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History Museum Helps Community Heal From B-N's History With Racial Segregation

The events of the past year have encouraged the nation to acknowledge notable moments in Black history and in Bloomington-Normal, as in many places, that can be uncomfortable. 

McLean County Museum of History Librarian Bill Kemp said the museum has taken steps to educate the community on Black history in the Twin Cities to better understand the community's growing pains in recognizing a lack of racial equality. 

Kemp said this past summer's unrest regarding police brutality and racism has changed how the community approaches Black History Month this year.

“For too often, we had turned a blind eye to the racism in this community's past and how embedded it was, and just about every decision that was being made. We're now beginning to come to terms with that,” he said.

Kemp points to the article, “Jim Crow Comes to Central Illinois: Racial Segregation in Twentieth-Century Bloomington-Normal” by distinguished Illinois State University professor Mark Wyman and local historian John Muirhead for teaching the community about racial segregation in central Illinois and how it created barriers for the Black community to access a decent middle class life during the 20th century. 

Getting jobs, decent housing, education, entertainment, and even shopping for a Black person in Bloomington-Normal was difficult. Kemp said a Black person could shop in downtown department stores in Bloomington, but was not allowed to try on clothing, unlike their white counterparts. Movie theaters  also were segregated and a Black person had to order food out the back door and take their meal in a paper bag.

In education, Black youth could be educated in public schools and at the local university. But once they graduated, they had to go to Indianapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Tulsa, Oklahoma or other places to teach, work and have successful careers. There was not a Black teacher in Bloomington public schools until the 1960s. 

“Because we did that, their children had to seek opportunities elsewhere,” Kemp said. “This community would be much richer, would be much more diverse, and would be much better in so many ways if we were to keep some of these families and attract additional Black families.”

Kemp said orphans were separated by the color of their skin. The McLean County Home for Colored Children, renamed Booker T. Washington home in 1942, was a group home for Black children on on Bloomington's west side. One of the most famous children who attended the home was Elizabeth Louise Betty Ebo. She became one of the six nuns known as the Sisters of Selma when they stood front and center during the Civil Rights March with Martin Luther King Jr. She famously said, “I'm here as a Negro. And I'm, and I am here as a nun and a Catholic. And because I want to bear witness.” 

“We have plenty of statues to folks in this community and memorials and markers and monuments,” Kemp said. “We have three statues to Abraham Lincoln, for example, but it would be nice one would think to get a statue of somebody of the stature of Betty Ebo that really speaks to this community.”

Credit Bill Kemp / McLean County Museum of History
McLean County Museum of History
Aerial view of Miller Park segregated beach.

  Kemp said the most well-known example of racial segregation in the community was at Miller Park, where beaches were segregated from 1908 to the 1960s. In September of 2018, the McLean County Museum of History co-sponsored an Illinois State Historical Society marker at Miller Park, noting the fact that there were racially segregated beaches for the first half of the 20th century. 

King visited Illinois Wesleyan University in February of 1961 and again in 1966 to denounce racial segregation and to criticize President Dwight Eisenhower, who had just finished his second term as president, for not moving fast enough against segregation after the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that the racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.

Kemp said not everyone in the community has taken well to discussing the truth of Bloomington-Normal’s history of racism.

“I think people are embarrassed,” Kemp said. “I think it is an embarrassing chapter in our local history. But again, Bloomington-Normal is wonderful and not-so-wonderful as in many ways, and that it reflects the nation as a whole. We're kind of a microcosm. So, I think some people are embarrassed by the past. And some people don't want to dwell on it. They want to pretend those things did not happen. But as Mark Wyman, who played the leading role in ensuring a marker gets erected, said, ‘A great nation does not hide its history. A great nation faces its flaws and corrects them.’ So he said by dedicating this marker, we're helping uncover community secret.”

Kemp said housing in present-day Bloomington-Normal is one of the clear indicators of how racial segregation in the past has affected the Twin Cities today. 

“If you look at average income among white residents in Bloomington-Normal, and among African Americans, you can see the disparity there. You look at where folks live and the quality of the housing they have. White America has an enormous amount of capital, billions upon billions of dollars invested in home ownership up into the 1960s. We denied a lot of working-class Black families access to good housing and that avenue went to a stable middle-class life.”

The events of the past year have steered the community to diligently grapple with the country's and community’s past, but Kemp thinks the Twin Cities is making progress toward change. 

“I think it's an ongoing dialogue. I think this national reckoning, this local reckoning we've had as a community ... can be frustrating at times. But that's human nature. And it's the nature of communities to struggle as progress is made. And as the McLean County Museum Museum of History, we're going to be part of that dialogue.”

The museum plans to open a new exhibit that addresses the abuse of power in McLean County and issues toward BIPOC, women and the LGBTQ+ community. 

“We're looking to commemorate efforts like that, which serve both to remind us of our past. And then both can also be an exercise in healing,” said Kemp.

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