that we need not follow "the 'do-nothingism' of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist."

In closing the letter, King criticized the clergy's praise of the Birmingham police for maintaining order nonviolently. Recent public displays of nonviolence by the police were in stark contrast to their typical treatment of black people, and, as public relations, helped "to preserve the evil system of segregation." Not only is it wrong to use immoral means to achieve moral ends, but also "to use moral means to preserve immoral ends." Instead of the police, King praised the nonviolent demonstrators in Birmingham, "for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes."

King wrote the letter on the margins of a newspaper, which was the only paper available to him, and then gave bits and pieces of the letter to his lawyers to take back to movement headquarters, where the pastor Wyatt Tee Walker and his secretary Willie Pearl Mackey began compiling and editing the literary jigsaw puzzle.

An editor at The New York Times Magazine, Harvey Shapiro, asked King to write his letter for publication in the magazine, but the Times chose not to publish it. Extensive excerpts from the letter were published, without King's consent, on May 19, 1963, in the New York Post Sunday Magazine. The letter was first published as "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in the June 1963 issue of Liberation, the June 12, 1963, edition of The Christian Century, and in the June 24, 1963, issue of The New Leader. The letter gained more popularity as summer went on, and was reprinted in the July Atlantic Monthly as "The Negro Is Your Brother." King included a version of the full text in his 1964 book Why We Can't Wait.

The Bookshelf: New Library Selections Address Modern Challenges, Historical Context

As local youth return to school, it may be the right time for a little adult homework, as well. The Normal Public Library's latest acquisitions offer a global perspective on the swirling issues that are shaping our society and the historical forces that have shaped our attitudes.

Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics reveals how the battle between feminists and their conservative challengers divided the nation as Democrats continued to support women's rights and Republicans cast themselves as the party of family values. Meanwhile, The Glass Universe offers a prequel of sorts to Hidden Figures' story of Space Age racial and feminist empowerment. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon the female corps included graduates of the new women's colleges — Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates.

Immigration has become a focal point for U.S. debate, community division, and growing alarm. In Latino Heartland, Sujey Vega addresses the politics of immigration, showing us how increasingly diverse towns can work toward embracing their complexity by focusing on one Hoosier community's experience. The Book of Isaias: A Child of Hispanic Immigrants Seeks His Own America tells the story of 18-year-old high school senior Isaias Ramos, who plays in a punk rock group called Los Psychosis and is so bright that when his school’s quiz bowl goes on local TV, he acts as captain. School counselors want him to apply to Harvard. But Isaias isn’t so sure. He's thinking about going to work painting houses with his parents, who crossed the Arizona desert illegally from Mexico.

The horrors and triumphs of America's racial history come alive in a trio of new non-fiction selections. Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America revisits Forsyth County, Georgia, which at the turn of the twentieth century was home to a large African-American community that included ministers and teachers, farmers and field hands, tradesmen, servants, and children. Many black residents were poor sharecroppers, but others owned their own farms and the land on which they’d founded the county’s thriving black churches. Then, in September 1912, three young black laborers were accused of raping and murdering a white girl. One man was dragged from a jail cell and lynched on the town square, two teenagers were hung after a one-day trial, and soon bands of white “night riders” launched a coordinated campaign of arson and terror, driving all 1,098 black citizens out of the county. He Calls Me By Lightning: The Life of Caliph Washington and the forgotten Saga of Jim Crow, Southern Justice, and the Death Penalty offers another harrowing narrative: In 1957, Washington, a seventeen-year-old simply returning home after a double date, was swiftly arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. The young man endured the horrors of a hellish prison system for thirteen years, a term that included various stints on death row fearing the "lightning" of the electric chair. Finally, The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution, focuses on the faces of protest and activism 50 years before Black Lives Matter became a cause. The book offers a reappraisal of the Panthers' history and legacy through portraits and interviews with surviving Panthers as well as illuminating essays by leading scholars.

The Thunder Before the Storm: The Autobiography of Clyde Bellecourt examines another aspect of American racism and social justice, through the eyes of the co-founder of the American Indian Movement. 

The LGBTQ community continues as well to wage its battle for equality, respect, and recognition. 2Brides 2Be: A Same-Sex Guide for the Modern Bride is designed to help couples navigate the world of lesbian wedding planning with humor and advice from wedding professional on everything from the logistics of walking down the aisle to wording the invites. Born Both: An Intersex Life covers more somber ground -- the turbulent but ultimately triumphant life of Hida Viloria, who was raised as a girl but discovered at a young age that her body "looked different." She felt "scared and alone, especially given my attraction to girls," until at 26, she began to connect with the intersex community.

