Pekin wasn’t always a welcoming place

Here’s a chance to read one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in June 2013 before the launch of this blog . . .

Pekin wasn’t always a welcoming place

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Included in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection is an extensive file on a dark period in Pekin’s history: the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. The KKK attained prominence and prestige throughout the Midwest in the early 1920s, and was established in Pekin by a vaudevillian and respected community leader named Oscar Walter Friederich, owner of the Capitol Theater. Friederich was a Grand Titan in the Klan, supervising more than 40 Illinois counties, and Pekin was his regional headquarters.

In September 1923, Friederich and two other Klansmen, Silas Strickfaden and E. A. Messmer, partnered to buy the Pekin Daily Times, which thus became an organ of the KKK’s racist and nativist propaganda. Consequently, much of the Local History Room’s file on the KKK consists of copies of Pekin Daily Times articles and advertisements from the first half of the 1920s.

Almost as rapid as its rise was the Klan’s fall in the mid-1920s, due not only to organized social opposition to the KKK across the country but also to several public scandals that made national headlines. The Klan’s local fortunes in Pekin followed its national fortunes, and when the Klan fell into disrepute, the Pekin Daily Times nearly went out of business and Friederich had to sell the paper in June 1925.

An image from a darker time, this illustration appeared in a Pekin Daily Times advertisement for a major Ku Klux Klan gathering in Pekin — the “Klantauqua” — that took place in late August 1924.

A few other articles in the Local History Room’s KKK file touch on the related subject of Pekin’s reputation as a racist community unwelcoming to non-whites. Given Pekin’s past and reputation, sociologist James Loewen included Pekin in his 2005 study, “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” which explores the phenomenon of U.S. communities that made it known to blacks that they had better be out of town by nightfall.

Obviously, the history of the KKK in Pekin had a lot to do with that reputation, but a closer look at Pekin’s history reveals that the reputation predates the Klan’s arrival in Pekin. For example, on July 24, 1933, the Pekin Daily Times printed a curious story at the bottom left corner of the front page, with the headline, “Now it is Explained: Why Negroes Don’t Light in Pekin; Once Upon A Time There Were Balls and Chains.”

This story followed a news report of the preceding week, published at the bottom right corner of the Daily Times’ front page on July 21, 1933, about a black man from Chicago Heights named James Davis, one of two blacks who had been arrested in Pekin as stowaways atop a C. & I. M. box car. The news report, which utilizes the racially derogatory language common in those days (which we will not quote here), says Davis’ companion went quietly, but Davis allegedly resisted arrest and attempted to escape.

Davis was brought to court the next day, and the judge told him, “The court after carefully considering the case fixes your fine at $25 and costs, but fine and costs will be remitted if you get out of town. The court will give you one hour to get out of the best city in the state.” Davis replied that he thought he could make it out of Pekin in five minutes.

The follow-up story, which again uses racially derogatory language, shows an awareness of Pekin’s reputation, observing, “There have been other stories about Negroes getting out of town in a hurry – one about a man that left the city hall in such a rush that he even forgot to eat his dinner, other talks of Negro families moving in town one day and out the next – until it seems that there must be that indefinable something about Pekin that keeps her population almost wholly white.

“Illinois population bulletins show that there are few other cities the size of Pekin that have no Negro population.

“William Gaines, one of our two black men, who is porter at the Tazewell hotel and who has been here for 30 years, explains the non-existence here of others of his race by the fact that Peoria is so near, and that Negroes in general prefer to live in larger cities.”

The story then relates a personal recollection of Emil Schilling, “one of Pekin’s lifetime residents who remembers everything that has gone on here for the past 50 or 60 years.” Schilling attributed the absence of blacks in Pekin to an incident that older men of the town had told him when he was a boy.

“He was told that there had been a gang of levee Negroes working as the crew on a river boat back in the days before the Civil war, 30 or 40 of them, that had gotten too much whisky at 20c a gallon and had begun to carouse.” According to this tale, the blacks were arrested and clapped in iron, and were sentenced to six weeks of labor on the city streets dragging a ball and chain.

Schilling said word of that incident spread up and down the Illinois River. On a trip to St. Louis during the 1880s, Schilling encountered a group of black dockworkers, and he asked one of them if he would like to live in Pekin. According to Schilling, the man replied, “No, suh, boss, no suh, that town ain’t no place for a n—–.”

One of the most remarkable features of this 1933 Pekin Daily Times story is the complete absence of any reference to the Ku Klux Klan, even though the KKK’s popularity in Pekin during the first half of the 1920s is obviously relevant to this question. This is a glaring omission that was probably intentional on the writer’s part.

While it’s unclear how much weight should be placed on Schilling’s recollections, his tale would suggest that Pekin’s reputation as a community unwelcoming to blacks predates the Civil War. That would not be surprising, given the fact that until the Civil War Pekin was a Democratic, pro-slavery political stronghold. One of the important factors in shifting Pekin to an anti-slavery Republican stronghold was the influx of German immigrants around the mid-1800s.

However, while the German influence was crucial in the shift of Pekin’s politics, it also helped make Pekin less desirable as a place to live for non-German-speakers, both white and black. As a result, “The small black population and many of the older white families moved to Peoria,” according to an April 13, 1989 Peoria Journal Star column by retired Peoria Journal Star editor Charles Dancey of Pekin.

The practical results of these cultural and demographic trends can be tracked in the U.S. Census: in 1900, only four blacks lived in Pekin, in 1910 only eight, in 1920 (just before the KKK arrived) a total of 31, in 1930 only one – and in 1940 not a single black person was left in Pekin.

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