By Jared Olar
Recently local historian Carl Adams brought to my attention the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society’s collection of portrait photographs of World War I soldiers who had lived in Tazewell County. The photographs were donated to the Society by the late L. Sidney Eslinger of East Peoria.
In most cases the identity of the soldiers is known. However, according to Connie Perkins, one group of portraits were scanned from smaller glass negatives that were in bad condition, and of that group only a few of the soldiers were identified. Perkins says it is not known where Eslinger had salvaged these negatives, but it is likely that all the soldiers had lived in either Tazewell or Peoria counties – of the unidentified photos, Charles Dancey was able to identify one soldier as an East Peoria man.
Among these unidentified portraits is one of an African-American Army soldier. Considering the black population in Tazewell and Peoria counties during World War I, most likely this man was from Peoria or East Peoria. He may even have come from Pekin, for Pekin in those days – before the advent of the Ku Klux Klan – had a small population of black families, most of whom lived in downtown Pekin or in the area of South Second Street. As we’ve noted before, a few African-American Civil War soldiers came from Pekin. Later, in Oct. 1902 large crowds filled the Tazewell County Courthouse square during the Pekin Street Fair to witness the public wedding ceremony of a notable African-American couple: a Spanish-American War hero named Lloyd J. Oliver and his bride, Cora Foy.
This portrait of an unidentified World War I soldier comes from a collection of glass negatives salvaged by the late L. Sidney Eslinger of East Peoria, who donated the negatives to the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society. The soldier most likely was from Tazewell or Peoria counties. PHOTO REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF THE TAZEWELL COUNTY GENEALOGICAL & HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Although this World War I soldier may not have come from Pekin, a review of the known black families who lived in Pekin around that time could help identify him, or can help rule out some candidates. Another benefit of such a review is that it would uncover the traces of a past nearly forgotten: a time when African-Americans made homes and found jobs in Pekin despite the common racism of that period – before racist animus stoked by the KKK in the early 1920s drove almost all of them away.
To begin, we see that the 1910 U.S. Census for Pekin shows two black men, Edward Reaves, 49, and William Gaines, 33, rooming together at the Tazewell Hotel on Elizabeth Street. The Kentucky-born Reaves was the hotel’s head chef, while the Georgia-born Gaines was a porter and worked in the hotel’s barbershop. Reaves does not appear as a Pekin resident in any records after 1910, but Gaines appears as a Pekin resident and Tazewell Hotel porter in both the U.S. Census and Pekin city directories until 1932.
On Sept. 12, 1918, Gaines registered for the World War I draft. His draft card says he was then 40, being born April 3, 1878, and that his “nearest relative” was his mother, Mary T. Gaines of Washington, Ga. Gaines could not sign his name on his card, so he instead made his mark, which was witnessed by the draft registrar W. G. Fair.
A July 24, 1933 Pekin Daily Times story refers to Gaines as “William Gaines, one of our two black men, who is porter at the Tazewell hotel and who has been here for 30 years . . .” Gaines, who was 55 in 1933, is not listed in the Pekin city directories after 1932, so he may have moved from Pekin, but probably died here later in 1933. He does not appear in the 1940 U.S. Census.
Besides Reaves and Gaines, the 1910 U.S. Census lists another African-American porter working at the Tazewell Hotel – Joseph Roach, 60, who was born in Tennessee. Given his age, it is clear that Roach could not be the World War I soldier in the photograph.
Pekin city directories and the U.S. Census show an African-American family who were named McElroy, living in a house at 201 Sabella St., at the northeast corner of Second Street and Sabella. (The author of this column and his family lived in the same house from 1985 to 1994.) Tazewell County marriage records show that George E. McElroy, 35, son of James and Ann McElroy, married Ellen Clark on Jan. 5, 1879. The 1908 Pekin city directory shows Mrs. Ellen McElroy, her husband George McElroy, laborer, and their daughter “Mrs.” Emma McElroy all living at that address. In the 1910 U.S. Census, we find at that address Ellen McElroy, 69, widow, born in Michigan, house mortgaged, with her daughter Emma Jones, 22, widow, born in Illinois, and granddaughter Della Jones, 1, born in Illinois.