I Am Not Your Negro Completes Baldwin's Vision

The documentary I Am Not Your Negro is scheduled at 7 p.m. Feb 28, March 2, and March 5 at the Normal Theater, and at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at the AMC Starplex in Normal.

In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his literary agent describing his next project, Remember This House. The book was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and successive assassinations of three of his close friends — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.

At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind only thirty completed pages of his manuscript.

Now, in his incendiary new documentary, filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished. The result is a radical, up-to-the-minute examination of race in America, using Baldwin’s original words and flood of rich archival material.

I Am Not Your Negro is “a journey into black history that connects the past of the Civil Rights movement to the present of #BlackLivesMatter.” It questions black representation in Hollywood and beyond. And, ultimately, by confronting the deeper connections between the lives and assassination of three leaders, Baldwin and Peck have produced a work that challenges “the very definition of what America stands for.”

IWU Program Highlights Douglass' Pioneering Photo Work

The co-director of the Yale Public Humanities Program, Laura Wexler, will visit Illinois Wesleyan University Feb. 9-10 as part of the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar Program.

Wexler is professor of American studies, professor of film and media studies, and professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Yale. She is founder and director of the Photographic Memory Workshop at Yale, and the former co-chair of the Yale Women Faculty Forum. She has received numerous fellowships and awards, including a Henry R. Luce Foundation Grant for a three-year project on “Women, Religion and Globalization.”  Since 2011, she has been principle investigator on a project to make a web-based interactive research system for mapping, searching and visualizing more than 170,000 photographs from 1935-1945 created by the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information. Wexler holds M.A., M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University in English and Comparative Literature.

She will present a talk entitled, “Frederick Douglass: On Photography” at 4 p.m. Feb. 9 in Beckman Auditorium. In the 1860s, Douglass gave several public lectures where he discussed the importance of the then-new invention of photography. In “Pictures and Progress” he shared his vision of the role he hoped photography would play in fostering a more democratic society after the Civil War. Wexler’s lecture engages with his critical thought in the context of his time, and ours. The presentation is free and open to the public.

The purpose of the Visiting Scholar Program is to contribute to the intellectual life of the institution by making possible an exchange of ideas between the Visiting Scholars and the resident faculty and students. The Visiting Scholars spend two days on each campus and take full part in the academic life of the institution. Founded in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa’s mission is to champion education in the liberal arts and sciences, to recognize academic excellence, and to foster freedom of thought and expression. Illinois Wesleyan’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter received its charter in 2001. Wexler’s visit to Illinois Wesleyan is also a co-curricular programming event associated with Illinois Wesleyan’s intellectual theme Women’s Power, Women’s Justice.     

Atlanta Media Pioneer to Headline King Awards Luncheon

The annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Awards Program, represents a commitment to the legacy of Dr. King, and recognizes those individuals in our community who have helped to keep his dream alive. This year will be the 41st anniversary celebration of the Dr. King Awards Program. Bloomington-Normal's Dr. King celebration is one of the longest continuous running programs in the country.

Nominations for the 2017 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Awards are due by Tuesday.Winners will be announced and awards will be presented at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Awards Luncheon on Saturday, January 14, 2017 at the Brown Ballroom at Illinois State University's Bone Student Center. 

Tickets for the 2017 luncheon honoring Dr. King are available from City of Bloomington and Normal Human Relations Commission members. Tickets may also be purchased at Bloomington and Normal city halls. Single tickets are $20. Reserved tables are available.

This year’s guest speaker will be broadcast journalism pioneer Monica Pearson, who in 1975 became the first minority and first woman to anchor the evening news in Atlanta, Georgia. Over a 37-year career with WSB, the CBS network affiliate in Atlanta, Ms. Pearson won numerous journalism and humanitarian awards, including 33 local and regional Emmy Awards.  In March 2012, the bipartisan Georgia delegation to the U.S. Congress honored her on the floor of the U.S. House as "a true pioneer and a trailblazer in television news."

Watterson Tribute To Parks Highlights Civil Rights Struggle

Tucked away in Watterson Towers, between the dining center and residence hall, is the newly renovated Rosa Parks Conference Room named after the courageous activist who refused to give up her seat on the bus and became the focal point of the Montgomery bus boycott. 

What was once just a room with a handful of plaques scattered across the walls, now has a magnificent mural highlighting the civil rights era.

