By Jared Olar
Last week in this column, we surveyed the African-American population of Pekin in the period from the 1860s to the 1880s. This week we’ll pick up where we left off, starting with the 1880s and bringing the story of Pekin’s African-Americans up to the early 1900s.
As we saw last time, the 1880 U.S. Census returns for Pekin include two African-American men: William J. Ashby, born in Feb. 1837 in Fulton County, Ill., who is enumerated in 1880 with his wife Sarah and four children; and Alabama-born Allen Travis Davison, a distillery fireman who appears in the 1876 Pekin city directory and the 1870 and 1880 censuses of Pekin.
Another distillery fireman enumerated in the 1880 census of Pekin is George E. McElroy, 36, born in Illinois (son of James and Ann McElroy), who is listed in the census with his wife Ella, 32, and their son Jessie, 3. The McElroys then lived at No. 1 Cynthiana St. We first met this family in our March 20 column, when we surveyed the African-American families who lived in Pekin around the time of World War I. Interestingly, in the 1880 census record of this family the census-taker began to write their surname “McElr-” but then crossed that out and misspelled it “McRoy” instead. A few years later, the 1887 Pekin city directory has a double entry for George McElroy– the first entry says he was a fireman, the second one says he worked at Hamburg Distillery. George then resided at 502 S. First St. (i.e. Front St.). As we saw in the March 20 column, by 1908 the McElroys had moved to 201 Sabella St.
Probably the most remarkable African-American family living in Pekin at the time of the 1880 census was a mixed-race family headed by Thomas Offey, 33, a distillery fireman who was born in Alabama of North Carolina-born parents. The Offeys lived at No. 1 Susannah St. Most remarkably, the census record identifies Thomas as black, while his Virginia-born wife Sarah, 27, is identified as “Indian” (Native American). Their Illinois-born children, Kate, 12, George, 7, Thomas, 5, Nettie, 4, and Capprie, 3, are identified as “mulatto.” Also living with the Offeys was a Tennessee-born American Indian named Maria Williams, 44 (evidently Sarah’s mother), a 16-year-old “mulatto” named Ella Robison, Ella’s 1-year-old son Willard, and a 20-year-old white woman named Maggie Otterburn.
The only other African-American mentioned in the 1880 census of Pekin was Amanda Brents, 18, a household servant who lived and worked in the home of Ely M. Hoff at No. 1 Chestnut St. Amanda was born in Illinois, but her father was born in Kentucky and her mother was born in New Jersey.
Unfortunately most of the records of the 1890 U.S. Census were severely damaged or destroyed by a fire at the U.S. Commerce Department building in 1921. Consequently it is impossible to draw anything close to a complete picture of Pekin’s African-American population in 1890. However, judging from Pekin’s black and mulatto populations counted in the 1880 and 1900 census, it is safe to say that Pekin’s black population remained low in 1890. As noted here and previously, Pekin city directories from the 1880s and 1890s record the names of a few of Pekin’s blacks from those decades, but again, judging from the small numbers of “coloreds” in those directories, it is evident that not many blacks then lived in Pekin.
The 1887 Pekin city directory lists a man named Joseph Roach, employed as a driver for George W. Rankin. The directories by this time no longer identified the “colored” men of Pekin, but the 1900 census shows Joseph Roach, 48, born April 1852 in Alabama, as black, an unmarried janitor boarding with the Robert Corsuch family at 1117 Seventh St. We previously met Joseph Roach in the column of March 20, which noted that in the 1910 census, Joseph, then 60 and said to be Tennessee-born, was a porter working at the Tazewell Hotel.
Also listed in the 1900 census of Pekin was the abovementioned William J. Ashby, 63, widower, working as a coal miner. William was the last of the four Ashby brothers to live in Pekin. He apparently died between the 1900 and 1910 censuses. Another African-American living in Pekin at the time of the 1900 census was Alice Williams, 22, a domestic servant in the household of Alfred and Ida Rodecker at 343 S. Fourth St.
