Tom Kacich | Years ago, C-U was 'as Jim Crow as any northern town could possibly be'

 

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If you were an African-American motorist traveling through East Central Illinois in the middle of the last century and looking for a friendly place to eat or spend the night, your choices were extremely limited.

According to the Green Book, the annual guide produced for black travelers and made famous in the current movie of the same name, only one area business was listed consistently: the Just A Mere Hotel in downtown Danville. (Contemporary Danville city directories listed the Just A Mere not as a hotel but a tavern owned by Howard and Ruth Mockabee. The site is now a vacant lot just west of the Bunge mill.)

Champaign-Urbana may have fancied itself as a worldly, university community, but it was as backward as any other Jim Crow community. Even as late as 1966 — the 30th anniversary of the publication of the first Green Book — no businesses in Champaign or Urbana were willing to be listed in the guide that said it sought to promote "Vacation Without Aggravation."

Five "tourist homes" were listed in Springfield, four in Rockford and two in Peoria. Several hotels, restaurants and service stations in East St. Louis welcomed African-American travelers, and Chicago had dozens of listings, including the Playboy Club and the Drake and Edgewater Beach hotels.

Especially noteworthy is the 1947 Green Book, which included the Just A Mere Hotel and the Stewart Tourist Home in Danville but was devoid of any other East Central Illinois businesses. That was during the period when Champaign-Urbana slowly began to shake off its deep history of racial segregation.

In 1946, the student Senate at the University of Illinois approved a resolution condemning the denial of equal services to black students. Similar resolutions also were approved by other student and faculty groups who then presented the resolutions to campus area restaurants and asked them to sign statements verifying that they did not discriminate.

Most signed, according to a paper written in 1966 by history student Cathie Huntoon, but six restaurants refused. Evidence of discrimination at the eateries was collected and presented to State's Attorney John Bresee, who sent them letters warning that they were in violation of state law.

Pickets were organized at the six restaurants, and students and faculty members carried signs that read, "Illinois Law Says Don't Discriminate," "Jim Crow Must Go" and "Herb McKenley, Athlete of the Year Can't Eat Here," a reference to the Jamaica-born track star who in 1946 set a world's record by running the 440 in 46.2 seconds.

In the fall of 1946, the six restaurants — Campus Steak N Shake, Steak N Shake Drive Inn, Todd's Cafe, Hagen's Steak House, Skelton's Drugs and Bidwell's Confectionary — agreed to end their discriminatory policies.

In the rest of the community, however, discrimination persisted, according to a 1948 report by the League of Women Voters of Champaign County.

Until the middle of 1947, the report said, the Urbana Park District's swimming pool at Crystal Lake Park hadn't been open to African-Americans. A year later, the indoor pool at the McKinley YMCA still was closed to blacks.

Community practices regarding stores, restrooms and public transportation were within the law, the report noted, but not in other areas.

Bowling alleys, skating rinks and most dance halls were off-limits to blacks.

"Until recently," said the 1948 report, "all movie theaters except the Co-ed (in Campustown) required Negroes to sit in certain sections at the side or in the rear of the balcony and there are still some attempts to carry out this practice."

The women reviewed 27 years of local prosecutions and couldn't find a single case where the state's attorney took the initiative in investigating violations of racial discrimination.

Another academic paper, written in 1961 by Aaron Morris Bindman, a white graduate student in sociology, presented a thorough review of racial segregation in Champaign-Urbana over more than 20 years, particularly as it applied to black employment.

"In 1938 when I entered the University of Illinois I became aware of and maintained some contact with the Negro community until 1941 when I left the campus," Bindman wrote. "During those three years C-U was as Jim Crow as any northern town could possibly be."

It wasn't until 1961, he wrote, that the African-American community in Champaign-Urbana, "which for all these years accepted their burden with little or no protest" finally exploded over hiring practices at the new J.C. Penney store (coincidentally now The News-Gazette building) in downtown Champaign.

Part of the reason for the change, he wrote, was the newly formed North End Ministers Association which "took special note of this potential opportunity for jobs."

The store advertised for 150 "first quality salesladies, age 18-50, high school education required." About 20 black women applied, including one who had worked for 10 years at a department store in Denver and had produced a letter of recommendation. Neither she nor other of the black applicants was hired.

"This Negro saleswoman was to become for C-U what Rosa Parks was for the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott," Bindman wrote.

Picketing and a boycott of the store began in early April 1961, and by the end of the month Penney's had agreed to hire at least one black salesperson "and pledges were made by responsible officers of all the other major Champaign department stores to employ Negroes in sales positions either by specified dates or as vacancies occur," Bindman said.

A fairly complete compilation of "The Negro Traveler's Green Book" is online at New York Public Library's digital collections at digitalcollections.nypl.org/collections/the-green-book#/?tab=about.

Among them is this 1948 notation: "There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment."

It would be almost 20 years, in 1966, when that day finally came and the last Green Book was published.

Correction

Last Sunday's column incorrectly reported the amount of money that Republican John Farney had spent in running for Champaign County treasurer last year. Because of an error in the State Board of Elections' system for tabulating expenditures, I reported that Farney had spent over $67,000. The actual sum is well under half that amount, depending on when you begin counting expenditures toward the 2018 election. I apologize for the error.

Marijuana legalization forum

State Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, and Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, will hold a joint town hall on marijuana legalization later this month.

The event will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 18 on the top floor of the Illinois Terminal, 45 E. University Ave., C. The session is open to the public.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette columnist. His column appears on Sundays.

Columnist

Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is tkacich@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).