PEORIA -- Here's an interesting piece by retired Peoria fire chief John Parker, as he introduced his son, General Parker who is a candidate for mayor of Peoria. It's a historical document from someone who has been an eyewitness to history.
PEORIA’S BLACK HISTORY - AS SEEN THROUGH RETIRED FIRE CHIEF G. JOHN PARKER’S EYES
FEBRUARY 28, 2009
It is great to be back home. Especially on the occasion of my son’s candidacy for mayor of this great city. I realize, as I’m sure you do, that it’s going to be an uphill battle. But I am encouraged because I know that the reason that he accepted this important and daunting challenge is simply put, because he cares.
I’ve heard him referred to as a “community activist”. A community activist is someone who cares. Not just for himself or herself, but for the community at large, and more specifically, someone who cares about the welfare, quality of life and the concerns of the unrepresented; those who lack political, social and economic power to be effective on their own behalf.
Unfortunately, through my lifetime in Peoria and during my 25 years here as a public servant and to the present, I’ve watched as a segment of this community struggled and continues to struggle through lack of representation and under representation; often relegated to the “back burner” of benefits and services. First in need; last in resolve.
As we celebrate the history of Blacks, we are reminded of the many sacrifices and contributions of great African Americans to this country. But it also reminds me of the history of the City of Peoria as I lived it from the age of four.
I grew up in Peoria on the near South Side. We lived in an integrated neighborhood. As a child in the 1940’s, our next door neighbors on either side were white families; ironically one of whom I served on the PFD and the other was a retired Peoria firefighter. So, many of my childhood friends were white.
I attended integrated schools; Douglas Grade School. Roosevelt Junior High and Manual Training High School. But I never had a black teacher until I attended ISU years later in the 1970’s after serving four years in the USMC.
We lived across the street from the Warner Homes 1946s through 1957 when we were fortunate enough to move to the newly constructed Taft Homes where we finally had hot water, gas heat and a real bathtub. There was no decent affordable housing except for the “projects” and my brother and I envied our friends who lived in the projects.
Years later, I had many occasions to speak to minority youth during black history month, career days, etc. and they would look at me with disdain. All decked out in my fire chief’s uniform and they would ask, what do you know about our situation, our lives? Most of us live in the projects; you just don’t know. As I as a child longed to live in the projects so I could take a bath in a real tub instead of a metal washtub with water heated on the stove; not have to carry wood and coal for the stove and later kerosene. But at the same time I realized that even though it was years later, we still lacked decent affordable housing for this segment of our community.
My dad and I were born in Sunflower County MS. He was a sun-up-to-sundown sharecropper as was his father before him, who owed his soul to the company store. He had to leave Mississippi under cover of darkness and settled in Peoria via St. Louis in 1945. He worked for a short while at the Peoria Packing House and later worked at Barretts Paper which later became Celotex Corp. for 36 years.
He was the consummate patriarch of our family. He was a hardworking, principled, proud and humble man. No matter how tough life came at him, no matter what the system dealt him, he would not openly challenge it or respond. Privately he would express his concern and his anger over the issues such as low wages, lack of decent, available affordable housing for his family, the meager amount of his retirement pension and the cost of his prescription medicines.
I remember his dismay at the way Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson were treated after serving honorably in the military and their many charitable contributions to the troops and to the country.
He spoke privately of his admiration for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Peoria newscaster Phil Gibson of WMBD radio.
As a boy, I shined shoes, caddied at the Mt. Hawley Country Club and washed dishes at Hunts Drive In. But I had to be careful when traveling through certain neighborhoods or certain parts of town. You had to be careful traveling through the far north side or the far south side. North past Spring street was shaky. Past LeTourneaus and Hysters was a no no.
There was group of us who hung around together mainly because we all loved sports, football, basketball, baseball, track, and field and even golf; Gene and Sam Petty, Doug and Wardell Faulkner, Ed Porky Brooks, Melvin and William Adams. Sometimes we’d get our parents to drop us off at Woodruff Field to attend the Peoria Chiefs baseball games but we would have to walk back and trying to navigate through those neighborhoods was tenuous to say the least.
