Historical Research and Narrative
The experiences of African Americans in Bloomington-Normal have been influenced by many forces and events. Most particularly, the social and economic status of blacks has been affected by two major interrelated historical events. These events are conceptualized in this narrative as World War II and the Civil Rights Movement.
Since the beginning of the republic, people of African descent have served their country in wars. In some of the wars, blacks were promised various benefits for their services, however, most served because they perceived it to be their duty, and some did so believing their status would be improved. Robert Merton's theory of intended and unintended consequences helps to explain the improved status of blacks as a result of their services in the country's wars. However, it will be shown that these changes did not occur without pressure on many fronts. Andrew Jackson lauded black soldiers for their services in the Revolutionary War, yet when he became president, he took action to exclude blacks from the armed services. Eleanor Roosevelt observed that it was unconscionable to expect blacks to serve their country in war when they were denied their basic rights as citizens.
The Civil Rights Movement, World War II, and African Americans
Blacks' struggle for civil rights began with the slave trade of Africans to the American shores, and is amply documented in the history of the slave system. The history is replete with examples of Africans' efforts to free themselves. However, it was not until World War II and the civil rights movement that significant legislative and executive actions were taken that led to major changes. The contemporary civil rights movement began with World War II and intensified with the lynching of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat in the "white" section of the bus for the "black" section, and Martin Luther King's nonviolent movement for change. While World War II was not fought to improve the status of African Americans, one of the unintended consequences was the mounting of a series of federal laws and executive actions to guarantee equal rights for blacks in the military services, as well as war industries. Dr. John Hope Franklin recognized that the post-war years were the most aggressive and active on behalf of the civil rights of African Americans.
It is important to recognize that the changes in blacks' status in the military occurred primarily because of pressure from A. Philip Randolph, who was unrelenting in his efforts to demand equality of treatment of blacks in the armed forces as well as in the war industries. In 1941, Randolph threatened to march on Washington in a protest of discrimination in war industries. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which provided for fair employment practices in the defense industries. In 1940, the Selective Service Act was passed and designed to eliminate discrimination in drafting and training from military institutions. In 1948, President Truman signed an act to desegregate the armed forces, but that did not end discrimination in the military. However, because of subsequent incremental congressional and presidential actions, some say there is now less discrimination in the military than in the civilian sector.
Perhaps the concept "relative deprivation" best describes how blacks felt about their status in civilian life after having served their country in the military and in the war industries. They had experienced something
of what it meant to have laws protecting them from discrimination, and then as civilians, they experienced deprivation relative to their military experience. At war's end a variety of forces converged to effect change on the domestic front regarding the status of blacks. On the national level, private agencies, labor unions, religious organizations, and a variety of civil rights groups engaged in civil rights activities. Many whites who had served with blacks in the military expressed their anger that these same blacks were now denied the same rights that whites had. By the 1960s, there was a groundswell of activity throughout the nation by blacks and whites who used a variety of methods to eliminate discrimination and racism in all of its forms.
The Experience of African Americans in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois
Illinois, while not a "slave state," has a history of slavery, and defacto and dejure discrimination against blacks in almost every aspect of life. This discrimination prevailed essentially until the early 1960s when the "winds of change" blew into the area as it did all over the country. In Bloomington and Normal it expressed itself in a variety of shapes and forms. The following are just some examples of the face of racism and discrimination and how blacks sought to cope through the years.
Oscar Waddell served his country in the armed forces during World War II and recounted his experiences at a public park in Bloomington where blacks were forced to swim in a dirty swimming hole separated from white children. His elder friend Willie Stearles said to him, "Go along with it and one of these days it will be all right." When Oscar was preparing to leave to serve his country in World War II, he was looking for a place for his wife to live. When he found a place, he was initially refused by the white owner. Oscar said he was going to fight for his country and should be able to rent the house. Eventually, the owner relented.
Like most black males in Bloomington and Normal who held low level jobs even if they worked in factories, Oscar found himself employed as a janitor. It was only when the manager threatened to close the factory down one evening because a critical machinist became ill that the manager, with "tongue in cheek," asked Oscar if he could operate the machine. Oscar said he could, and he operated the machine superbly because he had observed the operation of the machine as he mopped.
