Normal 150 YearsNORMAL – Race relations in the years of Normal’s early formation was the subject of the fourth lecture sponsored by the Town as part of Normal’s 150th Anniversary. Dr. Mark Wyman, professor emeritus of History at Illinois State University painted a picture of how this community saw the subject, first through the mind of Town founder Jesse W. Fell through to nearly present day.

An objection to slavery and an answered prayer for Fell are tied together to answer, partially, the question of how race relations here were dealt with during the Town’s early years, according to Wyman. Fell support for Abraham Lincoln aided in Lincoln’s run for the Presidency, Wyman explained. Wyman added a letter from Fell to his brother explained Fell’s desire that God would answer their prayer for “this great nation to come out of its present troubles redeemed and purified by this great sin.” Wyman said Fell, however, did not spell out what “great sin” he was referring to.

“I do believe that our communities of Normal and Bloomington – and I must include Bloomington although it was a few miles away then – did not see rigid patterns of racial segregation setting in right after the Civil War,” Wyman explained to an audience of roughly 75 people who gathered for the fourth in a series of presentations giving perspective to a specific aspect of Normal history held in Normal Town Council Chambers at Uptown Station. “Blacks were voting; One was even elected to Countywide office. The local hotel accepted blacks, and there was even evidence they were eating in restaurants.” Wyman said he believed such a situation could be attributed to two parties: Fell, and the area newspaper at the time, the Bloomington Leader.

But all was not as routine for black children in the community, who were not permitted to attend public schools, including the “Model School,” the grade school operated by Illinois State Normal University. Wyman said local farmer Edwin Bakewell was a leader who condoned this practice, explaining Bakewell’s belief as “that colored children should not have all things in common with white.” Wyman said Bakewell told an audience of supporters once that to let black children into the local schools. “Bakewell said he would be sorry to have Normal pattern after Chicago, the very hotbed of superlative radicalism.”

When a vote was taken within the community to decide the matter of whether to let black children attend school in Normal in 1867, it passed by a 65-1 vote, Wyman said. In May that same year, a special election was held which finally decided the matter, again passing by a 92-2 count. Seven votes favored a special school for blacks, Wyman added.

Normal’s population in 1900 was reported was just under 4,000 with 253 blacks, roughly 6.7 percent of the population, while Bloomington had 23,000 residents, 600 of whom were black, or 2.6 percent of the population, Wyman said.

But it was not all tranquil for blacks in the 1920s, Wyman reported, as the Ku Klux Klan did operate in the area, their presence most heavily felt between 1922-1924. Other communities in the area reported Klan meetings, Wyman said, through the group’s state newspaper. Towanda, Lexington, East Peoria, and Urbana also had a noticeable Klan presence.

In terms of public accommodation, blacks found themselves restricted in a number of ways, Wyman said. Hotels were off limits to blacks by the end of the 1920s, Wyman said. Movie houses required blacks to sit in the back, Wyman said. Cafés did not allow blacks to sit and dine, forcing to take their purchases in a bag and leave, or if blacks insisted on staying, were required to sit in the back of the dining area.

In 1920s, Black students at ISNU, having been prohibited from attending school-sponsored functions, asked the University’s Student Activity Fund for aid in holding their own dance functions, Wyman said. Fell Hall, built on the ISNU campus in 1918, started out as a women’s dorm, which included one wing for blacks, Wyman explained. When the University leased a house on University St., it converted it into a male dormitory, Smith House, where 33 white students resided while black men had to rent rooms in private homes in town.

The “Chat-N-Chew” café was opened by a black proprietor in the 1930s Wyman added, the Chat-N-Chew’s aim was to give black students “somewhere to go hang out, as well as carrying grocery items.” By the 1950s, Normal found itself at what was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, Wyman said, starting with a segregated eatery called The Pilgrim Café. It was located behind where today stands The Alamo II Bookstore. After a letter to the University student newspaper, The Vidette, was published in 1947 complained The Pilgrim Café did not serve blacks, picketing by both black and white students took place. Wyman said the owners of The Pilgrim Café responded saying they were just abiding by policies of restaurants in town at the time, and besides, the restaurant’s owners contended, ISNU operated a cafeteria open to all students,

Following WW II, many industries in the community hired both blacks and whites, Wyman said. It was an era that saw Jackie Robinson enter Major League Baseball and President Harry S. Truman end segregation in the military, after all, Wyman recounted. In 1950, the City of Bloomington formed a Human Relations Council, devoting much of its time to restaurant segregation, he added.

ISNU became Illinois State University formally in 1964 and “began to grow rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, bringing in a sharp growth in the number of African American students and the hiring of black faculty,” Wyman said. It was change of a sort that caught Normal residents off-guard, Wyman said.

One of the few genuine failures for the community occurred during the era around World War I, Wyman said, when the notion of establishing an orphanage for black children who lost parents during battle failed to gain public support. Opposition to the idea including citizens presenting a petition opposing the idea to Normal Town Council members,

Barbershops in the community had been segregated before the Civil War, Wyman relayed. White barbers, he explained, did not accept black patrons for fear of losing their white clientele. In 1961, Charles Barton, then-vice president of the University NAACP chapter, decided to see what would happen if he walked in to get a cut. At one shop, Wyman said, Barton got a cut with no problem. But at a second shop, the proprietor told Barton he didn’t have the tools to do the job.

This news was relayed to then ISU President Robert Bone, Wyman said. According to Wyman, Burton reportedly explained, “President Bone and the Deans said if the merchants of the town didn’t cut all the students’ hair, then they weren’t going to get their hair cut either.” After that, Burton relayed Normal’s barber shops were no longer off limits to blacks.

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