Donald Reed, associate director of University Housing Services, was instrumental in helping complete the mural project. “We wanted to recognize the role Rosa Parks played during the early stages of the civil rights movement, in addition to telling the story of other civil rights leaders of that time,” he said.

The mural extends along the back wall of the room and recognizes key figures who contributed to what Rosa Parks did when paving the way to a more inclusive, democratic society. “The mural highlights organizations, activists, and politicians from Brown, to the protests like Montgomery, the March on Washington, Selma, to the great legislative victories of the civil rights movement such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Touré Reed, associate professor of African American history and Rosa Parks Room committee member.

In addition to Rosa Parks, the committee challenged themselves to include other female activists who contributed to the civil rights movement because men were often in the spotlight. “Many of us know Rosa Parks as well as Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall,” said Donald Reed. “We wanted to showcase a better balance of men and women on the mural.” He also noted that women were fighting for their rights just 30 years prior to the African American civil rights movement.

As part of the academic mission of the University, the wall was a collaborative effort between academics and student affairs. “We wanted this wall to be educational and for people to look and say ‘Oh, I didn’t know that,’” said Donald Reed. “For example, many people don’t know Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was originally titled ‘Normalcy No More,’ calling on the federal government to pursue full employment policies and raise the minimum wage, which is still at the center of our political discourse today,” he said.

As a result of the renovation, the room now has greater usability for the campus. There is technology available in the room, mirrors for dance groups, and a white board wall. “A lot of students, faculty, and staff use our spaces—so when they are in the space, we hope they will learn something,” said Director of University Housing Services Stacey Mwilambwe, who served on the Rosa Parks Room Committee.

The committee members who have been a part of the Rosa Parks Room transformation hope that visitors will be inspired. “I think many of those who take the time to gaze upon the walls in the new Rosa Parks Room will get something out of it—be it edification or just a warm feeling about the commitment that many staffers at our university have to both education and a fair and democratic society,” said Touré Reed.

Dale: 100 Black Men Honors Mentorship, Education

By Dale Avery

President, 100 Black Men of Central Illinois

I have spoken on numerous occasions about the 100 Black Men of Central Illinois. Many of you who will hear this message may have heard or know about the work we do in the Bloomington/Normal Community. For those of you that don’t know, we are a non-profit organization with the mission of improving the quality of life in the communities where we live. Our chapter accomplishes this by focusing our work and efforts around 4 key pillars – Mentoring, Education, Health and Wellness, and Economic Empowerment.

The Central Illinois Chapter is eleven years old and we are very proud of the successes in the community since our inception. We have mentored hundreds of kids, given away thousands of dollars in scholarships, hosted health forums and conducted events to enhance student and adult economic knowledge.

Second, along with (2015 Mentee of the Year Markus Brooks), we took two students teams from Bloomington/Normal to participate in the State Farm African American History Challenge and the Dollars and $ense programs. Our history team gave a great effort but was defeated in the first round by the team who won the championship. Our Dollars and $ense team won second place and only lost by a narrow half point margin. The African American History Challenge team included Christian Baker and Radiance Campbell and the Dollars and $ense team was made up of Alexys Ogorek and Stacie Harms, all from Normal Community High School.

Last of all, I was extremely blessed by being recognized with the Wimberly Award for Service. I am still in shock having been selected out of ten thousand plus members. As I said in my acceptance comments, I was granted this honor because of the gifts and strengths I received from our Heavenly Father, the morals instilled by my parents, the support of my wife and children, and fellow local chapter members that have carried out our vision.

100 Black Men of Central Illinois' annual Excellence Gala is August 26 -- tickets & information are available online, from members of the 100,  or at J-Bo's Handbags, 216 N. Center St., Bloomington.  Keynote speaker is Dr. Harold Davis, founder and CEO of TALKS mentoring program.

Drama Walking With My Ancestors Illuminates Slave Trade

Walking With My Ancestors, an original play about enslaved Africans in West African slave-holding dungeons, will be presented at 8 p.m. Saturday, October 24, and at 4 p.m. Sunday, October 25, in Illinois State University’s Kemp Recital Hall. Admission to the performances is free.

Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum

Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum

Performances will combine drumming, dance, song, and words to depict the experiences of Africans held in slave-holding dungeons before being sent to plantations in the Americas. Following each performance, there will be a Q-and-A session with the performers and audience participation activities involving call-and-response singing, storytelling, and polyrhythmic hand-clapping.