Oscar's wife was denied a job in a factory even though she had scored very high on the test. She was hired only after several refusals, when she threatened a "one woman sit in." Lucinda Brent Posey remembered
Mary Hosea (third from left), Bloomington High School Cheerleader, 1951
Courtesy: McLean County Historical Society
being told by a policeman that she could not swim in the same pool as whites. Hearing this, Lucinda's mother retorted that she paid her taxes and her child would swim in the "white pool," and she did. Lucinda was refused a job as secretary while a student at Illinois State University, although she was recommended by her typing instructor as the best student in the class. She was told by the employer that she had the job until she saw that Lucinda had identified herself on the form as "Negro." Sister Antona Ebo, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in the Birmingham civil rights march, was denied admission to the St. Joseph Nurses Training Program because she was black.
Blacks were always permitted to attend Illinois State University, but they could not live in the dormitories for some time, and therefore found housing with black families. Until the early 1960s, blacks with college educations could for the most part only get menial jobs in Bloomington and Normal, and most left the towns for other areas to live and work. The entertainment sector also discriminated. Blacks sat in the "crows nest" in the movie theaters, and few restaurants permitted blacks to sit down and eat. Blacks experienced discrimination and racism in the social welfare and medical sectors. For example, a black home for children was established in Bloomington because most such homes did not accept blacks. The only Tuberculosis Hospital in the area accepted blacks, but required them to be housed and treated in a shack behind the hospital.
In general, blacks experienced "second-class" citizenship in most aspects of their lives in Bloomington-Normal until the early 1960s. Blacks who had served their country in World War II in support of freedom and the democratic way of life returned to towns which had changed little for blacks. Many felt that they had experienced more civil rights in the armed services after the legislative and executive actions than they now enjoyed. Those who had served in the armed services and those who had benefited from the changes in the war industries were not content with things as they were. The "winds of change" were in the air and a variety of civil rights groups were mobilized to declare war on racism in all of its forms. These winds touched Bloomington and Normal individuals
Mount Pisgah Baptist Church members, 1922
Courtesy: McLean County Historical Society
who mobilized to protest discrimination in housing, employment, education, and other areas of life.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) under the leadership of Merlin Kennedy mobilized, for example, to demand their rights to have a black Santa Claus in their Christmas parade. Dr. Martin Luther King was invited to Illinois Wesleyan University to speak and lent his considerable moral and religious weight on behalf of civil rights in Bloomington Normal. The students and faculty of institutions of higher education's also engaged in various protest activities, demanding more black faculty and students, buildings to be named for black and black studies courses and programs. At least one church under the initiative of Lavada Hunter expressed its support of fair housing by asking its members to sign pledge cards.
In summary, it can be said that by the 1980s Bloomington and Normal had made significant progress in moving to a more just society with respect to blacks. That is, the institutions of higher learning had increased the number of black faculty and students; blacks were employed in professional positions in city government, factories, and industries; and public schools, restaurants, and places of entertainment were open to blacks on a nondiscriminatory basis. Housing was more open to blacks.
Despite these significant changes with respect to racism, it would be a gross error to assume that racism has been eradicated in these two towns, for it has not. It is important to note that each of the two cities has a human relations commission and individuals and groups dedicated to preventing racism and taking active steps to eradicate it. Perhaps the most significant project in this respect is the "NOT IN OUR TOWN" program initiated by Marc and Darlene Miller, which has held at least three successful rallies and marches against racism. Bloomington's human relations commission staff was actively involved in working with the program, and its police department wore NOT IN OUR TOWN buttons. This multiracial, multi-ethnic and interfaith organization is performing a significant role in assuring that racism will not go unprotested.
Peggy Ellen Scott
Bloomington-Normal local history encourages students to question what history is and where it comes from? How is it decided what goes into history books or biographies? Does everyone "have a history?" How did ordinary citizens — people that students know — influence or witness history?
Connection with the Curriculum
These lessons are appropriate for world, U.S., or state and local history classes.
Materials for Each Student
• A copy of this article's narrative portion or
selections from it
Objectives for Each Student
• Analyze how the interpretation of history
changes over time
Opening the Lesson
Have students read the narrative portion of this article, or quote some of the personal stories cited. Ask students what they know about the roles of individuals in their county or town during any of the key events since World War II (Korea, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, Persian Gulf War). Did their
parents or grandparents participate? Their mothers or grandmothers? Fathers or grandfathers? What do they know about the roles of minority groups in the area? Why might these stories be less well-known? Have student continue with the activities.
