In trying to reconstruct the history of African Americans in Coles County, the historian faces the problem of the paucity of historical records. Clearly, African Americans do not exist in official historical records as the aboriginal Indians or the white settlers. Where they exist in records, one is only able to capture their history n fragments. This has much to do with the subordinate position blacks occupied in the evolution of American history and culture. Blacks were slaves. Since blacks are either missing or barely visible in official documents, how does the historian reconstruct their history and contributions to society? One methodological tool which readily comes to mind is photography. According to Jon Prosser and Dona Schwartz,
through our use of photographs we can discover and demonstrate relationships that may be subtle or easily overlooked. We can communicate the feeling or suggest the emotion imparted by activities, environments, and interactions. And we can provide a degree of tangible detail, a sense of being there and a way o f knowing that may not readily translate into other symbolic modes of communication. So, despite the irksome complexity of traveling through contested territory, the new knowledge yielded by the innovative methods we suggest makes the journey beneficial. (1)
For a minority group such as African Americans, whose history and experiences have been obscured by the dominant ethnic group, photography offers a valuable means of recovering the past. In some sense photographs communicate a form of knowledge which is open to interpretation by those who view them, but they cannot easily be ignored in terms of the truth they convey. Photographs have also been used for both positive and negative purposes in relation to African Americans in the United States. As Deborah Willis has noted,
The photographing of African Americans for personal collections, scientific studies, advertising purposes, or for general public use dates to 1839... Some photographers created images, specifically made for private collections, that idealized family life and notable individuals. Other photographers found it more profitable to create a series of prejudicial and shocking photographs of their black subjects, provoking critical comments, favorable as well as adverse, from various communities. Many of these photographs were negative, insulting images of black Americans.(2)
While black images have been presented n a negative light in American society, photographs do also counter the stereotypical perceptions of African Americans. They help to shed positive light on otherwise hidden aspects of African American life. Furthermore, photographic images do also liberate the mind by offering hitherto unknown facts and data. In addition, the point has to be made that offering a counter black image to prevailing negative stereotypes must not be seen only in terms of "the simple reduction of black representation to a "positive" image..., rather it should be about producing images that would convey complexity of experience and feeling..."(3) It is within this context that we should try to understand the role of photography as with other art forms in self representation in African American history and culture. As Bell Hooks put it:
...it is essential that any theoretical discussion of the relationships of black life to the visual, to art making, make photography central. Access and mass appeal have historically made photography a powerful location for the construction of an oppositional black aesthetic. In the world before the racial integration, there was a constant struggle on the part of black folks to create a counter-hegemonic world of images that stand as visual resistance, create an oppositional subculture within the framework of domination, recognize that the field of representation (how we see ourselves, how others see us) is a site of ongoing struggle. (4)
The photographic exhibition which gave rise to this book focused on the history of African Americans from the nineteenth century to the present. The exhibition which was held at the Tarble Arts Center on the campus of Eastern Illinois University from January 25 to March 10, 2002, explored the accomplishments of African Americans. The images also addressed their everyday lives, social, religious, economic, political and cultural activities. In economic terms, the exhibition spoke to the entrepreneurial role of African Americans in the building and development of the county and region. In addition, by using photographs of African Americans who have interacted with Eastern Illinois University, the exhibition explored the role of the university in the education, training and employment of African Americans. Furthermore, the exhibition highlighted the role of the African Americans as students, workers, educators, community builders and responsible citizens of the region.
Illinois grew out of the transfer of the Northwest Territory from the State of Virginia to the United States in 1784. The physical settlement of Coles County by white settlers is dated to 1824. Historical records have it that Benjamin Parker was the first settler to build a log cabin in the area. The "log cabin was built on the east bank of the Embarass River, just opposite the place where Blakeman's mill was afterward erected, and was in what is now Hutton Township." (5)
Coles County was incorporated in 1830. before then its component cities, towns and townships were part of Clark County. At its inception, the county included what is now Cumberland and Douglas counties. The county was named in honor of Edward Coles, the second Governor of Illinois who was elected to the position in 1822. Edward Coles was a native of Virginia. He was a rich slave-owner who migrated to Illinois with his slaves. On arrival he became a citizen of the state and then set free his slaves. Of Edward Coles, The History of Coles County Illinois states thus:
A man who loved liberty, its fires lighted up his soul, and its benign influence dictated his action and inspired him with pure purposes and prompted him to noble deeds. Of all other men, he demanded respect for his rights, and to the rights and personal liberty of all other men he accorded the same profound respect. On reaching Illinois and becoming a citizen of the State, he set his slaves all free, and, in addition, gave each head of a family among them 160 acres of land. Such was the law at that time, that a man setting a slave free in Illinois, must give a bond that it should never become a public charge. To this very unsavory requirement of the law, Coles failed to yield obedience, for which little delinquency his case was adjudicated by the courts, and he was fined $2,000. Thus fine he was never required to pay... (6).
The black settlers who first settled in Coles County came from Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. African Americans migrated into the region as slaves and free individuals about the same time as white settlers. One of the first known black families who settled in the county was Lewis James, his first wife Nancy, and their children. They might be settled in Brushy Fork sometime before 1840 because they were listed in the Federal Census of that year. Duane Smith writes that, "in the 1840 Federal census, the first since Coles County was formed, the county recorded a population of over 9,600 people. Among those listed were 33 persons of color. While most of these were living in white households, Lewis James was an exception. Lewis and his wife Nancy had purchased their freedom in Virginia for $450, before coming to Illinois in the 1830's. The James family was not only one of the first African American families of the area, but they were some of the earliest settlers in the region." (7) Another prominent early black settler in the region was Isom Bryant. As reported by Melinda Meyer, "In the Douglas County [note Douglas County was once part of Coles County] land records, a man named Isom Bryant is recorded as entering 80 acres to the east of the Negro cemetery in 1850, and his 40 acres to the west in 1852... His wife, Lucy Ann (Minnis?), was born in Kentucky."(8)
One more famous individual noted in the 1850 Federal Census figures for Coles County was one Lucy Dupree aged 60. She was born in Virginia and was said to have owned a landed property worth six hundred dollars ($600.00) in New Albany Precinct (Oakland Township) in the nineteenth century. Eleven other individuals whose ages ranged between 1 and 45 were also recorded to be in the precinct. By 1860, Lucy Dupree was listed as having property worth about $3,400. In addition, by 1860, Joseph Martin and John Peyton were listed as landowners. (9) Thus, an African American community was gradually emerging. One of the enduring institutions of this black community was a log church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Another was a cemetery which today has a stone marker and a grave. It has also been reported that from about 1830 to 1847 in East Oakland Township, one "Ms. Berry had been left a widow, whit poverty and several young children for an inheritance. Her effects then consisted of twenty acres of ground, her horse, Ned, a slave woman and her children. Sickness came, bread became scarce and the wolf looked in at the door. The slave woman and the horse did farming, and had it not been for the woman and the horse, her family would have come to absolute want." (10) Melinda Meyer argues that,
in trying to picture how many former slaves came to live on the banks of this little stream, it is helpful to understand the turbulence the country was experiencing in this ante-bellum period. Slaves had one priority at this time to get to freedom as a family. Having suffered agonies of separation from loved ones for decades, they wanted nothing so much as to gather together their families and support them by paid labor. As the nation moved towards war, Kentucky moved into a state of confusion; and slaves began to escape to the north [as] families, instead of as individuals. At least in the first 20 years of this settlement, most of the people seem to be related. (11)-
Other prominent black families were known to have migrated into Coles County in the late nineteenth century. They first settled in other parts of Illinois and Indiana before moving into Coles County. For instance, Job Derixson (also spelled Derrickson) was born a slave on July 24, 1846 in Nicholas County, Kentucky, and his brother William Jefferson Derixson was born also as a slave in 1854 in the same Nicholas County, Kentucky. Along with their mother, they escaped through the underground railroad into Indiana. In Indiana, Job married Mary E. Roberts and William Jefferson married Anna Walden. Both Job and Mary gave birth to ten children. It is said that four of the ten children died as infants. The remaining six children, Jasper, Arrillus, Nellie, Fred, Katherine and Samuel became adults. In 1880 they moved to Jasper County where they were involved in farming activities. From there the surviving children moved to Terre Haute, Indiana and Mattoon, Illinois.