The show’s playwright, Illinois State University Professor Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum, will also discuss the inspiration for Walking With My Ancestors. The show is based on her personal experiences as an ethnomusicologist while visiting the former slave-holding dungeons in her native Ghana. She describes the dungeons as “the tombs and wombs in which Africans were buried and reborn as slaves.”

“By disrupting our understanding of the status quo and giving voice to previously unheard narratives, a most important but neglected past that still defines who we are and how we interact with each other, Walking With My Ancestors offers important perspectives on slavery in its connection to today’s racial problems with truths of this past,” said Aduonum. “In the aftermath of Charleston, Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore, Walking With My Ancestors compels us to deepen dialogue and engagement needed to address racial violence, and begs us to rethink how much has changed, or not, in race relations and policies, helping us to move towards healing.”

Walking With My Ancestors is choreographed by Ama Oforiwaa Aduonum and directed by School of Theatre and Dance Professor Kim Pereira. The performances are presented by Illinois State’s College of Fine Arts and School of Music, with funding from the School of Music and MECCPAC, a Dean of Students Diversity Initiative.

Cemetery Walk Features Pioneering Woman in War Effort

After several years working as a live-in maid to the mother of Adlai Stevenson II, Matilda Calcote headed to the West Coast in 1944 to work as a ship welder building destroyers for the U.S. military. A regular "Rosie the Riveter," she remained there for several years, also working as a spot painter and tank cleaner. But Matilda soon returned to Bloomington when the gruesome sight of dead sailors in the bulkhead of ships coming to port became too much to bear. She lived another 40 years and was an active member of the African-American community.

Calcote is one of eight diverse past McLean County personalities featured in dramatic recreations at this year's Evergreen Cemetery Walk in Bloomington, which continues next weekend.

Every year, the Evergreen Cemetery Walk brings the voices of McLean County's history to life. Costumed actors portray individuals representing all walks of life from the county's past on the beautiful grounds of Evergreen Memorial Cemetery. This event serves over 3,500 people (mostly students) every year. To date, the walk has featured 157 different individuals from all walks of life, whose stories illustrate the impact the people of McLean County have had on history -- locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Please visit to purchase tickets; for more information on purchasing tickets, please call 309-827-0428309-827-0428. Tickets also are for sale at Casey's Garden Shop, The Garlic Press, and Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.

Matilda Bell Heaston entered the world on November 30, 1910. Born to Jake and Doshie (Robinson) Heaston in Randolph, Tennessee, Matilda was one of 15 children though it is unclear exactly how many brothers and sisters she had. While living in Tennessee, Matilda's parents were sharecroppers. In 1920, at the age of 10, Matilda and her family moved to Luxora, Arkansas, just across the Mississippi River. There, Matilda’s parents were able to farm independently.

Many African-Americans and low-income whites experienced the oppressive sharecropping system of the South. In fact, Mississippi County, Arkansas, where the Heastons farmed, had a very high percentage of tenant farms which was 90.3 percent in 1930. This was the second highest rate among the Arkansas delta counties at that time. Matilda recalled “that real hard way of living, we never had that because we always raised our food....”

The family later moved into a house that they had purchased. Matilda grew up there and would eventually occupy the residence with her first husband and daughter. Her mother took in laundry and did not have a job outside of the home. Her father worked as a blacksmith and shoed horses. Matilda attended an all-African American school in Arkansas. In fact, she never attended an integrated school throughout her education.

In 1926 Matilda married Lucious Walton. On December 2 of that year, she gave birth to a daughter, Ruthie Mae Walton. Two years later, Matilda and Ruthie moved to Bloomington, Illinois where they joined Lillian Augusta (Heaston) and Robert Lee Boykin, Matilda’s older sister and brother-in-law. Matilda’s marriage had hit a rocky patch and she and Lucious had separated. Eighteen-year-old Matilda and her toddler briefly moved in with the Boykins before beginning work for Helen Stevenson. For at least two years, Matilda served as Helen’s personal maid and even lived at the Stevenson home at 1316 East Washington Street. Matilda later worked as a maid for other local families.

Domestic service was typical among African American women in Bloomington-Normal. In fact, 90 percent of African American workers in the nation in 1930 performed agricultural or domestic service jobs. Half of these domestic servants worked in private homes. The other half served as laundresses, waitresses, untrained nurses, and elevator operators among other roles. According to Matilda, jobs and housing were easy for her to find even during the economic challenges of the Great Depression.

Matilda left Illinois several times in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1930, she and her daughter moved to Holland, Missouri with to be with her parents and younger siblings. In the 1930 United States federal census, she was listed as “Matilda Young” though there is no record of another marriage at that time and the name does not appear again in any other sources.

