Nearly a half-century ago, a woman named Eva Jones made history.
It was 1971, just a year after racial tensions turned violent at Bloomington High School. Jones, then 41 with her own children in District 87, had just helped negotiate peace between black community members and school leadership. Jones ran for school board and won, becoming the first black person to ever do that.
“With Eva Jones, someone was now sitting at the table,” said Charles Alsberry of Normal, a black community activist who considered Jones a political mentor. “And I think you can almost count on maybe two hands—or one—how many African-Americans have sat at the table since. The community needs more encouragement now for people to participate in the political process.”
As Bloomington-Normal marks Black History Month, Eva Jones is one of our most remarkable success stories. She wasn’t just the first black District 87 board member. She was the only woman. And she became board president during one of the most tumultuous periods in the district’s history. A few years after that, she became the first black person elected to the Bloomington City Council.
Jones’ story resonates today for many local black leaders—past and present. One reason is because her status as the “only” is still the status quo. People of color are still underrepresented on local city councils, the McLean County Board, and other elected bodies. Normal Town Council member Chemberly Cummings and Bloomington Alderman Mboka Mwilambwe, both black, are still the exceptions. That’s despite around 1 in 5 Bloomington-Normal residents being nonwhite.
“I think Bloomington-Normal wouldn’t be in the position they are, if it wasn’t for the many African-American leaders (like Eva Jones),” said Ronnie Jones, her son. “But again, we’ve got a long way to go.”
Jones was born in Arkansas and moved with her family to Bloomington in 1944. She attended Bloomington High School and graduated from Cortez Business College in Chicago. She married and had seven children, including Ronnie. She spent her career at Firestone Tire and Rubber Co.
But she was called to public service.
“She considered herself a little bit of an outsider and thought everybody else did too. She wasn’t born in this area,” said Alsberry. “And that was the crux of the conversation. She was going to be put her life experiences (to use) because she thought it was needed.”
Jones ran unsuccessfully for District 87 school board in 1970. That year racial tensions at BHS boiled over, with riot police called in to keep the peace between black and white students. Black students boycotted classes and asked for more black teachers and a black studies program.
“That was the beginning of her getting involved,” said Ronnie Jones.
Ronnie’s three older sisters were attending BHS then. He remembers Eva meeting with school officials and hosting meetings at the house with black leaders from Mount Pisgah Baptist Church on Bloomington’s west side, hoping to ease tensions.
It wasn’t easy for Jones. At the time, Ronnie said, the family was living on Linden Street, not the west side. She didn’t feel “mainstream black,” he said, and she obviously wasn’t mainstream white.
“She was working on both sides of the street,” Ronnie said. “That was very difficult back in the 60s and 70s. She got a lot of flak from even the African-American community, because they thought she was giving in on some situations. But she was really encouraged to try and get things settled and smoothed out so we could hear all voices on both sides.”
Eva was quiet but stern. Her nickname was a kid was “Pee Wee,” and she liked to say she was small but mighty, Ronnie said. At home, she was encouraging, loving, but also the enforcer, he said.
“It only takes a couple times for Eva Jones to have to tell you to straighten up,” Ronnie said.
Eva Jones won election to the school board in 1971. Six years later, Jones was chosen as board president, serving during a period of intense labor strife between the district and its teachers. She took over just after the only teachers’ strike in District 87 history.
“Because of the things that she believed in, which was education—she was an educated woman—it was a natural thing for her to be part of,” said current District 87 school board member Brigette Beasley. “It was another opportunity for her to step up and be part of something really great.”
In 1979, she ran for the Bloomington City Council and won, breaking another barrier. She even ran for mayor in 1985 but lost in a four-way primary. For the general election she threw her support behind Jesse Smart, a fellow alderman who she praised for his sensitiveness and openness.
“I remember very well, when she took me to two black churches on a Sunday morning. We did our thing,” Smart said. “She told every one of them, ‘This is my man. So vote for him.’”
Jones was the kingmaker. Smart won the general election.
“She as an individual was very well thought of. I don’t remember anybody ever being critical of her for playing the race card or any of that,” Smart said.
Jones’ quiet way of organizing and persuading people rubbed off on the community, Alsberry said. Black churches like Mount Pisgah became more politically powerful as a result of Jones, he said. When she ran for District 87 school board the first time in 1970, the “Black Churches of Bloomington” paid for a big ad supporting her candidacy in The Pantagraph.
She also impacted the community at a smaller level, such as helping create a west-side baseball league, Ronnie said.
“She asked everyone to look at the community, look at the children, and then build on that. The community was stagnant, and she was an inspiration,” said Alsberry. “That’s why they got the 'first' in front of her name. It’s not the first because she was the first woman or the first African-American. She was the first to really inspire our community to do more unity together.”
Lyndetta Alsberry, Charles’ wife, channeled Jones at the 2006 Cemetery Walk, in which Bloomington-Normal historical figures are portrayed by actors. She spoke to Jones’ children to capture her outspoken spirit and even her look—that trademark scarf, suit jacket, and skirt.
“I felt like everything I said in the script was actually her. I did some of her mannerisms,” Lyndetta said. “We captured some of the things she felt strongly about, like making sure all people are treated with respect and especially for black culture to gain some positive input in the community.”
Today there remain only a few black elected officials in McLean County. Brigette Beasley, for example, is the only black member of the school board in District 87, a district in which whites are only half of all students.
“Diversity is bigger than color,” she said. “It’s always critical to have a diverse group of people that are a part of a board, especially when it comes to education.”
Beasley joined the board in 2016. She said being the “only” is all too common for black leaders, either in school, at work, or in public service.
“It’s important to just let your opinion or voice be known, even if it’s sometimes a little hard,” Beasley said. “It’s in the back of my mind, but it’s a part of my life. I’m 51, so I’ve experienced it for my entire life. I can’t say it comes easy all the time, but I’m used to it. It’s just part of the culture in America.”
How can Bloomington-Normal recruit and elect even more leaders of color? Things like the Multicultural Leadership Program already exist to train civic and business leaders. Beasley said she it’s important for current leaders of color, like her, to be highly visible in the community.
“It’s thinking about the successors—who’s gonna come behind me. And almost recruiting folks who may have an interest in serving and making sure they understand what’s involved and giving them opportunities and making them aware of specific events,” Beasley said.
Jones died of cancer in 1987. She was just 57. Last year was inducted into the Bloomington High School Hall of Fame.
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