Alongside the Derricksons in Mattoon were the Smiths, the Williams, the Hopgoods, and the Estells. The patriarch of the Estell family was Peter Estell who was born on March 11, 1817 in Virginia. Peter married to Lavinia who died on December 20, 1866 in Russell County in Virginia. Peter and Lavinia had eight children four boys and four girls. An unknown number of Peter's children died in Virginia. He later left Virginia with his surviving children to the Midwest in about 1872. The most prominent of their children was George Washington Estell. He was born on February 10, 1857 in Washington County, Virginia. His first wife was named Ella Manuel, who was born on April 2, 1864. They had a son William James Estell on March 16, 1882. Following the death of Ella in 1883, George remarried in Terre Haute, Indiana on November 14, 1886. He married Mary Jane Kirkman. George and Mary Jane had six children Mary, Maude, George, Harry, Jacob, Charles and Bertha. Writing on his family history, George Washington Estell stated among other things as follows:
My father belonged to the Cherokee Indian tribe. He was not a full-blooded Indian however as his mother was an English woman. My own mother was a colored slave. When she and my father married he bought her out of slavery for &700. When I was about fifteen we moved to Champaign County in Illinois near the Douglas County line. At that time there was a great deal of wild Prairie land around here. There were some wild animals too, such as deer and wolves. Later we moved to a farm twelve miles south of Carmago. Then from Carmago we moved near Toledo. We lived there about six years farming most of the time. After leaving here we moved to Jasper County. Shortly after which we came to Mattoon. We have resided in Mattoon ever since. (12)
From the Williams Family, Sidney Williams moved to Mattoon about the turn of the twentieth century. His mother was named Mrs. Mattie Williams, who married Mr. Williams, Sr.. Sidney married Luvenia Smith and they had four sons Sidney, Robert, Edward and James; and two daughters Mary Elizabeth and Ethell Mae. The Williams are related to the Hopgoods by marriage. James and Roberta had a son named James and a daughter named Judith.
In Charleston, one of those documented was "John Paxton, his wife Sarah, and child Eliza, who came sometime before 1850." (13) John was a barber. Another prominent black family in Charleston was Mr. and Mrs. George Nash. George was born in Kentucky of African and Indian parentage. He left Kentucky for Illinois in the later part of the nineteenth century. He sired a daughter named Minnie Nash. Minnie later married one Mr. Stoner with whom she had a daughter, Ona. Following a divorce, Minnie married Arthur Portee. Ona married Kenneth "Cracker" Norton, Sr.. Both of them for many years remained prominent individuals in the Charleston community. George Nash was said to have died in Charleston and buried in the Mound Cemetery located on State Street. While there were more African American families in the county, it is difficult to locate information on their histories today.
Much of the information recorded here has been pieced together from scattered fragments. For the most part, the African American population in Coles County has remained very small in relation to their white counterparts. African American population in the county has been between 0.3% in 1840 and 2.3% in 2000 (See Table 1 below).
Between 1840 and 2000 when census figures were available, black population in the county has risen and fallen depending on prevailing socioeconomic conditions within and outside the county. Based on a study carried out by two Eastern Illinois University sociology professors, Gary Foster and Craig Eckert, "The trend reflected in the total county population is nearly a unilinear increase over the sixteen decades [1840 - 2000], while the increase in the African American population was erratic, coinciding with, and perhaps reflecting the vagaries of history." (14) They went further to explain that,
the proportion of blacks in Coles County never approximated the proportion of blacks in the national population suggests that few economic opportunities for blacks and to exploit blacks as labor force were present historically. Agriculturally, the history of Coles County is one of homestead (family) agriculture, not plantation or commercial agriculture, with little need for outside labor and by 1870, little land remained available. The community where 95.9% of blacks were interred [Mattoon] was a railroad town with an industrial base, but always small. Hence, except for scattered enclaves of exceptions, historically, the rural Midwest was not a Beulah Land for African Americans following emancipation. (15)
While African Americans were recognized for individual accomplishments, as a group they were not readily accepted as equals by the white community. According to Meyer, "Although there seemed to be close friendships on an individual level, feelings about the growth of a black community may have been more ambivalent." (16) To substantiate her argument, Meyer writes as follows:
A case in point are the war letters of B.F. Reed, who was from Brushy Fork. In an 1863 letter to a farmer of that area, he writes, "I will close, my respects to all, especially my old friend, Lewis James." (One of the black farmers) However, two months later he writes, "I learn the sable sons of Africa on Brushy Fork have gone to Boston to enlist in the Federal Army. Bully for them, may they never return." His sentiments may have echoed those of many of the area farmers who came from Kentucky respecting men as individuals and yet "having no conscientious scruples on the slavery question. (17)
The supposed inferiority of African Americans could not be erased by individual achievement. More importantly, even though Reed and his like were at this time in Illinois, a non-slave state, they were still being influenced by their southern heritage and allegiance. Clearly, the hostility towards Lewis James and his cohorts had to do with the fact that they chose to enlist in the Union Army which was determined to destroy slavery and the southern way of life. It was not in all cases that whites had ambivalent attitudes towards blacks. There were times when black individuals were given their due. As one newspaper report stated "Respected Colored Citizen Is Dead." The full report reads as follows:
Stephen Williams, age 78 years, one of the best known colored men of Coles County and for years a resident of this city [Charleston] where he had the respect and confidence of all, died at 11:20 this morning at the family home, 728 Eleventh Street, after an illness of several years... Mr. Williams, who was born in Huntsville, Ala., was a slave in the days before the great Civil war which gave him his rights and freedom as a human being. At the conclusion of the war he was brought to Charleston by the late Captain T.T. Tillotson. He was then a lad about 18 years of age and was in the service of the Tillotson family for some years... In the many that Williams resided here he has met with many of our people [whites]. He was well liked by every one, and held the confidence of all. For years he was seen on the streets of Charleston until about four years ago, when he contracted a severe eye trouble which later blinded him for the remainder of his days. (18)
Beyond individual recognition, blacks had to rely on liberal and sympathetic whites to help them protect their rights. For example, Ebenezer Noyes' family house on Western Avenue in Mattoon is cited as a station on the Underground Railroad. Built in the 1850's, local legend has it that "One of his great-granddaughters, Catherine Hughes Turner, recalls a story of the Noyes' family helping a slave escape. When men came looking for escaped slaves, the family dressed a slave they were hiding in the Noyes family's clothing. They put her to work in the garden and she went undetected." (19)