In 1934, she returned home to Arkansas, where she stayed for one year. She distributed agricultural “commodities” in Blytheville as part of a government relief program. In October 1933, just prior to her arrival in Arkansas, President Roosevelt ordered the formation of the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC), an operation overseen jointly by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). The FSRC worked to reduce agricultural surplus by purchasing excess crops and animal products and distributing them to state relief agencies. Those state agencies—and employees like Matilda—would then provide this food to people in need. Interestingly, Matilda recalled that one of the women in charge “had more in her basement than the people had on the street.”

When asked whether the Great Depression affected her much, Matilda answered, “No, I always had work to do…. I never had anything in my life given to me free.” Over the course of her career, Matilda also served as a “commercial worker” and spent time working in restaurants, which she did not like very much.

By 1940, Matilda was married to William C. Miller. They lived in Bloomington’s Ward 5 (northwestern Bloomington) where they rented a home for $10 per month which is the equivalent of $169.86 in 2015 dollars. William worked as a garage janitor and earned $624 for 52 weeks of labor. Matilda was a housemaid for a private home, collecting $320 for 40 work weeks. Together they brought in $944 which is the equivalent of $16,150.21 in 2015 dollars. To put these amounts in perspective, the median annual income for a man in 1940 was $956; for a woman, it was $592. Assuming Matilda worked at least 40-hour weeks, this meant that she earned 20 cents per hour—much less than the minimum wage at the time which was 30 cents per hour.

Overall, this census data provides a valuable perspective on the African American economic situation. Federal measures to relieve the economic strain caused by the Great Depression failed to reach female African American workers. In particular, the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which introduced the minimum wage, excluded the two sectors in which many African Americans worked; agriculture and domestic service.

Not all federal programs passed over African Americans workers. On June 25, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which attempted to curb the “discrimination of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin….” Although the United States had not yet declared war, American industry was ramping up production to help its ally Great Britain fight the Axis powers. Despite this need, many factories refused to hire African Americans. These discriminatory practices angered Chicagoan Asa Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Backed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League, Randolph pushed for fair hiring practices. He called for 100,000 African Americans to march on Washington to protest discrimination in defense industries. Embarrassed, President Roosevelt issued his Order which also created a Committee on Fair Employment Practice. The committee was charged with investigating employment discrimination cases.

In mid-1943, nearly 65 percent of shipyard workers on the West Coast were women.

In mid-1943, nearly 65 percent of shipyard workers on the West Coast were women.

In her oral history interview, Matilda recalled the growth of black employment in Bloomington-Normal during the early 1940s when African Americans began to be employed at places like American Steel and Williams Oil-O-Matic. In fact, her brother, probably her younger brother William Harrison Heaston, started working at the latter business in 1942. Although it’s unclear what job William specifically performed at the factory, the Williams Oil-O-Matic company fulfilled a variety of military contracts requiring precision machine work. The company manufactured hydraulic control devices (or what were called “oil gears”) for aiming antiaircraft guns, as well as smoke screen generators for the U.S. Navy and parts for the Boeing B-29 Super Fortress bomber.

Matilda soon sought employment in the defense industry herself when she left Bloomington in 1944 and worked in Seattle, Washington, for eight years. She built destroyers for the war effort. Matilda recalled that there was a strong need for these types of ships because 50 or more of them protected larger ships at sea. They were in such high demand that she helped produce a ship every 60 days. She worked several jobs at the shipyard including spot painter, welder, and tank cleaner. In her oral history, she recalled the “depressing” nature of tank cleaning: “So many times when them [sic] ships would limp in from abroad, from the sea, there would be a bunch of sailors when they’d open that bulk head, you know. They’d be in there. It was terrible.” Women at the shipyards received jobs based on their existing skill set. According to Matilda, the employers “didn’t teach you to do it. You had to take a sweeping job if you didn’t already have a skill. But if you already knew how to do those things, they’d give you a trial and see if you could do it. And then they’d let you have it.” Fortunately, Matilda had welding skills and got the job.

The start of World War II dramatically changed the relationship between women in general and the American workforce. It also provided inroads for African American and other minorities into the workforce. Due to a labor shortage caused primarily by white men leaving the workforce for military service, these new workers took over various roles that had historically been unavailable to them. These roles included skilled and semiskilled factory operations such as work in munitions, food, and textiles factories. In total, the number of African Americans who worked in civilian jobs increased by approximately one million between 1940 and 1944. Sixty percent of those workers were women. Throughout the United States, African American women saw a 40 percent rise in employment during this time period. For example, in 1942 the Brooklyn Navy Yard hired women mechanics for the first time in 141 years and nearly ten percent of the first 125 women hired there were African American. At the same time in Detroit, Michigan, fewer than 30 black women were employed in war plants; by November 1943, over 14,000 worked in that occupation.

