“Segregation, Our Community’s Secret,” Mark Wyman


We all have secrets. The biggest one about B-N is one that I realize now I started to learn soon after we arrived here in 1971. Another teacher at ISU told me that although he was from the Deep South, the most racist person he ever knew was his landlord in Normal. And years later, at a meeting of the Black History Project at the historical society, the African-American president commented, “People don’t know how bad it was. Even black kids don’t know how bad it was.”

How bad was it? In my research covering several years, relying heavily on the more than 50 interviews that ISU sociologist Mildred Pratt conducted with elderly blacks in the 1980s and 1990s, I began to learn “how bad it was.” Things like this:

* There was segregated swimming at Miller Park Lake, with separate changing buildings for blacks and whites.

* African-Americans could not eat in the restaurants here. And even as that rule was starting to break down in the Civil Rights era, when the famous black singer William Warfield came here in 1955 to sing with the Bloomington-Normal Symphony, before that event he went to dine at a Bloomington restaurant. They let him in, but then the management put screens around him, so regular patrons would not see him.

* Hotels would not allow blacks to rent rooms, which meant that when black vaudeville performers in the Twenties and Thirties came to perform in our theaters, they had to stay in the homes of local African Americans.

* At ISU, starting at least in the 1920s, black students could not attend dances. So there was a separate black prom, and separate other dances.

If this sounds like the Deep South, perhaps we were part of the Deep South on racial matters. Jim Crow was right at home in Bloomington and Normal.

How possible—in our community?

I am convinced, on the basis of rather scarce evidence, that we came out of the Civil War with a pretty good situation on black-white relations.   Blacks were voting here, black customers ate in restaurants and stayed in hotels. This was partly due to the strong presence of Jesse Fell, and the crusading Bloomington Leader newspaper.

It is hard to overemphasize how important Jesse Fell was. Normal in its early years was certainly home to several black families whose residence was encouraged, and who were even employed on projects, by Jesse Fell. I’ll give just one example of his role:

In 1867 the District School Board said that a little African-American girl could not enter Normal’s Model School—a grade school (like Metcalf) where ISNU (now ISU) students trained with young pupils.   So a community meeting was called and they read a letter from Fell, who had to be out of town. In it, he opposed “the crying injustice of excluding from our Public Schools any child of the district, no matter what the color of his or her skin. Indeed, I feel deeply mortified, as a citizen of Normal—a town distinguished no less for its schools than for its devotion to human rights,” that such a meeting was even necessary. After all the nation had been through with the Civil War, he added, “I am not only mortified but astonished at the cruel and anti-Christian effort that is now making to drive a poor, defenseless girl from our public school.” The meeting then voted, 65 to 1, to give colored children “all the privileges of the public schools of Normal district.”

The change

There was a change going on all over the nation in the 1880s and 1890s as the old anti-slavery leaders died and a new generation came to power. There were reformers in the new group, but their causes were things like Prohibition, and votes for women. Equal treatment for blacks was far down the list. So local blacks held a meeting in 1895 to protest discrimination in hiring, and the following year the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that “Separate but equal” was all right—separate railroad cars for blacks in Louisiana was approved. Then in 1908 came the big shift locally; it was the only discrimination originating from a governmental policy:

The Pantagraph reported on June 27, 1908:  “It has been decided by the park commissioners to erect some bathing houses for colored people on the eastern shores of Miller Park Lake near the long bridge.” –And to swim only there, too.

There was a big debate over this, led by black clergy. And the Pantagraph agreed : on July 2, the editor compared the lake to a public drinking fountain—available for all, equally. If someone disagrees with mixing with someone from another race, let him stay away.

The Bloomington City Council voted that there was to be no discrimination at Miller Park. But a petition was sent by a man identified as

  1. Carlock, who told the Pantagraph: “As a member of a prominent club of this city,” It was all a question of mixing of the races in the water: “When we consider that our mothers, wives, sisters and other lady friends have to bathe in such close proximity to the male whites, which they do not like at the best and if the colored people are there it will prevent their bathing at the park at all.” The presence of blacks was already preventing “many of us” from swimming there, and “soon would stop the majority of whites.” This was matched by a petition from some 70 property holders, asking the Council “to have the colored people use their own bath house as provided for.” The petition added that they could get 500 more names “if wanted.”