The 1847 Matson Slave Trial in Charleston demonstrated the tenacity of abolitionists in the county. The trial involved Robert Matson, a Kentucky plantation and slave-owner and two Coles County abolitionists, Dr. Hiram Rutherford and Gideon Ashmore. As a practice, Matson brought slaves from his Kentucky plantation to work in his Oakland farm which he called Black Grove. Matson appointed a free black man Anthony Bryant the overseer of the farm. When it came to Bryant's knowledge that Matson was planning to return Bryant's wife, Jane Bryant, and four children back to Kentucky to sell them, Anthony sought protection for his family from Gideon Ashmore and Dr. Hiram Rutherford. Ashmore and Rutherford were two prominent individuals among about thirty Coles County abolitionists of the time. Following Matson's return to the county, he requested the return of his slaves. But the slaves were later moved to the county jail in Charleston on the orders of the Justice of the Peace, William Gilman and in line with the laws of the state. The county billed Matson the sum of $107.30 for the upkeep of the slaves. Based on a writ of Babes Corpus, Ashmore applied to the Circuit Court for the release of Jane Bryant and her four children. Matson filed a counter suit against Ashmore and Rutherford claiming the sum of $2,500 ($500 for each slave) as damages. Matson further claimed that the slaves were not Illinois residents, and as a result were not entitled to freedom. Ashmore and Rutherford on the other hand responded by arguing that Jane and her children were not Matson's property because the Illinois of 1818 declared slavery illegal in the state. This set the stage for a trial in Charleston in October 1847.
While Robert Matson engaged Usher F. Binder and Abraham Lincoln to defend him, the slave owner. As Easter-Shick and Clark noted, "[i]t is a curious thing that Lincoln, who disliked slavery and would one day be known as the "Great Emancipator," would appear as an attorney for a slave owner. Whatever his reason, it was a subject that would continue to puzzle historians." (21) Whereas it may be puzzling to some, it is possible to offer some explanations for Lincoln's action. Local legend has it that Lincoln accepted to defend Matson because he (Lincoln) was determined to lose the case in order to spite the slave owner. But there is no evidence to back up this legend. In addition to the fact that Lincoln had already accepted Matson's briefs before Rutherford consulted him, a more plausible explanation is that Lincoln's views on slavery might have changed over time. While he might have been ambivalent about slavery and the status of slaves in 1847, his views on the issue had clearly changed when he became the president of the country. Despite the fact that Lincoln did not categorically make statements favoring slavery in America, he did not recognize the equality of blacks and whites. At the Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate, September 18, 1858, in Charleston, Illinois, Lincoln made the following pronouncement:
While I was at the hotel to-day an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great laughter]...I will say then that I am not, nor ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause] that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality... Judge Douglas has said to you that he has not been able to get from me an answer to the question whether I am in favor of negro citizenship. So far as I know, the Judge never asked me the question before. [Applause.] He shall have no occasion to ever ask it again, for I tell him very frankly that I am not in favor of negro citizenship. [Renewed applause.] ...Now my opinion is that the different States have power to make a negro a citizen under the Constitution of the United States if they choose. The Dred Scott decision decides that they have not that power. If the State of Illinois had that power I should be opposed to the exercise of it. [Cries of "good," "good," and applause.] That is all I have to say about it. (22)
It was difficult for Lincoln to forsee the pivotal role he will play in the emancipation of African Americans later in the history of the United States. Lincoln, Douglas and the electorates they spoke to in Charleston on September 18, 1858 were confident African Americans will remain non-citizens and second-class people. But because societies and individuals evolve over time, Lincoln and his views on slavery and the status of blacks were destined to change. Hence, we can appreciate Lincoln's defense of Matson in 1848.
On October 16, 1847 the case was tried by Judge Samuel Treat and Judge William Wilson. The judges ruled in favor of the Bryants. In addition, Matson was required to pay the cost of the Bryants' arrest and their upkeep in jail. Anthony Bryant and his family chose to relocate to Liberia in West Africa. Their ship passage to Liberia was paid by Rutherford, Ashmore and other sympathizers. It is said that the Bryants were seen in 1848 in Monrovia, Liberia by an American missionary. The rule of law prevailed for the Bryant family. But William Moore, another black resident of Coles County in the late nineteenth century was not as lucky as the Bryant family.
William Moore, who was born in Virginia, moved to Mattoon with his wife and four children in January 1887. He did odd jobs for a living. His tribulation began following an encounter with a young white woman at the Mattoon train station about midnight on Sunday June 24, 1888. The Effingham woman had to wait for the train for about two and a half hours. She claimed that while waiting for the train, she asked Moore to assist her in locating a restaurant. Moore obliged by directing her to a place close to Essex house where she alleged Moore assaulted her. While Moore went to search for food for her, she ran to a house nearby where the police were informed. Following Moore's return he was arrested by the authorities. The next Monday, the 25th, Moore appeared before Justice McFadden in Mattoon. (23) The Judge ruled Moore be remanded in jail in Charleston pending his trial in November. But this was not to be. Meanwhile, the news had spread that a black man had assaulted a white women. A mob made up of people from Effingham and Shelby Counties (from where the woman had friends and family) began to congregate for a revenge on Moore. (24) The mob then took a train from Mattoon to Charleston where they seized Moore and later lynched him. The Mattoon Gazette reported that before he was hanged, Moore
...in a firm voice he beseeched the Almighty to protect his wife and children in their bereavement, to lead them aright, and for mercy for his own self. At the close he sang one of the melodies common with the colored race, the crowd all joining in the chorus, and then on a ladder one Mr. Leitch [States Attorney] then stepped forward and said: 'Moore, in the presence of Almighty God and death, did you commit this crime for which you are now about to be hanged?' In a strong, clear voice the reply came promptly forth, 'As I hope to be in Heaven in a few minutes, I did not.' (25)
The Mattoon Gazette reporter could not understand how lynching could have happened in an enlightened Coles County society of 1888. As far as the reporter was concerned the citizens of the county had acquired sufficient education from numerous schools in the area that they should not have stooped so low as to participate in a lynching. To the uninformed American lynching was a southern phenomenon. Granted that the majority of lynchings were carried out in the south, ample evidence exists that they occurred in mid-western and northern states. Whereas lynchings in the United States were committed on blacks, as well as Native Americans and whites, the majority of lynching victims were blacks.
