Marker to Recall Segregation of Miller Park

"Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

1940: Miller Park's whites-only beach.

1940: Miller Park's whites-only beach.

That famous quote attributed to Edmund Burke, a one-time orator, political theorist and British member of parliament, is behind a new effort at Bloomington's oldest park.

The Illinois State Historical Society is putting up a marker to stand as a permanent reminder of the history of racial segregation at Bloomington’s Miller Park.

From 1908 and into the early 1950s when the beach was closed for a time, the swimming area at Miller Park was divided by a well-maintained section with a lifeguard and an unkempt, unguarded section labeled “Blacks Only.”

The Community Has A Secret

Mark Wyman, a retired Illinois State University distinguished emeritus history professor, said when the beach was reopened in 1957, there were no references to the decades of segregation.


The marker the McLean County League of Women Voters erected in Franklin Park in 2005 to recognize the local resident who was the first woman elected to the Illinois Senate.

Credit Illinois State Historical Society

"I saw the secret really develop then because in all of the editorials about reopening and in the speeches by the mayor, no mention that it used to be segregated until it closed in 1953," said Wyman, who along with historian Jack Muirhead researched the history and interviewed residents about what they knew about the separate and not-so-equal policies at Miller Park lake.

“People were not aware of that. ‘Did we ever have segregation here?’ they asked longtime residents. The replies were all the same, ‘No, too far north. No, never heard of it.’ Wyman said he and Muirhead heard the same response many times. "That’s when I realized this community has a secret."

The NAACP is supporting the project along with the McLean County Museum of History and the Not In Our Town (NIOT) coalition. Camille Taylor of NIOT said history has a way of repeating itself, so the marker is an important recognition of this community's ability to discriminate.

"Our mission is to stop hate, address bullying and to make a safe, more inclusive community for all so the things that Mark describes would certainly be under that mission in terms of sharing the history of segregation and where we are now as a community," Taylor said.

Taylor was involved in The Bloomington-Normal Black History Project, formed in 1982 to document the local history of the local black community with a collection that now contains photographs, portraits, booklets, articles, and artifacts.

The former Unit 5 counselor used those artifacts and documents for presentations during Black History Month at area schools. She said students could not understand why blacks were not allowed to swim in the same section of Miller Park lake.

"When I talked about Miller Park and a little girl named Phyllis Hogan who had to swim in the segregated part of the lake that had lots of debris and she got caught up in it and drown and some of the children were the same age as this little girl ... they couldn't believe it. They would ask, 'Why would they make those people do that?'" she said.

"That's when I realized this community has a secret."

Taylor said the students hearing those presentations in the 1980s and 1990s had no idea about this kind of treatment of blacks in their own community.

"Their eyes opened as big as saucers when they would hear things like the cheerleaders at Bloomington High School, going downtown to the square after a game and they wouldn't be served if a black cheerleader was with them, so all the cheerleaders got up and left," Taylor said about how the children responded to her accounts of discrimination.

She said the historic marker will be permanent and do more good to educate people and bring awareness than what she was able to accomplish through her school visits.


Plenty of Support

Wyman said he has encountered no opposition from city leaders including Alderman Karen Schmidt whose ward includes Miller Park. He was never worried about raising the estimated $4,000 to erect the marker and he says once he began talking about it, the money flowed in.

"Right away when I would mention it in talking to groups around town about our segregation past people would come out and say, 'I want to donate.'" He said several individuals who read about it in the McLean County Historical Society newsletter contacted us and offered donations.

The marker will measure 44 by 51 inches. There has not been an Illinois State Historical Society marker erected in the Bloomington-Normal area since 2005. Twelve years ago, the McLean County League of Women Voters sponsored a marker on the east side of Franklin Park honoring the life and career of pioneering lawmaker and community leader Florence Fifer Bohrer.

Wyman said plans are to put up the marker sometime this spring.

It includes 16 lines of text including a final line that reads, “Today, Miller Park—like all city facilities—is open to all.” 

Camille: Full and Free Lives An American Principle

By Camille Taylor

WJBC Forum

During the Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress drafted a final copy of the Declaration of Independence which declared the original Thirteen Colonies independent from the mother country of England. It was voted on, and all Thirteen Colonies adopted it on July 4, 1776. The war was still going on, but there were muted celebrations of July 4th each year until the war ended in 1783.

