Calvin Jones was born in Peoria, where he spent his very early childhood. He remembers acting as the protector of his best friend “Andy,” the only white kid in what he described as a poor mostly Black neighborhood. His family moved to Bloomington before he entered 5th grade, then to Normal shortly thereafter where he attended Fairview Elementary.
Jones says he loved social studies and history in school and worked himself into a star basketball and football player, first at Chiddix Junior High then at Normal Community High School. He also played professionally for the Bloomington Extreme in the Indoor Football League.
Jones spoke with Jon Norton for the WGLT series Living Black in Bloomington-Normal. Contact us if you'd like to be featured in the series.
What do you remember about your early experience in Bloomington-Normal?
Before going to Fairview, we stayed a short time at Sunnyside. It was a white kid who invited me to the neighborhood. And again, being the kid that was raised to take care of Andy, the white kid, I was the new kid. I assumed this kid was trying to be my friend. And I got a lesson into not everybody is, you know, here for it to be friendly. I remember him asking my mother if I can come out to play. And he took me to a park behind Sunnyside … that's still there to this day where basketball courts are at. And they asked if I can come out and play. Back in the day when I was a kid. It was fenced in and had like these tall fences and a tennis court. He set me up … like he asked me to go play I went out to go meet these kids. I think he’s introducing me to the neighborhood … come to find out they closed me into this gate. And I ended up getting jumped by a group of kids in the neighborhood. They're throwing bottles of glass at me and stuff like that. And I ended up having to climb this fence to jump over and run home.
That was your first experience in Bloomington-Normal?
That was my first with racism and kids in Bloomington. And then moving to Normal, it kind of expanded just because, I mean, it's a little more diverse on this side of town. And Bloomington … it was always a little more diverse. Even when I first moved here. And then moving to Normal, that was when I'm the only Black kid in class. And that was always uncomfortable because I know at Fairview my experiences there as a child … anytime anything happened, I was always looked at.
Actually, first half day of school at Fairview, I had a confrontation. The teacher had put us into groups to like, introduce ourselves, and I had to go to the bathroom. And so I asked if I could go. I guess I walked through this kid’s group and he didn't like me walking through his little group, and he kicked me. And before I even reacted as a kid, I looked at the teacher first. Like, I looked at her like, “He's kicking me, do you see this kid kicking me?” And he kicked me again. And I looked at the teacher and she did not react. She didn't do anything. I'm just like, “I'm just trying to walk to the bathroom. You see this kid kicking me.” He kicked me twice. And I didn't react the first two times. He kicked me a third time. The kid was already laying down and sitting in this group I said, I don't know. I mean punched him. And of course, that's when the teacher reacts and takes me to the office, and I'm looked at as this crazy kid. I got suspended the first half day of school. I just remember going home my mom being like, “How the heck do you get suspended on the first half day of school? You're not even doing anything besides saying your name.” That was my first experience at Fairview.
How did it evolve after that?
It just kind of set the tone and it made me be labeled as like this violent kid, right? I think the principal ... I remember him just not listening to me. Like I remember being in the office telling him this kid was kicking me and I looked at the teacher for help. And she didn't move. And so I just defended myself. I didn't sit there and just pummel him like I was this crazy person.
I got labeled as a violent kid. And so for the rest of my experiences at that school, if anything went wrong … like I'll never forget, they suspended me for three days from a half day school, right? I come back from a three-day suspension. And I got called into the office. I just remember being sat in the room with like, the principal and three other teachers. And they're questioning me … asking me these questions. They're like, hey, “what is the posse?” And I'm like, “what, like, what's, what's the posse?” And she's like, “Some kids said that you came at school while you were suspended, and spray painted ‘the posse’ on the walls at Chiddix (Junior High)." And I don't even know what that is … and why would I do that? I'm suspended from school … that's not who I am. That's not even what I do. I'm not involved in any gangs and that's just not how I was raised. My family were military family, but they sent me to this room and questioned me. And I remember as a kid, I got angry because I felt like I wasn't being listened to. And I felt like they were just accusing me of something that wasn't real. And I played the role that they wanted me to play. You know, I turned into that violent kid. I stood up and I remember throwing my chair, like, “You guys aren't hearing me. I didn't do this.” And I threw my chair and I walked out of the classroom. Then I walked home, and I remember coming to the house, like “Mom, I'm suspended again. They think I spray-painted this stuff on the wall.” You know, and I never did.