Related to lynching was the existence of white supremacy organizations. As with such organizations which had their origins in the segregated south, the KKK was formed as a white protective society which also had the objective of keeping blacks in their proper place. In Mattoon and Charleston, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was very active in the 1920's. An incident in Mattoon which had racial undertones involved a black barber named J.P. Cranshaw. In November 1923, Mr. Cranshaw was arrested in Mattoon with one Mrs. Mary Evans of Chicago, a white woman for alleged disorderly conduct. Local newspaper coverage of the incident declared that "Cranshaw's arrest is stated by Chief Portlock to have been due to the continuous reports he had been driving out with some white women..." (26) Mary Evans on her part said "she was at the Big Four passenger station at eight o'clock Wednesday night standing at the curb, when a man drove up in an automobile and invited her to take a ride. She said she did not know the man was colored until they were out in the country." (27) While it was rumored that she was a local married woman, the police however, found out that she was a dancer at the "Black and Tan" Cabaret in Chicago. After her arrest, an envelope bearing Cranshaw's name and address was found in her handbag. Cranshaw and the young woman pleaded guilty to the charges. Cranshaw paid a fine of $204 for himself and another $52 for the woman. The Ku Klux Klan in reacting to the incident visited Cranshaw's home on 1509 Shelby Avenue in Mattoon on Thursday night November 15th, where they left a note which read "Jim Cranshaw, your room is worth more than your company. Leave town at once." (29) Following this, Cranshaw heeded the warning and left town and thereby averted being lynched as William Moore.
Even as African Americans were being denied their rights, they made efforts to establish their citizenship, loyalty and patriotism to the nation. During the Civil War, African American men in the area enlisted in the Union Army. In Meyer's words:
Some of the area men did, in fact, go to Boston to join up. The famous Mass. 54th Regiment was full by the time they got there. A new black regiment, the Mass. 55th was formed, and George Manuel is recorded as enlisting in Co H on June 15, 1863. There are four men listed in Co E as being from Newman: Isaac Rhoades, Wm. H. Miledam, Francis L. Harrison, and John Curtis. All four made it to the end of the war and were discharged in 1865. Manuel is listed as deserting. (30)
In demanding to be enlisted into the Union Army, African Americans asserted that, "Our feelings urge us to say to our countrymen that we are ready to stand by and defend our Government as the equals of its white defenders; to do so with 'our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,' for the sake of freedom, and as good citizens; and we ask you to modify your laws, that we may enlist, --that full scope may be given to the patriotic feelings burning in the colored man's breast." (31) This patriotic zeal did not fade with the Civil War. As the photographs in this volume show African Americans served and fought in subsequent wars involving the United States.
In spite of the circumscribed nature of African Americans' freedom in Coles County, they explored both as a group and as individuals avenues to survive socially and economically. In the nineteenth century, African Americans relied for the most part, on agriculture for economic survival in Coles County. Around Oakland by 1860 black families had fully settled in and farming the land. As Duane Smith found, by "1860, the James family was joined by some 27 others, living along a lane known locally as "negro lane." Five families owned between 400 and 3400 dollars worth of real estate each. These families farmed independently and worked for neighbors." (32) Others worked as farm laborers and servants within white households. Furthermore, with time others branched out into domestic and personal service occupations. For those who could not secure employment with white employers either because of limited opportunities or racist attitudes, the only option opened to them was self-employment. African Americans who went into self-employment worked as barbers, janitors, blacksmiths, caterers, hairdressers, washmen and women. Among all these occupations barbering was the most prominent among blacks in the county. Initially, these service jobs were not held in high esteem; hence, the predominance of black barbershops in Charleston and Mattoon.
In Charleston John Paxton was the first of many black barbers. He had his shop "next to Bryd Monroe's Store, built in the 1840's. Located next to the store were Clark House Tavern and Hotel, and county Courthouse and the barbershop was a central place to the community." (33) Writing on black barbering businesses in Charleston, Angela Whitmal reported that,
in the 1878-79 Mattoon and Charleston Directory, two barber shops were listed under the business directory. Both of these were owned by black men. Arena and Patterson Williams owned one shop and the other was owned by Ashley Phillips. There were seven black men listed in the directory who gave barbering as their occupation. In 1889 again there were two shops in the city and both were black owned. These men were Ernest Malone and Levi Hawkins. There were five black barbers in town that year. In 1902, a third black barber shop existed which was owned by Charles Wilson. These barbers appear to have experienced a period of prosperity as two of them were advertising. In 1902-1903 Charleston city directory, Charles Wilson took out a full-page advertisement for the Bright Light Tonsorial Parlors and Bath Rooms. (34)
These businesses were located in the Charleston Square district. In 1902-1903, while Charles Wilson's shop was situated in the basement of 514 E. Jackson, Levi Hawkins' shop operated from 606 Sixth Street and Ernest Malone's shop was located at 512 Monroe Avenue.
The situation in Mattoon was very similar to that in Charleston. Austin Perry, a black man is noted as the pioneer barber in Mattoon. He established the business in 1857 and enjoyed the distinction of having shaved President Lincoln. Another prominent Mattoon black barber was John Powell. By 1878, "Mattoon had three barber shops, all of which were black owned. The owners were Isaac Barr, Austin and Joseph Perry, and Alex Barr and Thomas. There were at least ten black barbers living in the city. By 1895 the trade had grown to house eleven barbershops, five of which were black owned." (36) Other black barbers were J.S. Anderson, Chas O'Brien, W.E. Alston, Riley Norton, and George Smith. Gradually, black barbers began to lose control of the business of barbering in the county. According to Whitmal, "...as whites began to enter the field black business slipped. As white barber shops opened, white patrons brought their business due possibly to racist feelings or a difference in the quality of service. Early in the twentieth century immigrant groups, Italians and Germans took over much of the business leaving only black business for black barbers." (37)
Blacks also played prominent roles in the food service and restaurant business. In 1878, Mary Farrell was listed as the owner of one of three restaurants in Mattoon. Also J.A. Anderson in 1904 was listed as the proprietor of a lunch stand in Mattoon. In Charleston in the early 1900's, the Portees, Arthur and Minnie Portee (husband and wife) opened and operated a restaurant/diner at 514 1/2 Sixth Street. This is the only black business whose photograph has survived to date. In addition to running the restaurant/diner, the Portees also worked as cooks in Pemberton Hall on the campus of Eastern Illinois University. When possible, local hotels also employed the services of African Americans. These include "the Mattoon House, later named the Dole house, built between 1868 and 1871, and the City Hotel and Everett House, both built in the 1860's and 1870's." (38) Other hotels were the Pennsylvania Hotel and the Union House which were built in 1855, and the Charleston Hotel which opened in 1867.
