The early 1900s saw an influx of racism and discrimination in the Midwest, from anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and anti-African American sentiment, to race riots in Springfield, Chicago, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Ku Klux Klan became a force in central Illinois. Segregation grew in Bloomington-Normal and what had been a thriving black middle class was gradually destroyed.
Restaurants became segregated, as did living accomodations. African Americans were required to use back entrances to businesses in Bloomington-Normal. They could shop in white department stores, but were not allowed to try on clothes.
Belle Blue Claxton was a member of the NAACP chapter in Bloomington and fought for civil rights of African Americans in the early 1900s. Claxton was a stenographer, bookkeeper, and secretary, a well-educated woman for her time, according to McLean County Museum of History archivist Bill Kemp.
Claxton led a 1919 effort in which a group of African Americans called for desegregation of Miller Park swimming facilities. At the time, there were two separate beaches: one for whites and one for blacks. Whites were given the bigger, cleaner area. Blacks were required to be in the unsanitary smaller lagoon, said Kemp.
Kemp said the protests and racial tension grew because many African American soldiers returned from World War I. Overseas they had experienced less discrimination than in the U.S., particularly in France. Kemp said they became less accepting of the despicable treatment.
Claxton's efforts failed. The city agreed to improve facilities for African Americans, but they remained segregated until the 1950s.
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.