The third incident at that school … I've always been very, very obsessed with history and social studies. That's like my favorite subject. I love it, you know, to the to my core, I can read about it. I can study it. I've always been like that since I was a kid, right? And so, my fifth grade teacher … I'm not going to say his name … we'll just call him Mr. M. He didn't know that social studies was my favorite subject. And I didn't know as a kid that he was intentionally trying to make things hard on me. Like he was giving me all these hard assignments … and because I thought it was cool, I was just getting excited. Like, “You want me to build a fire hydrant out of a pickle jar. Fine.” I did, I did it. And not only did I build it, it's on videotape. I demonstrated with the class … I put out fires in the class with this little pickle jar.
And now let's fast forward to Chiddix. I'm playing basketball and I'm making a name for myself and becoming popular, and my little sister is going to Fairview at this time. You know, she has the same teacher as me at this at this time, right? And my sister comes home with this two-page letter from Mr. M. And it's written to me. It's basically a letter from him apologizing, saying that, “Hey, you never noticed this as a child. But I was intentionally trying to mess with you. I did things intentionally to try to get you upset and for some reason you never noticed … that for some reason you still excelled, for some reason you still get your assignments. And my favorite video is still that video of you making that stupid fire extinguisher that I told you to make because I will intentionally trying to give you the not cool project.” Because initially, everybody had all these cool projects and demonstrations. He was trying to give me the tough assignment.
So, did you think it was a race thing? Or did you … what were you thinking?
I mean, he admitted to his racism. I mean, that's what he said in his letter. He thought that Black people were stupid. Basically, he didn't think that I was smart enough to catch it. And what was weird about the whole situation is … after I got his letter … and then even through high school, he followed me … he followed my entire career. I saw him at all my basketball games … he would be in the stands, and he would always come up to me and make sure he specifically shook my hand and he would talk to me like we're best friends. But I don't know, I just … maybe I was just the guy that impressed him. But I just remember being so disappointed. But in my mind, that made me learn that “OK, maybe I can't trust everything that … I mean, maybe the person that smiled in front of my face isn't necessarily the person that has my best interest. That was the lesson I learned from that.
So you've got two incidents already at Fairview that you're talking about. One, when you get kicked in class on the first half day of class, turning around to the teacher, she's not doing anything. Right? And now you've got a teacher who openly admits that he was messing with you. And that it was racist.
So as a kid that age, you've got people in authority … and to be blunt, they're white people in authority. Does that change how you view …?
Well, yeah, because you got to remember … again … before I moved to Bloomington, I came from an all-Black area … all my teachers were Black, down to my principal. So that's all I had ever really known until I moved outside of that environment. And then to get here, and experience that was … it was a shock to the system. Just because it was something new that I had never … had never experienced. And so you're talking about new questions. I'm coming home to my mother like, “Mom like what … what's going on? Like, why … why … why would they do that?” When you’re a 12-year-old … 10-year-old boy … you … that's when you learn that people look at you a certain way for no reason. And your whole life, you're questioning … why?
So, you're a kid. Chiddix Junior High now. In general, are you having better experiences there than you were at Fairview?
Well? Chiddix is where I actually first started meeting more Black kids. Because Fairview was a fairly small school, fairly small area. Chiddix is where I met my friend Chris … you interviewed him. That's when I met … and again through sports through basketball, more Black people. Just because they're coming from other elementary schools.
So, I ended up playing for the team and I'll never forget this to this day. I was getting picked up by uncle. I'll just say ‘Uncle G’ because I'm not using full names, just so I'm not putting anybody out there. But uncle G has giving me a ride home. And you know how Chiddix is located. The police station is right there … Pub II. We're driving down by Pub II … we got pulled over right in front of Pub II. And my uncle G's driving a BMW with tinted windows. And we got pulled over because the officer said the tint was too dark. This car … and my uncle G is looking at the officer like, “What do you mean my tint is too dark? I bought it off the car lot this way. I didn't change or manipulate anything to this car to make it dark.” I mean as a kid you're not understanding as a Black man you've been pulled over with a nice car. They didn't know that my Uncle G was a general manager of Rent-A-Center and managed 10 stores and made a pretty nice chunk of change in the early 90s. And so, I remember the officers talking to my uncle … and just kind of you know … again listening to the demeanor and how he's talking to him … just blatant disrespect. Like he's just not a man. And I'm just looking at him as a child like … looking out the window just … man like … “What is up with this officer?” Because as a kid, what do boys play when they're playing outside? All the boys play cops and robbers, and all the boys play the good guy, you know? And so, you're assuming that the good guy is there to do good things. And if there's a misunderstanding, he's going to listen, OK? You know, he asks for my uncle's license, Uncle gives it to him. And he looks at me and asks me for a license.
You're 12 years old?