A few African Americans scored some surprising feats in Coles County in the nineteenth century. In April 1883, Austin Perry was elected an Alderman of the second ward in Mattoon. He was referred to as "the first colored man to hold the office of alderman." (39) Another first for the black community in Mattoon was Orange Huffman who was "licensed as a billposter on August 21, 1871." (40) In the same vein one George Miller "was the only African American Physician out of 14 listed in 1878 Mattoon Directory." (41) In all of these, women were not frequently listed as individuals with occupations. It is not clear why this was the case. However, among those listed, "one was a hairdresser and four were school teachers. Jessie Lee, Clara Perry, Bertha Perry, and Maud Perry were all school teachers. The 1910 census identified Jessie Lee as a thirty-three year old teacher at a public school. Clara, Bertha, and Maud Perry were aged forty-four, thirty-four, and twenty-nine respectively and were also identified as teachers for a public school. The name of the school was not given." (42)
Another area in which African Americans secured employment in Coles County from the nineteenth century onward was the railroad system. The railroad system attracted new residents to the area. Of significance is the fact that the emergence of Mattoon in the 1850's was attributed to the crossing of two railroads, the Illinois Central and the Terre Haute and Alton railroads. Commenting on the impact of the railroads on the growth of Mattoon, Russell T. Willingham observed that,
In 1852 not a single dwelling existed where Mattoon now stands. Because of the construction of the Illinois Central and the Terre Haute and Alton railroads, Mattoon came into existence. Both railroads established yard facilities, shops, and terminals for road crews. The crossing of these railroads gave service east, west, north and south, for mail, passenger and freight... The railroads furnished transportation to Coles County for the people, mail, raw products from the farms, raw products to the manufacturing plants in Mattoon. In addition a labor market was established which benefited Mattoon by furnishing a large payroll by establishing employing large numbers of people in the industry. The large numbers of people in the industry. The employment continued until the 1950's when diesel locomotives replaced steam power. (43)
Between 1851 and 1883 five railroads were constructed throughout Coles County. These were the Terre Haute and Alton, the Illinois Central, the Grayville and Mattoon, the Paris and Decatur, and the Charleston, Neoga and St. Louis lines. (44) African Americans worked as porters and laborers on these railroads. Whitmal asserts that "between 1890 and 1914 there was a large increase in the number of black men working in trade and transportation industries. A large portion of these jobs were with the railroads. Throughout this time black men did the rough outdoor labor or worked as porters." (45) The existence of the railroads attracted a significant number of blacks to Mattoon. Hence, African American population has remained higher in Mattoon than anywhere else in the county. It is without doubt that African Americans were an integral part of the Coles County railroad system.
In conjunction with economic survival, African Americans in Coles County strove to maintain social cohesion by relying on each other and their institutions. One of those institutions was the church. As John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., have concluded, "Perhaps the most powerful institution in the black world was the church. Barred as they were from areas of social and political life, African Americans turned more and more to the church for self-expression, recognition, and leadership... It stimulated their pride and preserved the self-respect of many who had been humiliated in their efforts to adjust to American life." (46) The notable black churches in Coles County are the Log Church established in Brushy Fork, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Second Missionary Baptist Church both in Mattoon. As of today, very little information exists on the Log Church. All that is known is that the church provided the black residents of Brushy Fork a space where they interacted with one another, discussed common issues, found solutions to problems, and celebrated their triumphs. The church was a sanctuary far removed from the influences of the neighboring white community.
Black residents in Mattoon were also not left out of the need to create a separate space for their church congregation. Before the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church was established, a group of blacks were first given religious instruction on Sundays by a group of Presbyterians in 1864. But because they preferred Methodism, on October 1, 18656 they elected trustees and chose the corporate name of African Methodists Episcopal Church. Under the direction of Rev. William J. Davis of the Indiana Conference, the church was established in Mattoon. To honor Rev. Davis' contribution to the church, it was named Davis Chapel. At the onset, the church did not have a permanent site. As a result, the congregation met in different locations in Mattoon. But "through the friendship with Mr. Ebenezer Noyes [one of the first white landowners in Mattoon], John Powell Sr. [an African American] succeeded in getting Mr. Noyes to deed a lot for the first building in 1877. The lot was located at 2321 Dewitt Avenue." (47)
Between 1877 and 1888 the congregation used a wooden framework as a church at this location. By 1888 members of the church bought another plot from one Mrs. Kingman and a bigger church was built at 523 North 20th Street. Unfortunately, the building was destroyed by a tornado which swept through Mattoon in May 1917. The church was rebuilt. The original members of the A.M.E. were "Asker Brown, Lewis Martin, Mary Pope, Elizabeth Broady, Elizabeth Norton, Susan Perry and Martha Powell. The original board [of the church] consisted of Milford Norton, John Powell, and Austin Perry." (48) By 1895 the congregation had grown to thirty-eight members with Rev. W.H. Coles as the pastor. And by the turn of the twentieth century, the congregation had risen to sixty-five members. However, gradually the church lost its membership to either death or voluntary emigration out of Coles County. (49) The last service was held in the church in 1974.