It is unclear when Matilda and William Miller divorced but on November 8, 1947 she married L.C. Riley in Seattle. By 1952, the new couple had moved to Bloomington and were living with Matilda’s mother at 1322 N. Ewing Street (her father had passed away in 1951). Between 1953 and 1957, L.C. worked at the whites-only Louis E. Davis American Legion Post No. 56 as a bus boy and later a custodian. Two years later, he earned a living as a laborer for Behrenz Asphalt in Bloomington. By 1957, Matilda and L.C. were residing at 1204 W. Street. They divorced sometime before 1959 when he had married Mary Burnett.

Matilda returned to the West Coast. On May 13, 1960 she married William Calcote in Seattle, Washington where they were both living. William was 23 years her junior. By the next year, they were back in Bloomington living at 1322 N. Ewing with Matilda’s mother, though the city directories show Matilda at 1204 W. Mulberry Street. From 1964 to 1971 the Calcotes lived at the N. Ewing address. During that time—five days a week from 1961 to 1976—Matilda (or “Tillie” as she was known to some) worked as a maid at the Bloomington home of Betty Zimmer. In 1972, Matilda and William resided at 703 W. Monroe Street where they remained for the rest of their married lives.

Through the years William had found better and more secure employment. He worked as a custodian at the Eureka Williams plant from 1963 until 1967, when he took over as a maintenance worker at the Holiday Inn. In 1971 he returned Eureka and worked there for two more years. In 1974 William began custodial and maintenance duties at Bloomington Junior High School until 1979. After that he served as a maintenance man for the local Board of Education. William was a custodian at Raymond School at the time of his death in 1980. Matilda was retired at that time and did not return to work.

The Calcotes were members of Union Baptist Church located at 514 W. Jackson Street. In fact, after arriving in Bloomington in 1928, Matilda joined this church and worshipped there whenever she lived in town. She also actively participated in the church’s Willing Workers Club and Progressive Women’s Club. These social clubs performed projects to better the members and the community as a whole. In 1953, she led the women of the church in directing three services for “Women’s Day.” Sixteen years later, she was co-chair of that same event where local African American community leader Caribel Washington spoke. Around 1975, Matilda joined the Three C Club which brought women together to discuss issues that regularly affected African Americans. The next year she took over as chaplain of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Redd-Williams Post No. 163 of the American Legion, an all-African American post. Her brother was a World War II veteran which is how she qualified for membership.

William Calcote was only 47 years old when he passed away on September 28, 1980. He and Matilda had been happily married for 20 years. Matilda thought that her previous marriages were inconsequential by comparison. She said they were the result of being “young and not knowing what was going on and just married.” Family members laid William to rest at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery on October 2, 1980.

Matilda’s pride in her grandchildren could not be hidden. She spoke highly of her granddaughter who worked as a nurse, and her great-grandsons, who were medical students in neurosurgery and psychiatry. She credits the lack of role models as to why her great-grandsons left Bloomington. In her own words, “There was nobody doing anything. Nobody to look up to... There wasn’t no men doing nothing, but, you know, ‘shacking up’ and stuff.” By all accounts Matilda was a strong, hard-working, and adaptable human being. Through multiple jobs and marriages, she maintained her independence.

Matilda passed away at the age of 80 on December 27, 1990, having been ill for several months. Her funeral service was held at Union Baptist Church on New Year’s Eve. She was laid to rest next to William at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery.

Bloomington Labor Day Parade Sept. 7, Emphasizes Community Service

The theme for the 2015 Bloomington Labor Day Parade is "For more than ourselves," emphasizing community service and involvement.

The parade marches on Monday, September 7 at 10 a.m., line up at 9 a.m. on Front Street in Downtown Bloomington.  The parade will proceed west on Front Street to Lee Street, south on Lee Street to Wood Street, and then west on Wood Street to Miller Park.

"The parade theme reflects our close community ties," said Trades & Labor President Ronn Morehead.  "All of our unions, through donated labor, volunteering and donations, support local charities, and community organizations.  We want those community organizations to be the center of this year's parade, with Labor's contributions to them."