The McElroys – George, laborer, and Miss Emma – appear in the Pekin city directories at the same address in 1913 and 1914 (though George presumably died before 1910). It would seem that Emma reverted to her maiden name a few years after the death of her husband, whose name is unknown. There was an African-American man named Henry Jones, born Aug. 16, 1882, who lived at 227 Sabella St. and worked at Keystone Steel & Wire – Henry registered for the draft in 1918. He may have been Emma’s husband, but Henry’s draft card says his “nearest relative” was his wife “Eva Jones.”
Another black family who lived in Pekin in the 1910s was headed by William M. Young, born Oct. 11, 1889, in Du Quoin, Ill. William registered for the World War I draft on June 5, 1917, and his draft card says he lived in the Rosenburg Flats at 200 Court St. with his wife and two children. The 1920 U.S. Census shows William, 30, a steel mill laborer, with his wife Anna, 21, a hotel maid, renting an apartment on Court Street, but does not list any children with them. Their children may have died by then, or perhaps were living with relatives elsewhere.
The same census shows another African-American family living in the Rosenburg Flats next door to the Youngs: the family of Philon Strong, born June 14, 1882, in Mississippi, who is listed (his name misspelled as “Thealon”) with his wife Henrietta, 22, born in Tennessee, and their daughters Orene, 5, and Cathelene, 2. About two years earlier Philon had registered for the World War I draft, at which time he and Henrietta were living at 227 Sabella St. Like several other black men in Pekin in that period, Philon worked at Keystone Steel & Wire.
The 1920 U.S. Census shows an African-American extended family living at 611 Second St. in Pekin, headed by two brothers, Douglass Keys, born Feb. 12, 1890, in Franklin County, Miss., and Norman Keys, born Aug. 10, 1892, in Brookhaven, Lincoln County, Miss. Living with Douglass was his wife May, 22, and children Fanny May, 4, and Troy R., 2, as well as Norman and his wife Elva, 24, and their son Elisha, 11. Also boarding with them was a 4-year-old boy named Floyd Tilmon.
Douglass registered for the World War I draft on June 5, 1917, while he and his wife were farming in Mississippi. Douglass and Norman and their families moved from Pekin during the 1920s, probably during the heyday of the Pekin KKK. Norman is later found living in Peoria. Since the Keys family was still living in Mississippi during World War I, neither Douglass nor Norman are likely to be the soldier in the mystery photograph.
Another African-American extended family living in Pekin at this time were the Robisons, who lived at 227 Sabella St. Jessie Robison, born Aug. 1, 1882, in Mississippi, registered for the World War I draft on Sept. 12, 1918. On the same day, Cammie Robison, born April 1, 1878, probably Jessie’s older brother, also registered for the draft. Both Jessie and Cammie worked at Keystone Steel & Wire. Cammie lived in Peoria in the early 1920s. The 1920 U.S. Census for Pekin spells the surname “Robinson,” and shows Jessie, 35, with his wife New Orleans, 26, their children Teaja, 10, Myrtle M., 7, Ora Nell, 5, Anna Lee, 3, and Mable, 1, and Jessie’s nephew Albert Robinson, 17, and Albert’s wife May W. Robinson, 17.
A black man named Walter Lee, born July 10, 1884, in Greenville, Ill., the son of Jim Lee and Jane Merifield, registered for the World War I draft on Sept. 12, 1918. His draft card says Lee’s employment was “Dr & Turkish Bath” working for the Pekin Park Board at Mineral Springs Park. Lee was disqualified from military service due to a spinal injury. The 1920 U.S. Census says Lee, then 35 and unmarried, lived on Park Avenue and was a masseur working at a bath house (i.e. the park’s bath house). His death record gives his date of birth as July 4, 1895 (contradicting his draft card), identifies his employment as “Turkish Bath Owner,” and says he died at the Peoria State Hospital on 1 Oct. 1947. Lee was probably the other “one of our two black men” mentioned in the Pekin Daily Times on July 24, 1933.
To complete our review of Pekin’s African-American residents during this early period, we note that Illinois death records mention an African-American named Joseph Howaloway, born in Tennessee, son of James Howaloway, a laborer who died in Pekin on May 27, 1938 and was buried in Lakeside Cemetery. He does not appear to have lived in Pekin during World War I, however.
Anyone with information that could help identify the unidentified soldier may contact the Pekin Public Library at (309) 347-7111 or the TCGHS at (309) 477-3044, or leave a comment here below.