Only two other blacks are listed as Pekin residents in 1900: Sarah Smith, 18, born May 1882 in Illinois, a servant in the household of James and Cornelia Barrett at 705 S. Fifth St.; and John Gibson, 13, born Feb. 1887 in Kentucky, a servant in the home of the Nellie Munson family at 307 S. Sixth St. The abovementioned George McElroy family is not listed as residing in Pekin in 1900, but as noted above, the city directories show that they were living in Pekin by 1908.
One more African-American couple is known to have lived in Pekin in the early 1900s: a Spanish-American War hero named Lloyd James Oliver, born circa 1866, son of Willis and Fannie (Walker) Oliver, and his bride, Cora Foy, born circa 1882, daughter of Jacob and Becca (Nelson) Foy. As mentioned in the Local History Room column of March 20, the nuptials of Lloyd and Cora were witnessed by large crowds in the Tazewell County Courthouse Square during the 1902 Pekin Street Fair. The public wedding, which took place Oct. 16, 1902, was include in the Street Fair festivities as a way to recognize Oliver’s service in the war. Ben C. Allensworth described the event in his 1905 “History of Tazewell County,” pages 748-749 (although Allensworth misread Oliver’s Christian name as “Howard” instead of “Lloyd,” and misread Cora’s maiden name as “Hoy” instead of “Foy”):
“On Friday afternoon a wedding was performed uniting Howard J. Oliver and Miss Cora Hoy, colored people. The ceremony took place on the band-stand, and was performed by Squire W. F. Copes, in his usual happy manner. It is probably true that no greater assembly ever saw a wedding ceremony in Central Illinois than the one which witnessed this marriage. There was some trouble in getting the parties to the band-stand, so great was the crowd. The groom was six years in the United States Regular army, and was at El Caney, where his regiment relieved Roosevelt’s ‘Rough Riders’ at San Juan, during the Spanish-American War. He was one of six survivors of his company. [Street Fair] President [Thomas] Cooper was master of ceremonies and best man.”
Allensworth also comments that it is uncertain whether or not Cooper “saluted the bride in the usual manner allowable at weddings” – i.e., did Cooper, a white man, kiss the bride, a black woman? Allensworth says the witnesses closest to the bandstand reported that Cooper did not kiss Cora, but others in the crowd insisted that he had.
In his essay, “The Black ‘Immune Regiments in the Spanish-American War,” Lieut. Col. (Ret.) Roger D. Cunningham relates that, “The soldiers of the Regular Army’s four black regiments — the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry — performed their duty without question. They deployed to Cuba and made significant contributions to the speedy victory, earning five Medals of Honor and twenty-nine Certificates of Merit for their gallantry under fire.”
Oliver served in one of those four regiments as just one of thousands of African-Americans who volunteered to serve their country in the Spanish-American War of 1898. According to Cunningham, many of America’s blacks hoped that their patriotic service might “gradually expand opportunities for racial equality.” Oliver’s heroic service evidently helped to endear him to Pekin’s white population, at least for the occasion of his wedding.
The year after his marriage, Oliver is listed in the 1903 Pekin city directory as “Oliver, Lloyd, porter Ed Joerger barber shop, r 116 Ann Eliza.” Two years later, the Pekin city directory lists him as “Oliver, Lloyd (colored), porter Joerger’s barber shop, r 120 Ann Eliza.” Oliver last appears in the Pekin city directory in 1907 as “Oliver, Lloyd, janitor Arcade bldg., r 120 Ann Eliza.” I have not found him in the 1910 U.S. Census, and it is unclear whether he had died by then, or rather that he and Cora had moved elsewhere seeking better opportunities than were afforded to African-Americans in early 20th century Pekin.
To conclude this survey of Pekin’s black population during this period of time, I will note that the number of Pekin’s blacks in counted in the U.S. census dropped from 19 in 1880 to only five in 1900. The number rose to eight in 1910, and increased to 31 in 1920, after which social pressure and intimidation encouraged and perpetrated by the Klan drove almost every black person out of Pekin – a demographic situation that has only reversed in the last several decades.