I'm 12 years old … and I'm literally wearing a Chiddix Junior High School practice jersey. It says Chiddix Junior High School across my chest. So, what do I do? I look down at my chest like, can you not see that I'm a kid with a kid shirt on? Like, I obviously can't drive a car and I obviously don't have a driver's license. But I'm tall, right? And the officer put his gun to my window and said, "Get out of the car. You look like a big boy." And Uncle G is at this point … he's screaming at the officer, “Leave that boy alone. Why are you doing that to him? Leave him alone. Leave him alone. He's just a kid. He's just a kid. The boy told you he doesn't have no license. He's a child. I'm picking him up from basketball practice, like you see it says Chiddix on his shirt.”
But when I saw that officers’ gun in my window, you're talking about the psyche of a 12-year-old boy. It's like watching a superhero melt in front of your eyes. It's like, why is he doing this to me? You know, you're questioning like … why? I told him I don't have a license. Can you see that? It says Chiddix Junior High School on my shirt. The school is right behind the Pub II … to like … you could drive there … we're obviously coming from that area.
But he pulls me out of the car. My uncle still had to sit in his seat while he pulls me out of the passenger side. And he rummages through my Chiddix Junior High School backpack until he finds my Chiddix school ID. And that's when he let us go. And I just remember being like, “Why did he do that?” And then, you know, staring down the barrel of a gun when you're 12 years old … you're thinking about death. Like, is he gonna shoot me? What is going on? And why would he think just because I'm taller than him that I'm a threat. Like, I can't help that God made me tall. That was my first time coming from Peoria and an all- Black neighborhood … it was considered a bad neighborhood or violent neighborhood … I had never in my life had a gun put in my face.
How did the officer justify what he did to you?
He didn't. He just did what he did. And let us go with no apology. I just remember getting back in the car with my uncle, and that's when he had to have an adult conversation about being a Black man … about how people are going to assume things about me that I'm not. “Unfortunately, Calvin, your dark skin too. So, they're really going to think about you … something that's not true, because when they see a very, very dark skinned man, they respond with fear first, for some reason. I don't know why, but they respond with fear first.”
And that's been common in my life. And after 30, almost 37 years of it, you start to get used to just filing things away. You know, this just the way things are. You know, people just don't see me … people just don't see you. Unless I'm making a tackle, shooting a basketball, or entertaining in some type of way. They'll see me then after a game when I'm playing with their kids, giving autographs or something like that. But once I take off that jersey or that label or whatever, like, I'm just blending in with everybody else. And that's just been the way of life. That was my first interaction with officer. And that's one of many. And I never asked for them. Again, I've never been arrested. I've never even had handcuffs put on me, ever. But I can go through gobs and gobs of stories of being harassed for no reason.
Before we got going, you were telling me about another thing that happened … at Chiddix when you were in the classroom and you had to watch "Roots."
It was a schoolwide thing. Everybody had to watch this thing, which again, was a shock to me because I had watched "Roots" before, but I watched it with my family. My grandmother was the type of person where she was really big on imagery. So anytime there was anybody Black on TV, she would just be like, “Hey, guys, there are Black people on TV, come sit down and watch this.” She just understood the importance of little kids absorbing images of themselves on TV. And my grandmother showed us parts of "Roots," I had never been forced to watch the whole thing just because it's so many different crazy things that go on in that movie. Junior high was the first time I'd ever had to “watch it, watch it.”
I was the only Black kid in class. I understand that those people are actors or whatnot, but they're portraying something that happened that was real … that was a representation of me. And so, I would cry. I would watch … I was watching this movie. I remember when they first were telling us we're going to watch the movie, and I explained it to my mother, telling her how uncomfortable it was because it's like, “Mom, I’m the only Black kid in class, I don't want to feel uncomfortable watching slaves on TV when I'm the only Black person in class.” She just tried to tell me to do my best to just stay focused and not pay attention or whatever. I had to do what I had to do because it was a school type deal or whatever. But of course, the movie starts and you're in the classroom and things happen. Everybody kept staring at me every time anything bad would happen. Like they would turn and eyeball me … and just kind of waiting for my reaction. And it was just the most uncomfortable feeling … and I tried my best … I stayed in class … I took my notes … I tried to do the best I could.
But I would cry and the kids in the classroom would tease me for crying. You know, they would ask questions like, “Man, Calvin, why? Why are you so upset? Why does it bother you so much?” And I would be like, “Those are my ancestors. That's my people. That's the history of this country. Like it bothers me.” You know, like, I'm watching people be whipped.