The history of the Second Missionary Baptist Church in Mattoon is very similar to that of the A.M.E.. The church was formally established on November 3, 1869 by Rev. John Artis, who in 1868 had established one in Paris, Illinois. At the beginning the "congregation was small and did not have [permanent] pastors... Several pastors came and moved on shortly after." (50) In the past Reverends Matteson, Duke, Turner, Mayes, Bordon, Mason, Sharp, Patrick, Murrell, Jones, Jackson, Estell, Weary and Clark were pastors at the church. The current pastor is Cyprus Hughes. Throughout its history, the church had experienced ups and downs. As was the case with the A.M.E. in 1917, the church was destroyed by a tornado. The church was rebuilt and in 1965 was renovated and some additions were also made to the building. Currently the congregation stands at about 200 members. In 1997, the church moved from its old building on 2520 Shelby Avenue to a new ultra modern building on Old State Road in Mattoon. For African Americans it has been a continuous struggle to maintain their identity as a people considering the fact that they were very few in the county. As Juanita Williamson has stated, because of some sense of isolation "The only time we talked about it [racism] was in church. This is why it was so essential for us to have a church." (51) For about a hundred and thirty three years, the Second Missionary Baptist Church has remained the pillar of the black community in Coles County. According to Cyprus Hughes, if the founders of the church "Didn't think (the church) was a unifying factor or agency... there would be no cohesion at all." (52)
The dream of African Americans to live normal lives in Coles County was sometimes shattered by racial intolerance. Their faith in humanity was also tested. Racial prejudice took different forms. In 1855 Miss Ida Mcnett, a daughter of a contractor to the Illinois Central Railroad opened a school in the old Baptist Church at South Fifteenth Street and Wabash Avenue in Mattoon She enrolled thirty pupils (both blacks and whites) who were taught in a church building controlled by the True family. As the records of the period had it, "A story which shows the trend of the times and the spirit of the pioneers is told in regard to the reason for the closing of Miss McNett's school. Among the pupils was Miss Susan Powell, a colored girl, sister of John Powell, the first barber of Mattoon. One day someone asked Miss McNett who was her brightest pupil. "Susan Powell," she answered. That little girl is the best pupil I ever had." (53) Soon the news spread "that Miss McNett was favoring a Negro Child and the story reached the ears of the True family", the owners of the school building. (54) Miss McNett confirmed to the Trues that she in fact made the statement. The Trues decided to close the building to Miss McNett and that led to the closure of her school. Whereas Miss McNett's ordeal occurred in 1855, the situation did not change dramatically in the twentieth century.
In the early twentieth century, Mrs. Ona Louisa Norton had her own experience with racism in the Charleston school system. In an interview Angela Whitmal conducted with her in 1990, it is recounted that, "When she was a school girl she attended the Western School. The school was only a few blocks away from her home. The boys at school began calling her names which she didn't care to repeat. She told her mother this was happening. One day her mother was outdoors and head the boys calling her names." (55) Her mother responded by complaining to the school superintendent, Mr. Quackenbush. Mr. Quackenbush subsequently reprimanded the boys. In the same vin, the Foster and Williams families of Mattoon have had their own share of racial tensions in their neighborhood. For instance, "Four times during an especially hateful time in the 1970's, young white men drove by Eli and Nellie Foster's house and fired at it. Nellie Foster believes it was done in retaliation for some interracial dating in Mattoon. At first she said, "We ignored it," but when the shootings continued she demanded police action," (56) Mrs. Roberta Williams who has lived in Mattoon all her life, about 81 years, "remembers not being allowed to eat in many of the uptown restaurants, recognizes the shortcomings of some of the racial attitudes in the area. On the other hand she feels close to the community." (57)
Her daughter Judith Williams-Lyles also suffered the same fate as a young girl growing up in Mattoon. When she attempted to swim in a public pool in Mattoon she was denied. Mr. James Williams, Judith's father, remarked that "This is the first incident that stands out that affected my family... I can't swim today on account they wouldn't let blacks swim in the pool that's the reason I took it to court." (58) Judith was finally allowed to swim at the pool. Hence, the case was never tried in court. She believes having friends and family make a difference in coping with the situation. Mr. Williams also complained of job discrimination in 1940's Mattoon. In his words:
Yeah back during World War II Atlas Diesel it was ran an ad for help and so I went up there to put my application in and I had to go through the unemployment office and I never did hear from them so about a week or so I went back to the unemployment office well I put my application in and every time I pick up the paper they got an ad in there that they need help. I said, I'm capable of doing the work. I said, I'll come back here next Monday and you are going to tell me why they have not called me you check into it and find out. I came back that next Monday and he said well you wouldn't want to work where they didn't want you would? I said, why didn't you tell me that in the first place so about a week or so, I had a friend working up in Rockford you know in a foundry plant and he said well you can probably get on up there. We left on a Sunday night got into Rockford and didn't have a place to stay, waited for the plant to open up put in my application and at 10:00 I was working. Well that's the difference in your own home town wouldn't even hire you. (59)
The Williams family also faced housing discrimination. When they tried to rent accomodation from white landlords, they were turned down. This might explain the clustering of black families in certain neighborhoods in Mattoon. A survey gleaned from city directories and census records in Mattoon by Whitmal revealed that "It appeared as if there might be a distinct black community in the city. There seems to be some clustering of black families in the same areas. The majority of the dwellings tend to be in the vicinity of the black churches at 523 N. 20th Street and 2520 Shelby Avenue." (60) In order to counter the dominant racial attitude towards blacks by white, some blacks have, over the years, felt that acquiring saleable skills and higher education will guarantee social mobility thereby reducing the effects of racial discrimination.
The establishment of Eastern Illinois State Normal School in 1895 by the Illinois General Assembly provided African Americans such opportunities. It is not clear when African American students were first admitted to the school. Available records show that Zella F. Powell, a member of the prominent Powell family of Mattoon might be the first black graduate of the school in 1910. Following her graduation she became a private teacher in Mattoon between 1910 and 1914. She then continued her education at the Chicago Normal School from 1914 to 1916. From 1916 to 1917 she was a Substitute Teacher in an elementary school in Chicago. And from 1917 to 1922, she was hired as a full-time elementary school teacher in Chicago. (61) Another prominent Mattoon resident. Ms. Bernice Gray graduated from the same school in 1928. Meanwhile the institution had been renamed Eastern Illinois State Teachers College in 1921. Miss Gray was one of five children all of whom went to and graduated from college. Two members of her family went on to obtain advanced degrees. She later taught at Webster Grove, Missouri about ten miles west of St. Louis for some years before returning home to Mattoon when she began to experience failing eyesight. Miss Gray continued to serve her black community in her private capacity.
