Racial problems will be with us until humans grow out of the need to feel superior to other kinds of humans. Sometimes and in some places racial beliefs become violent expressions of superiority against minorities, as they were in Europe and America for much of the 20th century. Sometimes these judgments about people “not like us” are more quietly held, erupting only occasionally, but persisting below the surface.
So it is important to talk and write about race, to make sure that the pretense that it no longer affects our lives is exploded. The history of race in our town, the story of black and white in Jacksonville from 1825 until today, shapes our present and future. That story is not necessarily a happy one: the KKK flourished in this part of Illinois in the 1920s, attracting many prominent and ordinary citizens. But it is always fascinating and revealing about us and about the larger American story.
One reason to want to find out much more about our history, is that Jacksonville compared well with other American communities. Early in its history, Jacksonville citizens and Illinois College students cooperated to help escaped slaves and to advocate for the end of slavery, even if it meant fighting with some of their neighbors. When many counties across the US enforced “sundown laws” keeping black Americans from living amongst them, Jacksonville’s black and white citizens lived here side-by-side. More recently, integrated athletic teams from Jacksonville High School demonstrated to many nearby segregated Illinois communities that mixing black and white could be normal, on and off the field.
That mixing in Jacksonville was regulated by the racism of stores and restaurants which black families could not enter, of high school dances for white students only, of neighborhood covenants which allowed only whites to buy property. Yet it also included black and white family friendships, educational integration and commercial partnerships. Our town has not been blameless, but Jacksonville’s citizens have leaned in the right direction since our founding.
At this year’s Unity Breakfast in January, Merritt and Larry Norvell offered powerful reminders about the white and black aspects of our past. I thank Mayor Andy Ezard for arranging and hosting this event, which I would like to follow with a broader project of historical collection and display. We have in great riches in Jacksonville to teach ourselves about the history of black and white. Like the Norvells, many people possess invaluable memories of the last 50 or more years of our history, and stories about times much further back. Photographs record moments in that history with great clarity. Personal papers tell about daily life in Jacksonville families.
I propose to gather in a systematic way information about the history of people in our town. In particular, I would like to collect family photographs, interviews, and other records of life in Jacksonville, and make them available to everyone to look at, listen to, and learn from.
“Black and White in Jacksonville” can include everyone who was here, whatever color skin, birthplace, language, or culture. It can be a public-private partnership and could bring together political, educational, and commercial institutions. Such a project should involve people of all kinds, jobs, and backgrounds. It could make Jacksonville even more attractive, to us and to others outside, who might want to see what we have learned.
I am an historian. Dreaming up historical projects is what we do. The roots of this project lie in the 1970s, when Charles Frank, an IC Professor of English, interviewed one hundred of his neighbors and friends. He planned to write an oral history of Jacksonville, and his work will be the foundation of any future local history. The idea of focusing on race came from some of my students, who have been recording interviews over the past five years with some Jacksonville residents about their experiences of race.
A good historical project is a group effort, integrating diverse perspectives, bringing people together who may not have cooperated before. Although this subject matter includes unhappy experiences, talking about them is the best way to create a better, more socially equal, more cooperative future. I cannot predict what surprises, exhibits, or websites might come out of “Black and White in Jacksonville”. I can predict that we will be richer for rediscovering our past so we can more consciously shape our future.
I hope that many of you will contribute to and gain from this project.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 6, 2012