The parade features union marching units, high school bands, construction equipment, community organizations, antique cars, and elected officials and aspirants for political office. Not In Our Town: Bloomington/Normal is scheduled to participate.

The local labor community has been a key catalyst in driving diversity and cultural growth. World War II brought unexpected changes to the Twin Cities workplace -- women and African-Americans in the factory. Williams began hiring women as military draft depleting the workforce, Williams losing 383 employees to the armed forces. Williams initially hired 56 women in early 1943, using training films to acquaint them with plant processes.

The other group hired was African-American workers. Although the new female hires joined Machinists Lodge 1000, the African American workers were not allowed to participate in the union. They were kept segregated from the rest of the workforce, doing mainly hand filing and finishing work, and only worked on defense contracts.

A. Phillip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters president, had successfully lobbied President Roosevelt in 1941 to end discriminatory hiring practices. Roosevelt issued an executive order against racial discrimination in war contracts. Ruth Waddell, who worked at Williams during the war, remembered that "some people had problems with us being there," but she and other African-American workers enjoyed the higher pay and an opportunity to do work usually denied to them. As soon as the war contract work ended, though, the African-American workers were laid off.


Arlene: Louisiana Transplant 'Walking History Book'

Arlene Hosea

WJBC Forum

I will begin with a quote by Marcus Cicero:

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.   For what is the worth of human life, unless to be woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

Pantagraph 2014: Arlene Hosea (third from left) and Henry Gay (center)

Pantagraph 2014: Arlene Hosea (third from left) and Henry Gay (center)

August 5, 2015 is a very important day. Why is that, you might ask? Well, it is the 91stbirthday of Mr. Henry Gay.   Who is Mr. Gay you might ask? Well, if you do not know him, I plan to tell a bit about him but if you get a chance to talk to him, please do because it will be an enlightening conversation.   He is a walking history book regarding African American life in this community over the past 70 years.

Mr. Gay is a man who relocated to the Bloomington-Normal area in 1945 from Shreveport Louisiana and he has seen this community grow and change.   I attended the 2015 History Makers Gala with him and realized how much information he has to share. Mr. Gay has known my family for years and has known me since I was a baby.   I used to be at the Gay family home in the mid to late 1970’s all ofthe time as his daughter Peg was my best friend in high school. Mr. Gay and his wife, the late Bernice Gay was always nice and hospitable. They always asked how things were and how school was going. The conversation about education was important to them and is a very important part of Mr. Gay’s conversation today.   I did not realize at 17 years of age, that I was talking to an advocate who helped craft changes in this community and who made my journey easier because of what he did.

During one of our recent conversations, I learned that this husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and longtime member and Deacon of his church believed in the philosophy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and has worked hard to “follow Kings example.” In 1952, Mr. Gay joined the local chapter of the NAACP, and has been “affectionately referred to as Mr. NAACP or the NAACP Man” because of his leadership role within the organization and being one of its most active members.   Mr. Gay is a very humble man who does not desire to be the center of attention, but a man of conviction and one who will speak up to try to ensure equality and equity for others.

Our community was a different community in 1945 when Mr. Gay arrived and was different when he marched and met with others in the community about housing rights, job opportunities, and theimportance of education and other basic rights. Mr. Gay has been recognized over the years for his contributions.   A few of the recognitions that he has received include: A recipient of the 1988 Bloomington Human Relations Award, in 2000 hereceived the NAACP Roy Wilkins Award for service to the NAACP, and most recently, he was presented with a certificate of recognition for his contributions for “the betterment of the African American Community of Bloomington-Normal and McLean County at the June 20, 2015 Juneteenth Celebration. In 2001 the Student Chapter of the NAACP asked Mr. Gay to be the keynote speaker for their first annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration banquet. His keynote was entitled “Martin Luther King – A Lifetime of Peaceful Protest.”

Mr. Gay is passionate about children giving their best and staying in school to obtain their education.   His quote that I will always remember is “get your education because that is something no one can ever take from you.” Mr. Gay fully understands that education is the key to future opportunity.   If you talk to him, he can tell you about earning $4.50 per week and being thankful for having a job. He can tell you about working hard to raise a family and providing opportunity for his children. As I stated to Mr. Gay one evening while sitting on his porch in early June, “I wish all of my nieces, nephews, and grandchildren could speak with you because your story is one that all of our youth should hear.” Then I added, “It really is one we should all hear.”

Happy Birthday, Mr. Henry Gay, and thank you for being committed to making this community a better one over your 70-year residency.

