Editor’s Note: Joyce Banks was lead plaintiff in a 1987 lawsuit against the city of Peoria, Peoria Public Schools and Peoria Park District to get fair representation for African Americans in elected government positions. Cumulative voting helps ensure this goal. Use this hard-won tool. Banks encourages people to consider concentrating their votes to achieve diversity among our governing policy makers. For example, in at-large city council elections, rather than casting one vote each for five candidates, she recommends casting all votes for one candidate.
BY JOYCE BANKS
Documenting the history of racial discrimination in Peoria was a part of the Voting Rights lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed to ensure there would be African American representation on the Park District Board, the School Board and the Peoria City Council, however, the history of discrimination was an integral part of the lawsuit.
I remember driving around Peoria with Dr. Lawrence Golden, the professor from the University of Illinois who was hired to write the history of racial discrimination in Peoria. He and I were joined at the hip during this period as we went from house to house to interview Peorians.
I recall the afternoon Lawrence and I hit pay dirt. We visited the home of Doris Miller, a longtime secretary and supporter of the local NAACP. Her husband William Miller, a scientist, was deceased but he had meticulously organized boxes of newspaper clippings detailing racial incidents in Peoria. All the articles on the dozens of discrimination suits brought against Peoria School District 150 were there, neatly filed and indexed according to month and year. We spoke to dozens of Peorians who were willing to invite us into their homes to share the memories they had of slights, racial disparity and abuse.
I got to see the under belly of Peoria through the eyes of the people who lived through the pain and shame of being disenfranchised based on race and absolutely nothing else. Stories like the pool at Proctor Center being emptied on Thursday night, the only day African Americans were allowed to swim, and filled fresh on Fridays for Caucasian families; and the story of a mother who gave birth to a son on a very cold snowy and icy winter evening but because there were no beds in the maternity section for African American moms, she was forced to leave the hospital. Someone, Mom or Dad slipped on the ice and dropped their baby causing an injury that would last a lifetime. This accident could have been prevented if the mother had been allowed to remain in the hospital after giving birth.
In order to purchase a home, Dr. Maude Sanders and her husband had to have a white family make the purchase. Banks would lend money for African Americans to purchase a car but not to buy a home. It was not uncommon to see a modern car sitting in the driveway of very old and, in some cases, decaying property in the Urban Renewal area bound by Kumpf, Jefferson, Moss and MacArthur. Many of these homes were being purchased through contract for deed because the contract for deed purchaser could not obtain a loan. Many of the homes were being tenant occupied.
Stories of insurance companies redlining were plentiful as were the stories of famous African Americans visiting the city and not being allowed to stay at the Jefferson Hotel. African American families were recruited to open their homes to these giants in the music business, civil rights activists and more. The story of Dr. Don Shirley told in the movie “Green Book” could have easily been filmed in Peoria.
Politically speaking, at-large voting did not bode well for African Americans. History tells us that prior to the voting rights suit, Judge Mary McDade and Francis Duren were the only African Americans elected to the school board in at-large races. Principal Adrian Hinton was the only African American elected to the Park District prior to the suit, and Dr. James Stafford was appointed to the City Council to complete a councilman’s term. For these three bodies a total of four African Americans had been elected or appointed in the history of Peoria prior to the Voting Rights Suit.
The plaintiffs’ believed districts could be drawn for the Park District, the School Board and the City Council that would ensure the election of African Americans. Opposition quickly developed over the district idea for the City Council. The City Council had adopted three at-large districts prior to the Voting Rights Suit. This effort had been led by the League of Women Voters who were opposed to the 10-district concept. In the end, an out of court settlement was reached. The Park District and the School District agreed to district elections ending at-large elections for these two governing bodies. The City of Peoria agreed to increase the at-large seats by two and the use of cumulative voting for the at-large elections. The plaintiffs agreed to the use of cumulative voting because it would allow a voter to cast five votes for a preferred candidate, thus increasing the odds for an African American to be elected to the Council.
Nat LeDoux was elected to the Council under cumulative voting. He came in fourth in that election. An increase in the number of at-large seats and cumulative voting were contributing factors in that election. The following year, Eric Turner was elected to an at-large seat benefiting from the use of cumulative voting.
Today four out the seven school board members are people of color. Two of the city council members and two of the park district members are African American. The Voting Rights suit was filed to ensure African Americans would have a seat at the table.
Joyce BANKS, et al., Plaintiffs, v. BOARD OF EDUCATION OF the CITY OF PEORIA, SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 150, County Clerk of Peoria County, and the Peoria Election Commission, Defendants.
Joyce BANKS, et al., Plaintiffs, v. CITY OF PEORIA, ILLINOIS, and the Peoria Election Commission, Defendants.
Joyce BANKS, et al., Plaintiffs, v. PLEASURE DRIVEWAY AND PARK DISTRICT OF PEORIA (misnamed as Greater Peoria Park District), County Clerk of Peoria County, the Peoria Election Commission, and the State of Illinois, Defendants. Nos. 87-1017 to 87-1019.