History of Racism in Peoria

This is only a synopsis of the history of racism in the City and County of Peoria. The full story of racism in our community could only be fairly told in a space much longer than what is available to us here.

Peoria is the oldest non-native settlement in Illinois, established in 1691 by French explorers. The first documented Black person to live in Peoria was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a French-speaking settler from Santo Domingo, Haiti. He purchased land in Peoria and resided here for four years before he moved north and famously became the first “permanent” resident of Chicago.

The Fight Against Slavery

When Illinois entered the Union in 1818, slavery had already existed in the state for over a century. Despite Illinois’ “free state” status, the institution continued under increasing restrictions until 1845. Enslaved persons could legally be brought into Illinois from slave-holding states for one-year renewable “work contracts.” Under the 1829 law known as “the Black Codes,” Blacks entering Peoria County were required to post a $1,000 bond to ensure they would not become “a charge to the county” or violate any laws. If Blacks wanted to stay here, they also had to deposit money at the County Courthouse.

Nevertheless, there was also organized resistance to slavery among some residents, and Peoria became a major stop on the Underground Railroad. The Main Street Presbyterian Church openly agitated against slavery in the 1840s, led by Moses Pettengill, an abolitionist who is credited as the founder of Peoria’s Underground Railroad. Like abolitionists elsewhere, their fight was against federal and state laws, the courts, precedent, expediency, and prejudice. The vast majority of Whites blamed abolitionists for stirring up trouble. When Peoria’s abolitionists held their first antislavery meeting, around 200 people gathered outside, threatened violence and even vandalized the speaker’s carriage. Moses Pettengill was later arrested for being a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

In 1841, Nance Legins-Costley of Pekin became the first enslaved person legally freed through the efforts of Abraham Lincoln — long before he became President and more than 20 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. She died on April 6, 1892, and was buried in Peoria. It is noteworthy that Lincoln, despite being an Illinoisan and visiting Peoria 17 times, did not win the vote in Peoria County in either the 1860 and 1864 presidential election. Lincoln’s ideas on race and slavery were not universally popular in Peoria, whose residents held divided views on the topic.

Sundown Towns

Like other regions across the country, central Illinois' racial history following the Civil War is not a proud one, as generational prejudice and bias continued to be manifested in many ways. A number of communities in Peoria County and adjacent areas became known as "Sundown Towns" that were hostile to black people being there after dark. The term started as a way to prevent freed Blacks from taking White jobs — by not allowing them to work late or walk around the neighborhood after dark — and extended to housing policies and policing practices. These unwritten rules were often enforced by police or vigilante neighbors without consequences.

Redlining and Institutional Bias

1938 Map of Greater PeoriaAnother example of bias suffered by the Black community was the difficulty of finding decent housing. The practice of “redlining” started in the early 1930s as Black families were systematically denied the right to purchase homes and live where they wanted. Neighborhoods in Peoria and across the nation were color-coded to depict designated areas: Green = “Best.” Blue = “Still Desirable.” Yellow = “Definitely Declining.” Red = “Hazardous.” White landowners historically lived in the Bluffs overlooking the Valley where most working-class people lived. In the 1930s and ‘40s, the majority of Peoria’s Black community was confined to substandard housing in the vice district of North Washington Street and a second neighborhood southwest of downtown near what is now the Carver Center. Black people were allowed to eat in just two downtown restaurants and could not stay in hotels outside of the red-light district. Movie theaters were segregated, and public city swimming pools admitted Blacks just one day per week. Symbolic racial borders were codified in numerous “official” ways, such as by zip code, by installing railway lines, and by highway construction. The historic map of redlined areas in Peoria eerily mimics the same areas that are experiencing the most severe blight and social problems today.

Racism in Education

Discrimination within this community has not disappeared over time. Education is just one example. In 1977, a staff report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported on the Peoria school district’s desegregation plan, which was developed in 1968:

“Student enrollments over the 10-year period from 1966 to 1976 indicated that Peoria’s schools were actually becoming resegregated… the Illinois Office of Education assigned a consultant to review the school district’s desegregation plan. The consultant recommended the closing of the five remaining predominantly black inner-city schools and the busing of students from these schools to largely white schools. These recommendations were forwarded to the Peoria school district for its consideration and response. The district held public meetings on the proposed closing and found that the community response was overwhelmingly negative. On January 3, 1977, the school board unanimously rejected the State's recommendations.”

The “separate but equal” mentality, combined with the exodus of White families to the north of the city and across the river, materially changed the demographics of Peoria’s schools and essentially resegregated the school district.

Organizing Against Racism

Peorians also have a history of fighting racism which dates back to the anti-slavery movement. Peoria’s first civil rights group, the Afro-American League of Peoria, was founded in 1895 to fight for voting rights, equal public accommodations, and antilynching laws. The Colored Women’s Aid Club was formed in 1899, and Peoria’s NAACP chapter was founded in 1915 by both Black and White civic leaders. In addition to supporting anti-lynching legislation and organizing educational programs, the group expanded its focus on civil rights and employment. In 1925 the NAACP challenged the lack of Black facilities at the Peoria Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium. The Peoria City Council voted the following year to require rooms for Blacks at the hospital.

In 1940, the NAACP’s first survey of Peoria’s Black community found living conditions not unlike those in the South: 40% were unemployed; 32% worked part-time or held jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The few Black workers at major employers were relegated to menial jobs as janitors, domestics, porters, garbage collectors, and meatpackers. Nine out of ten reported being denied employment because of their race, while 67% reported instances of police injustice or brutality.

The Peoria NAACP grew in the 1940s and ‘50s and led nonviolent demonstrations at Peoria’s segregated restaurants, hotels, and lunch counters. Bishop’s Cafeteria, a popular downtown restaurant, was desegregated after a year of protests, which led other businesses in the community to desegregate as well. Starting in 1962, the NAACP, under the leadership of John Gwynn, Jr., set its sights on equal employment opportunities with significant community employers.

The Fight Continues

Today, the Peoria NAACP and other like-minded organizations continue to play a leading role in addressing the legacy and ongoing practice of racism. Both the City of Peoria and Peoria County have hired full-time Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) officers, while businesses and professional organizations have adopted programs to address diversity concerns.

Despite these good-faith efforts, racism and its effects on our country, state, and community have endured, creating very different lives for Peorians based on the color of their skin. It is the focus of this Commission to develop initiatives which will accelerate efforts to end racism and achieve racial equity in our community.

Special thanks to the Peoria Journal Star, WCBU - Peoria Public Radio and Peoria Public Library for serving as sources incorporated in the above narrative.