Arlene Hosea was born and raised in Bloomington.  She retired from Illinois State University and is on the Board of Directors for Special Olympics Illinois.  She has also served on the Town of Normal Human Relations Commission, The Baby Fold and the YWCA Board of Directors.  Arlene resides in Normal.

Kennedy to be Honored Thursday, Defends Dolezal

By Andy Dahn


A Bloomington civil rights activist who will be honored at Thursday night’s 2015 McLean County History Makers Gala said a recent NAACP controversy involving a white leader was blown out of proportion.

Rachel Dolezal is accused of portraying herself as African-American to lead Spokane, Washington’s NAACP Chapter and stepped down from her position last week. Merlin Kennedy fought for civil rights in Central Illinois throughout his career and said he believes Dolezal when she says that she identifies as a black woman.

“Some people identify that way,” Kennedy said. “I mean all people are not the same way. There are some Christian people who have got enough nerve to fight for what they think and she probably got enough nerve to do it. But they just won’t let her do it.”

Kennedy said Dolezal deserves the freedom to live her life however she pleases.

“If she wanted to practice her life that way, why can’t she?” said Kennedy. “She should have had a chance to practice her life that way if she really wanted to.”

Kennedy served as an NAACP president in the 1960’s and worked to help more minorities get hired by businesses like State Farm. While he said progress has certainly been made, Kennedy said African-Americans must continue to fight for equality the right way.

“I would tell young people to stand up for whatever they believe,” Kennedy said. “As long as they’re not breaking any rules, they should go for it.”

Kennedy was the first chair of the Bloomington Human Relations Commission and also served on the Board of the YMCA of Bloomington.

(Kennedy was featured in a February Black History Month piece on Twin Cities Stories for his then-controversial portrayal of Santa Claus in downtown Bloomington in 1966.)

The Segregationist Secrets of McLean County

Scenes like this put a public face to segregation in McLean County during the mid-20th Century. Photo from McLean County Museum of History.

Dr. Mark Wyman, ISU emeritus history professor, will present “Segregation – Our Community’s Secret,” 1:30 p.m. April 11 at the McLean County Museum of History.

Admission is free for the presentation, which will focus on the now largely forgotten history of segregation in the Twin Cities. According to Wyman, a local African American leader once commented to him that “people don’t know how bad it was here – even black kids don’t know how bad it was.”

He cited local traditions that barred African-Americans from many aspects of life in Bloomington-Normal, now largely unknown by all but the victims of that racial exclusion. Wyman decided to investigate that era for himself, scouring local newspapers for details.

Wyman taught at ISU from 1971 until his retirement in 2004. A former newspaperman, his historical publications have covered topics including Western hard-rock miners, immigrants returning to Europe, and hobos harvesting crops across the West.

For more information about Wyman’s program, please contact the museum’s education department by calling 309-827-0428 or emailing

Absalom Jones: Thanks in a Thankless Time?

This season, Americans of all cultures struggled with Thanksgiving feelings of gratitude and celebration while watching the continuing frustration, heartbreak, and anger in Ferguson. For Absalom Jones, an African-American abolitionist and clergyman in the late 18th and early 19th century, thankfulness and charity were key to keeping hope alive for those who had little reason for hope, and he pushed for a day of thanksgiving decades ahead of President Lincoln's 1863 holiday proclamation.

After founding a black congregation in 1794, Jones was the first African American ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church of the United States, in 1804. He is listed on the Episcopal calendar of saints and blessed under the date of his death, February 13, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as "Absalom Jones, Priest, 1818."

Jones was born into slavery in Sussex County, Delaware, in 1746. When he was sixteen, he was sold to a storeowner in Philadelphia, Pa., and one of the store's clerks taught him to write. While still a slave, he married Mary King on January 4, 1770, and by 1778, Jones had purchased his wife's freedom so that their children would be free. In another seven years he was able to purchase his own freedom.

In 1772, while at St. George's Methodist Church, Absalom Jones and other black members were told that they could not join the rest of the congregation in seating and kneeling on the first floor and instead had to be segregated first sitting against the wall and then on the balcony. After completing their prayer, Jones and the church's black members got up and walked out. He co-founded the Free African Society, a non-denominational mutual aid society, to help newly freed slaves in Philadelphia.

In 1808, preaching in Philadelphia, Jones urged a national day of thanksgiving. He proposed reserving Jan. 1, for the special celebration, because Jan. 1, 1808, was the day Congress banned the further importation of slaves. On that day of remembrance, Jones maintained, "the history of the sufferings of our brethren" should survive down "to the remotest generations."