But then came the Springfield Race Riot—Aug. 13, 1908, when a black man was falsely accused of molesting a white woman. The man was quickly arrested and quietly moved up to the Bloomington Jail to block any lynching attempt in Springfield. That riot left seven dead; none of the mob ringleaders found guilty by local juries; and George Richardson was released from Bloomington’s jail after the white woman retracted her identification of him as the man who assaulted her.

That riot stopped debate over segregated swimming at Miller Park Lake. This happened again in 1919 when a new debate was rising, led by the local NAACP—and then a horrible race riot erupted in Chicago. It closed off discussion here.

The Twenties and beyond

Then came the Twenties, when racial segregation spread across much of the North as it was already entrenched in the South. Soon local theaters confined blacks to the back rows in the balcony. The county tuberculosis hospital at today’s Fairview Park would not admit black patients, but put them in a shack out back. Restaurants barred them from sitting at tables or at the counter, but some let African Americans eat out back; or put their food in a sack and gave it to them to eat elsewhere

This lasted, and one of the most poignant stories I found in Professor Pratt’s interviews was this one:   At an Emerson School PTA chili supper in the early 1940s, a black girl “was placed in the kitchen to eat my chili and [my white friend] was placed in the dining room. . . Though I felt embarrassed and hurt, I felt also in a way that that was my place.”

It was also the era of the Ku Klux Klan. One Sunday in October 1922, three KKK members, in their flowing robes, entered the First Baptist Church—you remember it stood just at the corner of School and Mulberry until just a few years ago—marched down the aisle, and placed on the table a letter for the Baptist Sunday School. It contained $20. It read: “we want you to know that we, as an organization, are for tenets of the Christian religion and all Protestant churches.” And that the KKK was for “the protection of our pure womanhood, just laws and liberty, closer relationship of pure Americanism, white supremacy, the upholding of the constitution of the USA, the separation of church and state, freedom of speech and press, preventing the causes of mob violence and lynching…”

The Klan had big rallies all across the region, including here, and it seemed to be flying high—buying the Pekin newspaper, and a theater in Urbana. It committed no violence, but its presence was perhaps all that mattered. One of the interviews was with Paul Ward, whose father pulled the 6-year-old out of bed one night in 1926 and took him out to watch the Klan parading down Main Street in Bloomington: He told Paul to “…just be aware of the type of condition existing,” Paul remembered. “He wanted me to go over there and see it, and let me know what could happen.”

Finally: an ending

The termination of our segregation era did not come until well after World War II. For years there had been star athletes at ISNU who were blacks—so no segregation in sports. But it was widespread elsewhere. This letter ran in the ISNU Vidette on Oct. 1, 1947: “Dear Editor:

Do you know—the Pilgrim Restaurant refuses to serve Negro students of this school?” For the next four days, African-American and white pickets marched in front of the restaurant located at the corner of School and North streets, behind where the Alamo sits today. Almost all of the students picketing were veterans of World War II. The café’s two owners, from Springfield, said they were just following policies already established by Bloomington and Normal restaurants, and besides, they said, ISNU operated a cafeteria open to all students. But the Pilgrim finally opened to all in December.

Student housing was segregated; the only dorm, Fell Hall for women, confined blacks to one corridor, and there was no mixing allowed: blacks had to have a black roommate. Most students rented rooms in homes around Normal. Jim and Gwen Pruyne arrived in the mid-Fifties, and refused to discriminate when they rented a few rooms in their home to students. Donald McHenry—later Ambassador to the United Nations—was one of their early renters. Jim may want to describe this next move better, but students at the Campus Religious Center here then took a statement around to the almost 300 homes in Normal that rented rooms to students, asking homeowners to sign that they promised not to discriminate in renting. Only five would sign—including the Pruynes and the Methodist minister. Housing for black faculty was also a problem.

The NAACP in the Bloomington-Normal community was very active in those years, and the arrival in 1959 of Merlin Kennedy really boosted their efforts. There was an annual Christmas Parade then, and in 1966 Merlin appeared in a Santa Claus suit, and when the police tried to block the NAACP float, this “black Santa” jumped off and walked among the crowds, causing quite a stir. Merlin told me that his aim was to get people to recognize that if there are black kids around, there ought to be a black Santa Claus.


That is a brief summary of racial segregation here, in a community whose residents certainly considered ours to be a Christian community. Why is it a secret? Is there value in remembering it—and if so, how should it be done? An informational monument? Something else?