We had to be careful frequenting the near bluff and the mansions of Moss Ave. or the Knolls. Only if you were a domestic could you traverse fairly freely with little concern of being acousted by neighborhood whites, gangs or even the Peoria Police Department.
So for the most part, we stayed in our own neighborhoods. I can remember as a child that we did most of our shopping at Joseph Bros., Alwans, Couri Bros., Barth Bros., Buehlers and MacHigh Market. Early on, our milk and dairy products was delivered by the milk man. We took our clothes to be cleaned at Deweys and Ardis Dry Cleaners and Woo’s Chinese laundry. We bought clothing and furniture basically at Kaufman and Levine’s on South Adams. Our dental and medical needs were taken care of by Dr. Nelson, Dr. Ross, Dr. Sanders and Dr. Stafford. We had Carver Center Recreation Center, Proctor Center Swimming Pool where I’m told, though I never actually witnessed it, that after the blacks swam in the pool in the morning, the pool was drained and refilled for the whites who swam in the afternoon. We frequented such eateries as the Chicken Shack and Big John’s BBQ.
For entertainment we went to the Warner Theater where the admission was .09 cents for a double feature. We loved to watch our heroes Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Johnny Mack Brown, Hop-a-long Cassidy, and Lash Larue. On Saturdays we could venture down to the Avon theater for slight elegance.
And we had Baty’s Barn where we went to see stars like James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Ike and Tina Turner and others.
We had few black heroes, role models or mentors. Though actually there were many of that day and yesteryear but we had no formal knowledge of them and how many there were. We were very limited in our knowledge of our history.
If we had access to a radio or a radio that was in good operating order, we were able to admire entertainers such as Lena Horne, Billy Holiday, Billy Eckstein, Duke Ellington and Count Bassie. Even Paul Robinson and the like.
Then there was athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Satchel Paige, Larry Doby and the like.
We had little or no knowledge of WEB Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Charles Drew, A. Philip Randolph, Sojourner Truth or even Fredrick Douglass or Crispus Attucks, just to name a few of whom we became aware of later in life. The lives and historical contributions made by these great and prominent African Americans weren’t included as part of our US history coursed in our schools.
In my US history class at MTHS taught by Miss Hazel Wolfe, who was considered an authority on the history of the Civil War, we were exposed to some blacks, or Negroes as we were referred to in those days, such as George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, Nat Turner, Ralph Bunche, Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad and white abolitionists.
After I graduated from Manual, served four years in the Marine Corps. I returned home and attended ISU where I took a course in African American History, African American Literature and African American Music. Sometime later I remember running into Miss Wolfe and I inquired of her as to why the limited discourse on black historical contributions as an integral part of US history. Why was it that I grew up knowing more about Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman than Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman? Miss Wolfe told me, rather apologetically, that the curriculum and the books were decided upon by their supervisors and they had no choice as to what or how to teach.
As I grew older in Peoria, I began to become aware of local black leaders emerging. I watched with interest and pride as they worked tirelessly to raise the consciousness of Peoria to racism, the disparate social, political and economic climate which existed and that changes needed to be made.
As the civil rights movement became more prominent, black leaders in Peoria took their places at the helm. Great leaders such as Harry Sephus, John Gwynn, Rev. CT Vivian, Jim Peeples, Jim and Sam Polk and even a young John Stenson who later became the Chief of the Peoria Police Dept.
Sit-ins, marches, boycotts were all a part of the 50’s and 60’s to include the riots in 1968 and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. I remember clearly and vividly the day Dr. king was assassinated. I remember how angry I was. It seemed to be the culmination of every unjust discriminatory act I’d experienced through my childhood, as a marine and as a firefighter.
As I arrived the next morning after the assassination and a night of fires and rioting in Peoria, I found the rather large kitchen at Central Fire Station, located where the civic Center now stands, full of firefighters from outlying stations and the off-going shifts. I was met with a barrage of racial epithets which sparked a confrontation between myself and a fellow firefighter. This, again, was one of those times when I was reminded that I was a part of a segment of the community with little or no economic or political power and no representation.