Captain Charles Blakely Hall was another famous black Alumnus of Eastern Illinois University. He attended Eastern from 1938 to 1941 when he enlisted into the Army. He made his mark in the military as an ace fighter pilot during World War II with the famous "all--Negro" 99th Fighter Squadron. Recounting Hall's achievements, Charles H. Coleman wrote:
On July 2, 1942, in Sicily, he became the first American negro pilot to shoot down an enemy plane. Later in the Italian campaign he shot down two other German planes. Captain Hall became Flight Leader of the "All-American" Flight, and third in command of the 99th Fighter Squadron. He flew more than 75 fighter plane missions against the enemy. At Eastern Captain Hall played on the 1938 and 1939 football teams. (62)
Charles Hall was also a track star at Eastern. While Hall excelled in the military, John M. Craft stood out at Eastern as an Olympic athlete. In 1972, he became the first Eastern student to compete in an Olympic Games. He placed fifth in triple jump in Munich, Germany. Craft was an undergraduate student at Eastern from 1965-1969 and a graduate student from 1970-1974. He joined the faculty in 1970 and rose to the rank of Associate Professor of Physical Education. He retired from the university in the Spring of 2002. In 1973, the university made history when Anthony Blackwell of Chicago was appointed the first black editor of the students' newspaper, the Eastern News. In reporting this development the newspaper headline read "Blackwell, after three years, makes editor." The newspaper also reported that, "Tony sees himself as just another person and not a "black" editor as many might picture him." He went on to add that "I've worked long and hard, and being editor is important to me. I like to communicate with people and to write and talk, and I want to see if I can do that." (63)
From records available today, the first African American faculty to be hired at Eastern was Dr. Anne Smith. She joined the faculty about 1960 and taught in the Theater Arts Department. The second faculty, Dr. Frances Pollard came to Eastern in 1962-63. She had an active career in the University. She was professor and director of the program in Library Science and Associate Dean of the University Library. (64) In 1966, Dr. Bill T. Ridgeway became the third pioneer African American professor at Eastern when he joined the Department of Zoology after a Ph.D. degree from the University of Missouri at Columbia. He rose to become a full professor and retired in 1995. He worked a couple of years after that on a part-time basis in the Civil Rights office. Over the years the number of black students and faculty on the campus of Eastern Illinois University has risen considerably. This has been the result of demands by black students and an official response by the university authorities to be more inclusive. In 1949-50 there were only six black students on campus and in the late 1960's, the number had climbed to 425. (65) As of fall 2001 African American graduate and undergraduate students' population stood at roughly 700. On the other hand, the number of black faculty has only increased from three in 1966 to fifteen in 2001 representing 2.4% of the professors.
The presence of African American students on the campus has sometimes created racial tension. As Roger Whitlow described it,
...their [black students] presence put the attitudes of the University and in the town of Charleston to an even greater test... While the test was passed, it was not passed with distinction; and, given the "regional" character of the school, there is little reason to wonder why it was not. By the close of the sixties, more than forty percent of Eastern's students still came from eighteen neighboring counties, and most of those students had never had any encounter with blacks. Joining with the problem of the racial inexperience of white downstate students was the generally militant attitude of many urban black students who, in tune with national attitudes, preferred much of the time to remain among themselves.
The explanation offered by Whitlow is very weak in many respects. In as much as one cannot conclude that growing up in different environments invariable leads to racial prejudice, it is difficult to accept the excuse that the "racial inexperience of white students" accounts for bigotry and racial intolerance. Rather, it is a general belief that racism and other forms of discrimination are learned behaviors. Furthermore, the claim that urban black students were too militant also does not hold water. The issue is that African American students became very militant in an attempt to challenge the status quo which emphasized black inferiority and hence relegated them to second class position. Also black students "remained among themselves" because that was the only way they could survive in a hostile environment. As the events on campus demonstrated, the sources of the racial tensions were more than just misunderstanding between black and white students. They were reflections of larger societal problems in the United States.
One of the incidents Whitlow cited was a protest organized by black students in the spring of 1968. The protest was sparked by black students' perception that the university administration was not doing anything to address their concerns. Ernest Morris, a representative of the black students presented a list of six grievances to President Quincy Doudna. The list included the following:
"1. Opening of all approved university housing to black students or the removal of the same from the approved housing list.
2. The opening of all fraternities and sororities to black students or removal from the university campus of those who refuse to comply.
3. Increased financial aid for black students.
4. Recruitment of more black students.
5. Recruitment of more black staff members by advertising vacancies at Negro colleges and universities.
6. Negro history and cultural courses in the curriculum." (67)
In response, the position of the university's president was that "the problems they [students] have listed don't lend themselves to easy solutions." (68) The president also noted the difficulty of finding black applicants because they are in demand everywhere. The university authorities established a committee to address the demands. By May 1969 a new course on African American history and culture was being developed, Ernest Morris was hired as admissions counselor effective fall 1969. And a commitment to increasing the number of black students was also restated But as far as black students were concerned the anticipated changes did not proceed fast and far enough.
In the spring of 1970 a group of 50-60 black students representing the Afro-American Association once again staged another protest. This time, the students' demands included the establishment of a "Black cultural-social center, a Black assistant dean of students, a Black advisor and more courses with Black orientation." (69) President Doudna agreed to meet the demands of the students. He told the students that, "if he didn't meet the demands by the fall of 1970 he 'would leave and let someone else try it'." As expected the university authorities later in the year took concrete steps to address the students' concerns. In the fall of 1970 the Afro-American Studies Program was established under the directorship of Dr. Arlen Fowler who was a professor in the History Department. Dr. Fowler was a logical choice as the first director because along with others, he was a strong advocated for the program. A year later, Dr. Bill Ridgeway of the Zoology Department took over from Dr. Fowler as the director. Since then other individuals who have headed the program include Dr. Willa Mae Hemmons, Johnetta Jones, Dr. William Covlin and Dr. 'Niyi Coker. Whitlow notes that with the establishment of the program in 1970, "Eastern became the first university in Illinois to offer a baccalaureate major and minor in Afro-American Studies." (70) To date the program has continued to fulfill its mission of fostering a strong interdisciplinary curriculum which educates Eastern students about African American history and culture. Another demand which was also met in the fall of 1970 was the establishment of the Afro-American Cultural Center. The center which is located at 1525 Seventh Street remains a vital part of black and minority students' life on campus.
The 1970's also witnessed two racial incidents which threatened peace on Eastern's campus. The first occurred when the Student Senate recommended to the president to rename the University Union Building in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1970. After months of delay the proposal was voted on by the Faculty Senate recommending to the Board of Governors to approve the new name for the Union. The Board in a unanimous vote approved it. But "the first two steel signs placed outside the Union Building bearing Dr. King's name were stolen, and the third, mounted to small concrete pillars to prevent theft, was smeared with yellow paint and misshapen[ed], apparently by some large instrument." (71) The second incident had to do with the election of homecoming queen in October, 1973. As Whitlow explained:
A black candidate, Diane Williams, received the highest number of votes in the contest, but because of a protest lodged on behalf of another, Karyl Buddemeier [a white student], Miss Williams' vote total was reduced as a penalty, and Miss Buddemeier was declared the homecoming queen. The alleged campaign violation which sparked the protest involved the placing of campaign materials supporting Miss Williams' candidacy in close proximity to the voting area a practice expressly forbidden by student campaign regulation. (72)
Miss Williams' supporters claimed the campaign material could have been placed there to hurt her candidacy and the sponsors of Miss Buddemeier were of the view that whether the rule was unfair or not existed before the election. The delay in releasing the result of the voting totals was interpreted by black students as an attempt to deny Miss Williams the crown. Thus was seen as racially motivated. After a meeting by university officials, it was decided that there will be no homecoming queen for 1973. This no doubt left a sore spot on both sides.
