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March is Women's History Month, and WGLT is recognizing 21 women who shaped Bloomington-Normal. New episodes every weekday in March.

Caribel Washington pushed for civil rights and capturing Black history

Caribel Washington headshot
Caribel Washington is one of WGLT's 21 Women Who Shaped Bloomington-Normal.

Caribel Washington made history, and then she made sure history wouldn’t forget. 

Washington made the most of her 97 years on this earth. She moved to Bloomington as a child and lived most of her life on the city’s west side. She graduated from Bloomington High School during the Great Depression. Here she became a civil rights pioneer, faith leader and humanitarian. She died in 2011. 

“She had many layers of life experiences that molded her into the great humanitarian that she became,” said Jeff Woodard from the McLean County Museum of History. 

Those who knew Washington, like Woodard, tend to quote her – Caribel-isms, they call them. 

“I believe that service is the rent you pay for the space you occupy,” she would often say. “And you ought to be doing something today and tomorrow by this thing we call diversity.” 

Washington did something. She took a job at State Farm in 1946, first as a maid and then a secretary. She was one of the first Black women to work at the company. During the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, State Farm faced pressure to expand Black employment opportunities. Washington lead a movement to offer night courses, focusing on the development of professional skills for African American workers. Many of the participants in this program were hired by State Farm.

Washington was a key figure at State Farm’s downtown building – “one of our presidents” in all but name, as the higher-ups would sometimes say. 

“She ran it, and not by what she said to people, but how she carried herself in her job,” said Woodard.

Washington described racism as an irritation, like a rash, that we keep treating with temporary measures hoping it will clear up. 

“Well, it has to go away before too long! All of us are human beings. All entitled to our share of the American dream,” Washington said during a speech in the late 1990s.

Black History Project

Washington retired from State Farm in 1979. Washington, an avid reader, became a founding member in 1982 of the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project, which preserved the stories of the local Black community and lives on today. Her own oral history is a must-read

Washington was also an active member of Wayman AME Church in Bloomington, one of the oldest Black congregations in Illinois, where she held various leadership and volunteer roles through the years. After the church moved to a new location in the early 1990s, Washington was involved in an archaeological dig at its original site at 806 N. Center St., uncovering the important role that the church played in the physical and spiritual health of its faithful. 

For this and more, Washington was the first Bloomington recipient of the Illinois Humanities Council’s Studs Terkel Award in 1999, among other honors. She was posthumously named a McLean County History Maker in that program’s inaugural class in 2012

“She was a no-nonsense public servant, a civil servant,” Woodard said. “She was just all about the business of taking care of what needed to be done, whether it be in church or in the community. And she was fun. She was very serious, but she also had a good sense of humor.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.