But you know even with all that, I believe we live in exciting, exceptional and extraordinary times. We’ve witness the advent of supersonic travel: space travel and man walking on the moon. We have high speed rail, the internet. We’ve witnessed the harnessing of the atom and the tragedy of the assassinations of our great leaders; President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. which signaled to the world that there was a severe lacking in the American promise that “all men are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable and equal rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But with the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States and leader of the free world, we’ve reaffirmed to ourselves and the world that we’ve come a long way towards meeting that promise.
These truly are extraordinary times in which we live. The election of Barack Obama has generated unprecedented participation in the political process, more trust and more confidence in the one man one vote philosophy. More people now have faith in government. It’s not they believe that government is required to issue handouts but that government has a moral and constitutional obligation to do for its people that which cannot possibly do for itself and that government, meaning our elected representatives, will put the welfare of the people ahead of personal and party politics.
Most of the people are moving toward the middle and rejecting the politics of the far right ultra conservatives and far left ultra liberals. With all this newfound participation in the electoral process, future election results will reflect that what people want and need is leadership which benefits the people and not either party at the expense of the people.
Politics in America is changing and this change was initiated by a one-time community activist who through that activism was able to feel the pulse and the heartbeat of the people and concluded that government supposedly of the people, for the people and by the people is not working. It has lost touch with the people. Maybe our government reps need to come down from their ivory towers and spend some time with the people and the community activists.
Peoria is a great city. I’ve always thought that it has yet to reach its maximum potential. It has a trained and qualified workforce; access to major highways; railways systems; a major highway and airport. It has heavy and light industry, great hospitals and trauma centers.
What it needs is someone who can revitalize citizen concern and involvement. Someone who will reinstill confidence in city government. Someone who cares for ALL of the people ALL of the time.
General Parker is that person. He has his roots in this community. He really cares about improving the school system and our children receiving a quality education. He cares about economic development; attracting more business and increasing employment opportunity. He will work 24-7 to stem the tide of foreclosures and layoffs. He wants to work towards the revitalization of older neighborhoods; reduce crime and ensure that our police and fire departments have sufficient and qualified personnel with quality capital and equipment. He will be a mayor for ALL the people.
I’m familiar with former mayors Lehnhausen, O’Brien, Carver, Maloof, Grieves and I’m somewhat familiar with Ransburg and of all, Mayor Maloof, in my opinion, was the most sensitive to and understood the needs of all the people of Peoria.
So I’m asking each and every Democrat and Democratic leader in Peoria to support this candidacy. I’m asking all the members of the Peoria County Democratic Committee to put their support behind General for Mayor of Peoria. I’m asking every Democrat on the Peoria City Council to stand with one of their own and support General for Mayor of Peoria. I’m asking every Peoria Democrat in the state legislature, Peoria School Board and Peoria County Board to endorse this candidacy. I’m asking labor officials to support a labor candidate. When we have Democratic candidates for office, other Democrats traditionally heed that call.
General will put Peoria first. So let’s give the people a choice. Let’s give them an alternative. Let’s support him. Let’s get involved. Give of your time and your finance and your vote. Thanks and God bless you all.
P.O. Box 3026
Peoria, IL 61612-3026
Comment by Ed Dentino, March 7, 2009:
I really enjoyed John Parker's article. Certainly John gave a personal account of Peoria that explains the possibilities and shortcomings of our city's and nation's culture. Having known or gone to school with Stenson, Brooks, Falkner, and spending my school years at Roosevelt, and Manual and playground experiences at Proctor Center, I found many tangents in my past to John's.
The huge difference in our experience growing up was the sense of place. I never thought of places I shouldn't go because of my being a Italian/English (50/50) American. I was often warned to be careful when going around the city, but not in a way that seemed dramatically threatening.
Unfortunately, many people that now live in those same neighborhoods worry and live in the turmoil of gangs, drugs, vandalism, assault, murder as part of the daily and weekly news that surround their homes. Not a good thing for Peoria.. Not a good thing for Illinois. And not a good thing for the United States. The dynamics of improvement are there, but should have been in place over 40 years ago.
As it stands now, General cannot be mayor. However he can still be a community asset and example of personal success that is needed. I support his community concerns and feel that the opportunity to share the limelight will add focus to problems that need attention. -30-