McLean County Museum of History Librarian Bill Kemp's new book is his second collection of stories written for The Pantagraph. The 77 stories in this edition reveal issues from the county's past that still reverberate today, albeit in different form.
“Volume Two of Bill Kemp's Pages From the Past" covers a variety of people and events, including McLean County's history with hemp, railroads, and even JCPenney. One story tackles the Chase v. Stephenson civil rights case in the late 1800s that was argued on financial grounds. The suit that eventually landed in the state Supreme Court concerned a small one-room school outside Danvers.
“There were several rural black families living in the area, which was not unusual for the time,” said Kemp. “So there were several African-American children wanting to attend this school. The local school board thought it best to create a separate school for these few black children.”
That upset several local taxpayers, who sued and argued that paying for separate schools when there were so few children in the district was wasteful spending.
“So the case begins in the McLean County circuit court and ends up in the Illinois Supreme Court,” said Kemp. “It’s now known as an early test case for school segregation, even though the case is really argued on finance, not so much on the issue of race, equality, or civil rights.”
Kemp writes in “Pages From the Past" that it wasn’t known for sure how the original complainers actually felt about race. But a half century later, financial arguments were used across the country by property owners against especially African-Americans via housing covenants, zoning and mortgage laws to keep them out of many neighborhoods and homes.
Kemp tackled that idea in another chapter titled “Meadowbrook (subdivision) symbol of the post war housing boom.” He writes “Though Bloomington leaders neither codified or sanctioned discrimination against African-Americans … African-Americans were unable to secure mortgages from local banks due to long standing segregation practices.”
Marijuana and hemp have been in the news in the past few years as many Illinois citizens and legislators have been fighting to make, at minimum, medicinal marijuana legal. But Kemp recalled a few years during World War II when the United States government contracted with local farmers to grow hemp to use for fiber to make rope and cord for the navy and shroud lines and harnesses for airborne troops.
“The United States had to produce our own fiber crop, and hemp was a wonderful crop to do that,” said Kemp. “Lexington became the center (of that production). Farmers began to grow it and there was a local processing mill just outside Lexington to process hemp into a rough form, which was then shipped outside the area to be further processed.”
Kemp said one of the slogans popular during that period in McLean County was “we’re going to hang Hitler with a hemp rope."
Did hemp have the stigma then as it does today?
“People were aware it could be a problematic crop certainly, so there were restrictions on growing it,” said Kemp.
For example, farmers had to plant protective strips of crops to prevent that hemp from spreading to ditches and beyond.
“But hemp has a low THC (compared to marijuana), so it was difficult to get any kind of psychoactive feel off of it. Locals were aware of it, but the war trumped all at that time,” said Kemp.
“Volume Two of Bill Kemp’s Pages From the Past” is available at the McLean County Museum of History, as well as the Garlic Press in Normal and Casey’s Garden Shop in Bloomington. It’s stuffed with 77 fascinating weekly feature stories he has written for The Pantagraph since 2005.
Also included in this book are the story of a Bloomington man who wrote episodes for the Captain Kirk era "Star Trek" series, 85-year-old Julia LeBeau of Bloomington playing her tin can xylophone on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, and how west side Bloomington residents pooled their money to keep the Chicago and Alton Railroad from leaving town and taking over a thousand jobs with it.
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