In the basement of the Legacy Building in El Paso, Illinois is a small corner room with a wall of cinderblocks filling a doorway that once led to the street above. Around 125 years ago locals entered here for a shave and a chat with their barber, David Strother.
Now just a dim light from a single bulb reveals the remaining frame and narrow countertop of Strother’s barber station, just enough to imagine how it once looked.
When it comes to Central Illinois historical figures, El Paso, a small city just off Interstate 39 in Woodford County, is most often celebrated as the birthplace of Fulton Sheen, the Catholic archbishop on a contentious road toward sainthood. But more than 20 years before Sheen’s birth, Strother, the town’s humble and beloved barber and a veteran of the Civil War, had already made history here as the first Black American in Illinois, and one of the first in the nation, to exercise his right to vote.
Strother lived much of his adolescence in Peoria where he moved in 1852 shortly after his mother escaped slavery in Lexington, Mo. As a young man he worked the river’s busy steamboat industry. When the Civil War began, he joined up.
“He was with an Illinois company, a lot of soldiers from Metamora, Eureka area (Woodford County),” said Michael Melick, the history teacher at El Paso-Gridley High School. “He was a cook with them...he was in the Vicksburg Campaign.”
Strother befriended those fellow servicemen from Woodford County and when he returned from the war in 1864, he left Peoria and moved with his family to the small railroad town of El Paso, where for $30 he purchased the supplies to open a barbershop.
“He had his business down here for well over 40 years. He met people from all over town. He was known for being a great lover of children and books and music,” said Tabitha Nowark, the current owner of the building that once held Strother’s shop.
Nowark and her husband have spent the last few years renovating the two-story building with an event center, short-term vacation rentals and commercial spaces.
Nowark said that work has been “a means to an end” and that the endgame is bringing Strother’s barbershop back to life.
“Our vision is to put a museum in this very space...we would like to open it up as a voting rights museum in honor of David Strother, who cast his vote here in El Paso.”
That vote was remarkable for a couple reasons. Foremost being that Strother was the first Black man in Illinois to vote following the certification of the 15th Amendment, the third and last of the Reconstruction amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
“The Reconstruction amendments allowed for all human beings that are citizens of this country to...be identified as a citizen, to be free and to be a participant, to be able to cast their vote,” said Jamila Wilson, a board member for the League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria.
She said the act of voting in America “is a gift that Black people gave not only to this country, but to the world and to democracy.”
Pastor Marvin Hightower, president of the Peoria NAACP, says Strother is an example of the courage of Black Americans who have fought to gain equal human and civil rights in this country.
“It took courage to be that first one out. It takes courage to stand up when everyone else is sitting down,” said Hightower. “So the next person, whoever makes that first step...It will take courage.”
The other remarkable aspect of that vote is the fact that Strother cast it in a local election. And if there’s a category of elections in need of a hero, it’s local ones.
For instance in Peoria County, the 2020 election garnered ballots from 73% of registered voters. Compare that to the 2017 consolidated general election in Peoria County where only 17% of registered voters cast a ballot.
That election included the last mayoral race in the City of Peoria, and it came down to a difference of just over 1,000 votes. It is not possible to say what the outcome might have been for the challenger to the then 12-year incumbent had voters turned out in greater numbers. Instead, thousands of registered voters remained silent on the matter of local leadership.
Hightower said the NAACP is “trying to get the message across how important, especially local elections are to everyday people, everyday lives right here in Peoria.
“Legislators from the state and the city make decisions about what they're going to spend the money on in your locality, whether it's on roads, whether it's on safety...I put a premium on local elections.”
If history is any indicator, the current local election cycle may see far less participation than the highly charged national elections in 2020 that are still visible in the rearview mirror. But history also tells us that the improvement of democracy relies on change and the courage of Americans to participate in building a more equal society. And no place–or barber–is too obscure to play an active role in that progress.
“You know, it could have been any other town in Illinois, but because it's here, we have an obligation to tell that story,” said Melick.
“And if we don't use this as an opportunity to expand the message and to make a difference today and down the road, then we're kind of just wasting that legacy.”
Thanks to Beth Miller of the Woodford County Historical Society for research contributions to this story.
We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WCBU will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WCBU can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.