The July 4th holiday was established which included speeches, military events, parades, and fireworks. It’s odd isn’t it, that as we celebrate Independence Day, Great Britain has declared its independence from the European Union. The result has already caused economic and political fallout.


When the American Constitution was ratified in 1787, the founding fathers also put into practice that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therefore,” which suggests that by law no particular group is to be treated as superior to another group in the United States.
In 1783, George Washington wrote that “the bosom of America is open to receive… the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom [Americans] shall welcome to a participation of all [their] rights and privileges… They may be [Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any sect.”
Likewise, Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, wrote in a document for the Virginian colonial legislature that “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian, and the [Muslim], the [Hindu], and infidel of every decimation” are accepted as equal citizens in the United States.

The US Constitution was ratified in 1788, which included the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The first amendment is freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. America has been the envy of many throughout the world as we enjoy these freedoms.

On Tuesday, Not In Our Town celebrated its 20th anniversary with a rally and march on the square in downtown Bloomington. Its mission is to stop hate, address bullying, and to make a safe, more inclusive community. The freedoms listed in the first amendment are exactly the things Not In Our Town works to maintain. As people attack others for their religion, race, and sexual orientation, Not In Our Town has worked to inoculate our community against hate. NIOT has been proactive in initiating dialogue, working with local schools and government, and being a presence in all facets of community life in an effort to fulfill its mission.

The founding fathers of our nation and the founders of NIOT had at least one important thing in common. They wanted to see their country and their communities live their lives fully and to be free to be whom they were created to be. This is the American ideal, and this is the essence of Not In Our Town. There is no room for hatred, bigotry, racism, isolationism, xenophobia, homophobia, antisemitism, or any of the other “isms” when people are trying to live, work, and raise their families not only in Bloomington/Normal, but in communities across this country.

So, while we celebrate our independence this weekend with parades, cookouts, and family, let us remember that “freedom is never free,” and blood was shed so that America could be a beacon of light around the world.

History Makers Gala to Salute Champions of Rights, Reform

Mike Matejka

WJBC Forum

In two weeks, the McLean County Museum of History is hosting its fifth History Makers Gala, June 16 at Illinois State University’s Bone Student Center.  This is always a great event and a homage to outstanding individuals who have enriched our community.  This year’s honorees include famed ISU basketball coach Jill Hutchinson, recently retired pastor from St. Mary’s Church, Father Rick Schneider, former State Representative Gordon Ropp and lawyer, Presbyterian minister and activist Jack Porter.

Of the four, the two I’ve spent the most time with are perhaps the most opposite politically, Gordon Ropp and Jack Porter.   Gordon is a strong Republican, Jack is a very liberal Democrat.   When Gordon was in the State House, even though he voted against many issues I supported, I knew he would always carefully listen and ask strong questions, but he never cut off a reply.  We also worked together on vocational education issues and when a series of our Bloomington union Laborers were killed in construction work zones in the late 1970s, Gordon helped open doors with Laborers 362’s John Penn to establish the Work Zone Safety committee at the Illinois Department of Transportation.  This on-going effort has led to legislation and had a positive impact on motorists and workers in highway construction zones.

I’ve known Jack Porter since I was an ISU student in the early 1970s.    In my first acquaintance, we worked together to help support Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union.   Jack has far-reaching interests, but always grounded himself locally.   When local housing was still discriminatory, Jack worked to break those barriers; later, as an attorney at Prairie State Legal Services, fair and safe housing was a prime concern.   Jack can be very serious and thoughtful, but he also takes an impish delight in rattling local politics, particularly over issues of civil rights. Jack first came to Bloomington as a Presbyterian minister to serve Western Avenue Community Center in the early 1960s.   The daily lives and challenges of west-side working and low-income families always found welcome support from him.    Treating all people, no matter their status, with dignity and compassion has been his life-long motivation.

Although Gordon and Jack might differ significantly in their politics, one thing they share is a passion for their community.   And there’s a lesson here – we can agree or disagree on many issues, but we always need to remember we are dealing with another human being, who also has deep feelings and concerns.   That basic mutual recognition is what makes a community livable, and both Jack Porter and Gordon Ropp have helped make this a better place.  I hope you’ll join me on June 16 to honor them, along with Jill Hutchinson and Fr. Rick.

Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society.

Legacy Wall to Highlight LGBT History, Legacy

The Legacy Wall, a traveling interactive LGBT history exhibit, will be on display on the main floor of Illinois State University’s Milner Library February 15-27. The free exhibit was created by the Legacy Project, a Chicago-based non-profit dedicated to recognizing the contributions LGBT individuals have made to world history and culture.

The large Legacy Wall exhibit features stories of LGBT people from all walks of life throughout history who have made great contributions in more than 20 distinct fields. Featured individuals include social justice pioneer Jane Addams; civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin; British mathematician Alan Turing; U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan; astronaut Sally Ride; artist Michelangelo; and the Rev. Mychal Judge, the “Saint of 9/11.” In addition to historical content, the exhibit also highlights the challenges faced by LGBT youth and includes data on the effectiveness of including LGBT-related content in general education for substantially lowering the incidence of bullying in schools.

Speakers on the Illinois State campus during February will present on related topics. Carlos Figueroa of Ithaca College will speak about his latest book in the presentation “Bayard Rustin: Black Gay Quaker Thinker and Civil Rights and Labor Activist,” at 7 p.m. Monday, February 15, in the Prairie Room of the Bone Student Center.

Librarian Bill Kemp from the McLean County Museum of History will present “Woman in Blue: Union Army Private Albert D.J. Cashier of Illinois” at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 18, on the main floor of Milner Library. The talk will cover the life of transgender Civil War veteran Albert Cashier.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, February 25, Barb Dallinger will interview Windy City Times publisher and executive editor Tracy Baim about her new book, Barbara Gittings: Gay Pioneer. Baim will also speak about founding the alternative paper, Windy City Times, and how she became interested in LGBT historical figures, including several who are included on the Legacy Wall. That event will be held on the main floor of Milner Library.

The Legacy Wall exhibit is endorsed by the Illinois Secretary of State, the Illinois Department of Human Rights, the Illinois Department of Tourism, the Illinois Municipal Relations Association, and the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.

The display of the Legacy Wall at Illinois State University is co-sponsored by the Prairie Pride Coalition and Milner Library.

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 http://www.mchistory.org/learn/programs/cemwalk.php 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 Key In Illinois Women's Rights

August 26 marks the 95th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. After nearly a century, the image of the steadfast “suffragette” remains, but it’s only part of the picture that led to the historic amendment.

“Many people have a one-dimensional understanding of suffragettes, thinking of them only in terms of women who protested for the right to vote, and as only white, middle-class women,” said Associate Professor of History Kyle Ciani. “In reality, by the early 20th century, people concerned with women’s right to vote included African American, native-born white, and immigrant women from diverse economic classes.”

The stereotypical suffragette – or those who wanted the right for women to vote – is often depicted as a passionate woman in the early 1900s, who chained herself to carriages, or was loudly hauled away by police for demanding the vote. Though there were demonstrations and arrests, the movement dates back to the early 1800s, when women pushed for laws that didn’t strip them of their property and rights in marriage.

“This was a long, hard-fought battle. It didn’t happen overnight,” said Ciani. “It was an organized effort that took strategy, and time. No one woke up one morning and just decided they wanted the vote for women.”

By the 1830s and 40s, educated women with ties to the abolitionist movement led the charge for more rights, yet the battle for the vote began in earnest in the post-Civil War days. “The 1870s and 1880s is when women began to enter the political sphere,” said Ciani. When the 15th amendment passed, allowing all men to vote, “women cried foul,” she said, and the symbol of a national women’s vote crystalized.

Of course, women all over the U.S. were already involved in politics by this point. Prior to the 1920s, many states already allowed women to vote, either locally or in state and national elections. Illinois signed women’s suffrage into law in 1913. “Every state had different rules, but women have been active in politics since the 1870s,” said Ciani.

In fact, Bloomington was the first town in Illinois to hold an election where women could cast ballots. In April of 1892, women of Bloomington legally took part in an election for school board members. “Education was considered an extension of women’s roles as a caretaker,” said Associate Professor of History Monica Cousins Noraian, who wrote a book on Sarah Raymond-Fitzwilliam, the nation’s first female school superintendent, who served in Bloomington from 1874 to 1892.