I'll never forget it was … we got to the point where Kunta Kinte tried to run away, and he gets captured or whatnot. And they tie him to a tree, and they chop off his foot, so he doesn't run anymore. And that scene made me explode … like I was just, I was bawling. Because from my standpoint, I'm watching the guy trying to run for his freedom, and I'm seeing them get tortured and beat. And I'm sure as kids, you're not understanding the imagery that's being programmed in your head because my classmates, they see their ancestors as people with power. You know, they rarely see themselves as the slave. They don't see themselves as a slave so they can't even relate. But when Kunta Kinte has his foot chopped off, of course everybody’s eyes darts at me. And I just stood up and I remember telling Mr. H, “I can't … I can't do this.” Every time anything happens, people look at me and plus, this is just making me emotional. Like I'm watching "Roots" for the first time around all white people, you know, I don't have that emotional support of my family sitting in the living room telling me everything is OK and explaining things further to me so I can understand from my little 12 year old brain.
But Mr. H was a really cool teacher. I appreciated him at the time seeing my hurt, understanding that it bothered me and not forcing me to sit there and watch it. And he didn't get upset that I got upset and walked out of the classroom. He actually walked me to my counselor's office. We sat down and discussed it, and I'm just like, “I can't do this. This is too much. This is traumatic, like this is bothering me.” So, they gave me this assignment. Do an alternate project of my family tree. And I mentioned before, my great grandparents, or at least my great grandmother is still alive to this day. And so, you're talking about, you know, 1996 at the time. And they gave me an assignment to do, an alternate project on my family tree. So, I don't have to sit in classroom and be tortured, basically. And whenever they would watch the movies, I would go sit in my counselor's office and work on my project.
But what really was a really cool experience that happened for me out of it was my great grandparents took me to Cleveland, Mississippi. And I got to see the actual plantation that my family came from, like it was the most mind-boggling experience I've ever had in my life, you know, because, again, when you’re a kid I got to see when we arrived to the city of Cleveland, Mississippi … and it's a small town, and small farm town at that. And it was the first time I had ever been to a town where most of the people was all Black. And I'm sure they were because of sharecropping and everything afterwards. But we get there. You see the wheels turning in my grandmother's head, you know, you can see her change and go back. She sees places that she can remember. And I'll never forget when we get to the town. First thing she does, she hops out the van and she had a little sandwich bag and she picks cotton and puts it in the sandwich bag. She's crying, putting cotton in the sandwich bag as we get to the lands of where our family's from. First place they take me to is the big house. And that was when I learned why they call it a big house.
You're talking about wealth. When you see how much wealth slaves built for a family for free, it's crazy. Like this house was so big. It had hundreds of rooms in 1996. Not only did this house … they kept it original … they ended up turning it into an actual hospital. Like that's how many rooms that this place had to see the landscape of the lands. Like how many acres and acres and acres of land that exists. In between the big house and where the slaves actually started to … live when they became sharecroppers. I just remember being a kid being like, “Oh my gosh, no wonder people could get lost out here.” You know, you could hide somebody out here or no wonders why they never knew slavery ended. And I got to see the bag that my grandmother filled up full of cotton. Like, my grandmother is all of five foot two, you know, so to see her hold up this bag above her head, and see how much slack was behind it … after slavery … and we became sharecroppers and whatnot. And this is the house. She showed me the house that her family had built. It was fallen over at the time, but she's like, “Yeah, this was, this is where I lived."
How did that change how you viewed your grandparents or how you viewed a lot of things?
I saw their strength from where they came from, to where we were in Peoria. My grandmother ended up … even though we grew up poor … she owned her house. She owned two other houses that she rented. And my grandmother also was a business owner. She owned a restaurant in Peoria called Timmy Joe's Lounge that lasted for several years until she had a bad partner or whatnot. And they ended up having to sell it. But we had this restaurant in my family from … I had to be 5 years old until I was in junior high school. So, it had to be a couple years. I mean, we even had like weddings and stuff there at this place. So, to see where they came from … to see what they built was … I mean, that was really cool for me.
And it also just opened my eyes to different truths. Like I saw that these people weren't just like, slaves and savages or whatever. People who were intelligent here or people that have skills and are builders and can create anything, something out of nothing. Basically, they're creating things out of nothing, because even when you're talking about the freed slaves, it wasn't like they were given the capital to build. They really had to work … to gain.
During this 90-minute interview, Jones also detailed a number of other instances when he felt targeted just because he was Black. One story happened when he and his (white) wife were newlyweds. They were in their car at Anderson Park in Normal when he says a Normal Police officer tapped on their window and said, "The park is closed." Jones says he apologized to the officer and explained it was a nice night and they were enjoying the evening. Jones finishes:
"And then he goes over to my wife's side, and he goes, "Don't look at him. Don't look at him, look at me. Is he holding you against your will?" And my wife goes, "What do you mean he's holding me against my will? This is my husband. No, he's not holding me against my will, I'm not afraid for my life, he's not threatening me, we're not even arguing. We didn't do anything to draw any attention to us, I don't know why you'd ask us that question."
If I was a white guy sitting with my wife he would have never asked the question."
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