These unfortunate incidents notwithstanding, African American students and faculty have thrived over the years on the campus of Eastern Illinois University as learners, athletes, administrators, researchers and teachers. Noteworthy examples include the fact that the university appointed the first black and female president, Dr. Carol Surles from March 1, 1999 to July 31, 2001. There is also the case of Dr. Teshome Abebe, Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs, from July 1, 1998 to September 7, 2000. In addition, the current chair of the university Board of Trustees, Dr. Nate Anderson of East St. Louis, Illinois is also an African American. Dr. Anderson, who is a graduate of Eastern was appointed to the Board in 1996, reappointed to a six-year term in 1999 and elected chair of the Board on April 16, 2001.
Outside the university a number of African Americans have made their mark. For example, Patricia Roberts Harris, a native of Mattoon had a lengthy career as a lawyer, educator, and public servant. Born on May 31, 1924 and raised in Mattoon and Chicago, Harris was both a national and international figure. She had her undergraduate education at Howard University. Following her graduation in 1945, she pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago. From 1946 to 1949 she worked as a program director with the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in Chicago. She married her husband, William B. Harris, a Howard University professor of law in 1955. In 1960 she graduated from George Washington University Law School. She was admitted to the District of Columbia bar and had a year's stint in the criminal division of the United States Department of Justice. (73) She was also associate dean of students and lecturer in law at Howard University. She rose to the rank of full professor and dean of the law school at Howard. Harris became the first African-American woman to hold a U.S. ambassadorial position when she was named U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. She was the first African-American woman to serve in a presidential cabinet post. President Jimmy Carter in 1977 appointed her as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. And in 1981 she returned to George Washington University as a law professor. Harris died of cancer in Washington D.C., on March 23, 1985. A United States Postal Service Black Heritage Stamp was issued in her honor in 2000.
Mrs. Roberta Williams was another Mattoon native who made her mark in Coles County. She graduated from Mattoon High School in 1939. Following her training at Summers Beauty School in Mattoon, she was registered as a Beauty Culturist in 1941. This qualified her to perform all phases of beauty culture, including permanent waving, hair shaping, hair coloring, facials and manicuring. Between 1955 and 1969 Mrs. Williams was owner and operator of Roberta's Beauty Salon, Mattoon, Illinois. From 1969 to 1983 she was an instructor in cosmetology at Lake Land College in Mattoon. For many years, Roberta was an active member of the Mattoon Hairdressers and Cosmetologists Association Affiliate #16. She served on many committees of the association. She also held the positions of secretary, treasurer, vice president and in 1970 was elected as the president of the association. Now retired, Mrs. Roberta Williams lives in Charleston.
On January 16, 1990 history was made in Mattoon when Mrs. Elizabeth Nash, an East St. Louis native assumed the position of postmaster of the city. By her appointment she became the first African American and the fist female postmaster in Mattoon. Mrs. Nash who was a 1960 graduate of Lincoln Senior High School in East St. Louis, Illinois went on to earn a bachelor's and master's of business degrees at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. She joined the postal service in 1981 as a management associate and held positions in Chicago, Kansas City, Missouri, Rapid City, South Dakota and Omaha, Nebraska before moving to Mattoon. Prior to Mrs. Nash's historic appointment, another African American, Mr. Ralph E. Smith, Sr. became the first African American mail carrier in Mattoon in 1944. He had previously served in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1943. Mr. Smith rose to the rank of postal clerk and retired in 1978. From 1970-1978 he was the in-plant post office representative at R.R. Donnelley & Sons Publishers in Mattoon. As an active member of his community, Mr. Smith was involved with Mattoon City Water Board, the American Cancer Society and Coles County Housing Authority. He died in 1981 at a young age of 56.
Rev. G. Harry Estell, Sr. represented a spirit of industry which existed in the black community. Born in 1890 to George Washington and Mary Jane Estell, Rev. Estell was ordained a minister in 1939 and became pastor of the Second Missionary Baptist Church. He worked as custodian for many businesses in Mattoon. But his major employment was with Craig & Craig Attorneys in Mattoon. A biographical sketch on Rev. Estell had these to say about him:
He carried keys to more than 20 different sets of offices and business establishments. He was an indefatigable worker and a man of the highest honor and integrity. In addition to the traditional things accomplished by a custodian, Rev. Estell did countless other things for Craig & Craig involving services which he did not and was not expected to render in connection with his other places of employment. For example, he was so well acquainted with the law library that it was he who returned the law books to their places after they had been used by attorneys. And eh attended to unpacking incoming texts, court reports, opinions, treatises and all other library materials. And he was so well acquainted with the over-all function of the library that he effectively placed all of these publications in their proper locations for the convenience of the attorneys. Rev. Estell was a man of towering stature. His contributions were great. (74)
For many years Mr. Kenneth "Crackers" Norton Sr. and his wife, Mrs. Ona Louisa Norton were the most recognized black family in Charleston. While Kenneth came from the Norton family of Mattoon, Ona was the daughter of James and Minnie Nash Stoner of Charleston. They married in 1913. At the time Kenneth died in 1973, they were married for sixty years. Mr. Norton shined shoes at different barbershops in Charleston. The most notable being the Model Barber Shop at 414 Sixth Street. Mrs. Norton on the other hand, first worked at her parents' restaurant on the Charleston Square. She later secured employment at such businesses as Edman's Bus Station and Charleston Country Club. Mrs. Norton also operated a beauty salon where she was believed to have given the first permanent wave in Charleston. In the 1950's a former Eastern Illinois University football coach, Ralph Kolh asked the Nortons to help locate accomodation for black athletes who could not find housing on campus. For her community service, in 1967 Mrs. Norton was honored as Citizen of the Year by the Charleston Area Chamber of Commerce. The Concerned Citizens of Charleston in 1987 established a scholarship in her name for Eastern's African American students. In 1992 she was indicted to the EIU Athletic Hall of Fame as a Friend of the University and in 1994 was also named an honorary member of the university's Minority Alumni Hall of Fame. The Nortons left their footprints on the sand of time.
In the nineteenth century a number of small black businesses flourished in the county. Today the only major black businesses around in the county are J.D.'s Health Club, and a Chiropractic and Acupuncture practice owned and operated by Dr. James D. Williams in Mattoon. In Charleston, Dr. William Houseworth owns and manages an Obstetrics and Gynecological practice. Since their first appearance in Coles County, African Americans have tried in various ways to contribute to the social, political and economic life of the county. In spite of some difficult times and situations, it is without doubt that they came, they saw and they conquered. On the whole the exhibition highlighted the history, culture and experiences of African Americans in the region. Above all, the exhibition paid tribute to the enduring history of African Americans in Coles County.