Developing the Lesson
In the first activity students will interview their parents or other adults about how history and history text books have changed since they were in school. Students should complete a t-chart relating to what was covered or emphasized in texts before 1970. Encourage students to write open-ended "how" or "why" questions and not simply yes/no or 50/50 questions. As an alternative, if possible, teachers can provide copies (or photocopies) of old textbooks for analysis by students to avoid an overnight delay in the lesson. Students could work in small groups or pairs to compare and contrast text material. What events or groups were not found in the pre-1970 materials? Why? How does that affect a student's perceptions about history in general and the history of that particular group? For instance, if women are not specifically mentioned, does that mean women were not present? Did not contribute? Were not important?
Have students read the introduction to Activity 2 regarding oral history. Choose a pre-selected or staged event. This event should be a fairly major school event (i.e. homecoming, major sporting event, all-school assembly). If the teacher chooses, he or she may stage a surprise event in front of the class (winning the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, an argument between adults, a marriage proposal, etc.). Have students complete the written exercise. After the written exercise is completed, read aloud, compare/contrast, and analyze. Why aren't all the summaries the same? Discuss concepts such as perspective, bias, and interest. What does this say about the advantages and disadvantages of oral history? Now compare this relatively small-scale event's benefits and drawbacks with an historical event with the scope of the civil rights movements, World War II, or the Vietnam conflict. Discuss the role of oral history in minority reports such as those in the article.
Activity 3 will require an extended time to complete. Have students undertake their own local oral history projects. This could be interviewing grandparents or parents, teachers, or other adults about an event during their lifetimes. Approach the assignment in steps. First have students determine what
events are viable considering the persons available to interview (basically World War II, perhaps as far back as the Depression). Students should choose an event and person and clear those with the teacher to avoid overuse of one topic or interview subject. Students should then prepare their questions in writing. Teachers should encourage in the writing and review to assure that the questions are 1) appropriate for the subject being interviewed, 2) tactful, and 3) not simply yes/no questions, but encourage the subject to talk about the topic. Students should then make appointments for the interview. If at all possible, students should plan to record the interviews on video or audio tape, and subjects should be notified of this at the time the appointment is made. Explain that sometimes follow-up questions are needed or that a conversation takes an interesting, but unexpected turn. If students have to write down their additional questions and answers during the interview, the natural flow of the conversation can be hindered. Taping allows "instant memory." Following the interview have students write out the original questions and their answers as well as any additional information they found interesting. In addition, have students include a summary analysis of what they learned about the process of oral history.
Concluding the Lesson
Before students submit their papers, have volunteers read their favorite portions and discuss what interesting or unexpected information was discovered during the interviews.
Extending the Lesson
• Read or play the tapes of best interviews
for the class. Keep them on file to
inspire the next group.
Assessing the Lesson
The interview papers will be graded according to each teacher's expectations and standards. The quality, depth, and clarity of questions, the clarity of answers, and the quality of reflections on the process should be highlighted, as should standard English skills.
Handout 1 - Text Analysis
Does history change? Most people would answer a loud and ringing "No" to that question. However, history is more than just facts such as names and dates. History is also the interpretation of facts. According to your teacher's instructions, either analyze an old textbook or talk to your parents or grandparents and compare/constrast your current history text with what was in their history texts.
Formulate a t-chart, such as the one below, of the comparisions and contrasts.
Items included in current and old texts Items not included in current or old text
1. Why were the items on the left included in both books?
2. Why were the items on the right included in only one of the books?
3. In what general ways is the current text different from the earlier text? What events or groups were omitted in the earlier text? Why?
Handout 2 - Oral History
History is gathered by many different methods. The most common form is the review of written materials such as government documents, diaries, letters, speeches, newspaper accounts, biographies, autobiographies, and other books. However, history can also be gathered by word of mouth, by simply talking to the persons who participated in or witnessed an event. One of the most famous oral history projects was sponsored by the U.S. Government during the 1930s when the personal histories of former slaves (by then elderly persons) were formally gathered and sometimes tape recorded. As that generation was soon to die, the project saved invaluable information that would have been lost.
Please write a brief summary of the event assigned by the teacher.
What are some advantages and disadvantages of oral history?
Handout 3 - Local Oral History Project
1. What are some historical events about which you could interview someone today?
2. Who are some persons you know who could be interviewed on the above topics?
3. What would you like to know about that event and those persons?