Black and White in a Small Midwestern Town

Racism in Small Town AmericaLately I have heard a lot about our town — Jacksonville, Illinois — in the old days, almost as far back as living memory goes, back to the 1950s and 1960s. Listening to people talk about their own experiences is the best way to learn history.

Margaret Ann Norvell Florence, who spoke at Mayor Ezard’s Unity Breakfast in January, explained that Dr. Clarence McClelland, President of MacMurray College since 1925, and the Director of the YMCA, whoever he was, recruited her in 1950 to be the first African American student at MacMurray since its founding a century before. When she went to Jacksonville High School to get her transcript, the principal told her she was not smart enough to go to college.

While at MacMurray, Margaret Florence and some students from Chicago tried to integrate several segregated Jacksonville establishments, demanding service at ice cream and hamburger joints and sitting downstairs at the Illinois Theater. She was “put out” of all those places. She finished her college coursework in less than four years, and eventually became a successful teacher in Des Moines.

From many people, black and white, I heard that Jacksonville was a sharply segregated town into the 1960s, with a long history of peacefully subordinating the black minority. Unlike in Springfield in 1908 or in Cairo after World War II, that peace was never broken. Friendships and commerce routinely crossed the color line. Segregation was never complete: the public education system brought all Jacksonvillians together. But discriminatory practices based on a racist ideology were also routine and unchanging.

Richard Johnson and other African American students at Illinois College couldn’t live in the dorms in the 1950s, and the city pool was for whites only. Talented African Americans had to look elsewhere for professional jobs. I was told that Milton McPike, another great JHS athlete, couldn’t find a teaching job here. He became a principal in Madison, Wisconsin, and eventually was appointed to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. In 1964 the Jacksonville City Council established a City Commission on Human Relations, whose 1965 survey of local employment revealed a pattern of racial discrimination. In the 1960s, the first blacks were hired by District 117, including Ruth Linear.

I heard about many African American athletes who were encouraged and befriended by Al Rosenberger, an outstanding track athlete who became track coach at JHS. Dan Moy told me that Rosenberger had a special relationship with Ken Norton, but one time got so fed up with Norton’s difficult behavior that he entered him in eight events in a meet against Decatur Eisenhower in 1961. Norton won 6 (some say 7) events and the state coaches created the Norton rule, limiting the number of events one athlete could compete in.

The great majority of whites followed the racial conventions in which they had been raised. In their personal behavior with African Americans they knew, they might not mirror institutional and social racism. Many local whites did business at Norvell’s Shoe Repair, but did not challenge the system that kept the Norvells out of local restaurants. Merritt Norvell told me, “Elm City Café was right next door to where my dad’s shop was, and he couldn’t go in there to get a sandwich. Ninety percent of the people who went in there would come to the shop for service. My dad had to go to the back door to get his lunch.”

A small number of whites opposed any movement toward equality. They might have joined the Morgan County Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s or refused to allow blacks into their stores in the 1960s, like the owner of Spatz’s Ice Cream Shop on East State St. Their behavior in public and private kept Jacksonville segregated.

Some other people broke the rules. They might directly break the color line, like President McClelland and the unnamed YMCA director. I don’t know his name, which I think deserves recognition. Like Al Rosenberger, they might help young black Jacksonvillians realize their full potential.

The choices made by white and black people determined the fate of segregation. African Americans in Jacksonville tended to escape rather than fight the system openly, perhaps because so many generations of their families had lived in it. Whites chose from a different spectrum of alternatives, from enforcing racism, to allowing the system to continue, to openly challenging it.

steve hochstadtThe people I heard from were young in the 1950s and 1960s. Faced with the varied behavior of their elders, many chose to ignore the traditional rules of racism. JHS students elected Eugene Wells vice-president of the Student Council and Merritt Norvell homecoming king in the late 1950s. Frederick Douglas told me that Wells had also been elected by the choir to be Snow King, but when the vote was announced, a white student was named. The students themselves figured out that Gene had won. A few years later, he was elected President of the Student Forum at Illinois College.

This local behavior of a few brave adults and many young people eventually replaced segregation with a very different set of race relations. Racism has not yet disappeared, but we all are much better off.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives

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