Raymond-Fitzwilliam, a former Bloomington teacher and principal, and a graduate of what was then Illinois State Normal University (ISNU), had been appointed unanimously by school board members for more than 18 years. Yet the 1872 school board election became more about women’s suffrage than job performance. “There were two sets of candidates, who campaigned on a pro-female or anti-female platform,” said Noraian. “The anti-female candidates demanded that women be kicked out of leadership positions in schools, and ‘return things to men.’ It was a very contentious election.”

Raymond-Fitzwilliam was reappointed to her post, but she resigned shortly thereafter, fearing the controversy would limit any hopes of a harmoniously working school board. “She married, moved to Chicago and continued to work for women’s rights,” said Noraian. “So what people might think would be an election where a woman would have all this support, became anything but that.”

Noraian credits Raymond-Fitzwilliam’s upbringing in an abolitionist home, and her education at ISNU as a foundation for equality for women. “Men and women had classes together and conducted debates together,” she said. “Her early experiences helped shape her beliefs on reform.”

“Women in Illinois are historically leaders in social justice reform, and women having access to higher education is key in that,” said Ciani, adding that Sarah Hackett Stevenson, an ISNU graduate, was the first female physician inducted into the American Medical Association in 1876, a full 44 years before the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote.

The lack of a constitutional vote didn’t stop women from making a run for the top office in the nation. Victoria Woodhull ran for president in 1872 under the Equal Rights Party, as did Belva Lockwood in 1884 and 1888. Laura Clay was the first to have her name added to a potential roster of candidates for a major national party, the Democrats. “Hillary Clinton was not the first,” said Ciani.

Women’s rights and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells.

Part of Clay’s platform was actually to oppose national suffrage for women. From the South, Clay feared the passage would allow the federal government to interfere with states implementing (or refusing to implement) the 15th amendment.

Race was one of many schisms facing the women’s rights movement on the path to an amendment, noted Ciani. “There is no such thing as one, single movement. There is always a diversity of ideas and dissention within any group, and the women’s rights movement was no different,” she said. “But for every woman who believed—wrongly—that adding African American women to the suffrage push would nix the movement from a national conversation, you had women like journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, who refused to ‘ask’ permission to march in suffragette parades.”

Looking at the legacy of the women’s rights movement in politics, Ciani said the 19th amendment showed that a long-term strategy could work. “Activists have learned a lot from the highly organized strategies of this movement. I would liken it to the efforts to pass the Marriage Equality Act. It showed the victory could really be won through determination, consensus and compromise.”

Living history: Enlight at the Museum

The McLean County Museum of History, on Bloomington's old courthouse square, has become far more than a repository for Central Illinois' relics and stories -- it is today a gateway to understanding and appreciating the contributions of the diverse cultures that enliven the Twin Cities.

For example, ¡Fiesta! A Celebration of Mexican Popular Art, open through Jan. 16,  features more than 150 pieces of art made by the people of Mexico, including ceramics, textiles, papier maché, lacquerware, basketry, carved wood, leather, glass, and more from every region of the country. Visitors to the exhibit are invited to travel through time to learn about the history of Mexico's folk arts and how, as these arts became popular in the U.S., they were incorporated into the decorative arts north of the Mexican border.  

In the exhibit, visitors can stop at the museum's time travel agency where they will learn about travel to Mexico in the 1930s.

In another gallery, you'll find The Greening of the Prairie: Irish Immigration and Settlement in McLean County (open through Jan. 16, 2016), which outlines early cultural contributions to the region. The exhibit examines why emigrants left Ireland, the challenges they faced once they arrived, their successes and failures, and the impact their presence has had on our community. The exhibit features historic objects, photographs, and maps detailing the saga of Irish-Catholic famine immigrants who came to this area in the early 1850s as industrial and farming pioneers.

And The Asian Indian Experience in McLean County illuminates another key influence on Twin Cities culture and everyday life. Asian Indian immigrants began arriving in McLean County in the 1960s, seeking jobs and a better life. This installation in the People gallery of the permanent exhibit Encounter on the Prairie explores the challenges they faced and reveals the efforts made to maintain important traditions and practices while, at the same time, embracing American culture. The installation's open through May 1.

Visit www.mchistory.org to explore educational and entertainment opportunities at the Museum.