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McHistory: Housekeeper for the affluent and the tawdry

McLean County Museum of History
Ella Stokes

The way Black people were treated in Bloomington-Normal got a lot worse in the 20th century than in the years before, and that's saying something. The conditions produced jarring juxtapositions in people’s lives, such as that of an intelligent churchgoing Black woman who worked for the family of State Farm royalty and in a brothel to make ends meet.

Born in 1912 in Elkhorn County, Miss., Ella Stokes came to Bloomington with her mother at the age of 7 or 8. Bloomington schools were integrated then. Ella attended Bloomington elementary and junior high schools, and managed to make it through a little bit of the ninth grade before she had to earn a living to help out her mother.

“Racial conditions deteriorated precipitously, public access, segregated theaters, inability to patronize downtown restaurants in Bloomington and in many in Normal as well all developed for African Americans. They could not stay at the finer hotels in town as Jim Crow came to central Illinois, if you will,” said McLean County Museum of History Librarian Bill Kemp.

Even more pernicious, he said, was the inability of Blacks to get decent employment and housing in the community. Until the 1950s and 1960s, most middle class jobs or jobs that promised a ticket to the middle class were unavailable to African Americans.

“So, a promising individual, fairly well educated, whip smart like Ella Stokes, then, as an adult has to become a domestic worker and a cook,” said Kemp.

She was, for about a quarter of a century, the housekeeper for the for the extended Mecherle family. George J. Mecherle was the founder of State Farm.

At times, Ella Stokes also had to look for employment in dicier places. Bloomington had a red-light district. The municipality hemmed in brothels, known as houses of ill fame, or disorderly houses, or even sporting houses. Those were all south of downtown along Moulton Street, now MacArthur Avenue, Wright Street, and Oakland Avenue.

“The idea is that if a municipality can keep a vice such as prostitution in a specific geographic area, they can control it and even better it is an engine for municipal corruption because you can have payoffs to police officers and elected officials to raid or not raid certain sporting houses and that, in fact, is the condition in Bloomington,” said Kemp.

Stokes was in her 30s and lived nearby when she took the job and worked about two years. It was run by a madam.

“I had to do the cooking and keep the rooms clean. I had quite a bit to do. I would sit in the window. I didn’t want to, but that was my job. Somebody would knock on the door, and I would let them in. If visitors wanted something to drink, I would go get them a drink and collect the money. I had an apron with pockets, and that’s where I kept the money. Then I would turn it over to the madam. She wouldn’t let a dollar walk out,” said Stokes in an oral history interview for the museum of history conducted by Mildred Pratt in 1987.

White men could patronize Black brothels. But Black men were barred from stepping inside a white brothel.

“Those who patronized the house were businessmen from all around. They were from the city and out in the country and every which way. I guess some men were passing through town,” said Stokes.

The Bloomington brothels were popular with soldiers from Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul some 40 miles away, though thanks to an underfunded health department, some of the sex workers had sexually transmitted infections. The base commander made Bloomington off limits to Chanute personnel during World War II, said Kemp.

“The house had nice rooms downstairs. It had a dining room and a kitchen. The rooms for the girls were upstairs. The house madam had three or four girls. If I pressed anything for the girls, they would give me $.75 or $1. They’d give me $1.50 to clean their rooms and things like that, which was extra money for me,” said Stokes. ““There were a number of (police raids), but I wasn’t there when they happened.”

Bloomington’s red-light district ended with slum clearance and urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s. The streets were reconfigured and today, the Woodhill Towers public housing development is located in that area.

“One of the things that led to its end was this payback scheme that was publicized and led to the resignation of a police chief at the time,” said Kemp.

Ella Stokes worked through the Great Depression. During World War II, she worked for Williams Oil-O-Matic Heating Corp., which was a military contractor.

She married Alfonso Stokes in 1936, a marriage that lasted 36 years before Alfonso passed away in 1975. Stokes was active in the Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, in the NAACP, and the Red Williams American Legion Post Ladies Auxiliary.

“In communities like Bloomington, American Legion posts were racially segregated. White veterans were in one post and Bloomington-Normal black veterans were in another post known as the Red Williams post. Ella Stokes’ stepfather, Marshall Barker, was a World War I veteran,” said Kemp.

Ella and her mother worked together on what were known as colored balls. These were held around the birthday of then- President Franklin Roosevelt. The events raised money to fight polio.

Stokes died in April 1996 at age 83.

“Her life and career really speaks to the Black experience in Bloomington-Normal during the greater part of the 20th century,” said Kemp.

Ella Stokes will be featured as a character in this year's Evergreen Cemetery walk Sept. 24-25 and Oct. 1-2 with performances at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.