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HONORING CARVER’S FOREMOTHERS ON CARVER’S 100th BIRTHDAY By Pam Adams

Before there was a Carver Community Center, there was the Negro Community Center.

And before there was a Negro Community Center, there was the Colored Women’s Aid Club. Club members opened the Negro Community Center on Oct. 9, 1922, in a house along Globe Street. Twenty-two years later, in 1944, the Negro Community Center officially opened as George Washington Carver Community Center.

“Lifting As We Climb,” Carver’s motto, is reflected in the mural, “Pursuit of Freedom” by Clarence Shivers, a Bradley graduate and Tuskegee Airman. Photo courtesy of Carver Center

As Carver honors its 100th anniversary, settle in for a few history notes about Carver’s foremothers, the Colored Women’s Aid Club.

Arguably, the club was Peoria’s most important Black organization, except for Black churches, during the first half of the 20th century. The women understood the importance of raising money and building institutions. They realized institution-building couldn’t happen without community collaborations and broader state and national coalitions.

They were early, active members of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, which by the 1920s, was “the largest organization in the state championing the rights of Black people. . .and the most comprehensive welfare agency meeting their needs,” according to historian Wanda A. Hendricks. Peoria’s club women hosted state conferences in 1901 and 1910.

About 80 clubs were in the state federation at the time. In cities from Chicago to Evanston, Canton, Danville, Springfield and Cairo, local Black women’s clubs founded settlement houses, schools, orphanages, old folks’ homes, or community centers.

Carver is one of the few remaining institutions in Illinois, possibly the only, with direct links to the clubs that made up the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.

But Peoria’s Colored Women’s Aid Club and its members have mostly been forgotten or ignored. Maybe that’s because history has always had a tendency to forget or ignore Black women’s contributions. Or maybe the Colored Women’s Aid Club preferred to be remembered by their work — not their names. Their work laid the foundation for Carver, an iconic institution, particularly for the baby boomers who remember a bustling South Side.

It’s hard to think of a single institution that can lay claim to nourishing as much talent and opportunity as Carver. There’s the pioneering comedian and storyteller Richard Pryor and two Olympians, both pioneers in women’s basketball, Charlotte Lewis and Carla McGee. The Rev. C.T. Vivian worked at Carver before he worked with Martin Luther King. The list goes on, filled with local legends in education, sports, arts, politics, business, law enforcement, and civil rights. Carver’s directors and staff, from the first director, Henry Harper to Joe Brown, Erma Davis, Percy Baker, and Ken Hinton, were household names who set a standard for the current director, Jacobie Proctor.

Carver’s roots go back to the Colored Women’s Aid Club, also known as the Womens’ Aid Club, and its connections to the Black Women’s Club Movement, specifically the state federation and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, founded in 1896. Exact details about the history may have been forgotten, but not the spirit. Carver borrowed its motto, “Lifting As We Climb,” from the national group, which still exists and still follows the same motto.

Black residents made up about two percent of Peoria’s population in the early 1900s. Peoria club members recognized the population was growing and these new migrants, mainly from the south, would need a place that offered aid and help adjusting to city life. By 1922, they had raised $2,000 to buy the house at 108 S. Globe and open the Negro Community Center. “This center is the only meeting place we have outside of the churches,” Nora Houston, the daughter of a founding member and the center’s director for 20 years, said in 1924.

By 1937, activities had outgrown the house along Globe St. Club members paid $4,500 cash to buy a larger house for a larger center at 1010 Sanford.

From the beginning, the club wanted enough space for recreational activities. The opportunity came when a community survey found the Negro Community Center “woefully inadequate” to meet the needs of a growing Black community. In 1939, club members turned over control of the center to an interracial board made up of community members at large, including Harry Sephus, who broadened the center’s original mission. The new board embarked on a community-wide fundraising drive to buy a building in the heart of Peoria’s still-growing Black community.

That’s the short version of how the Negro Community Center opened in 1922 and became Carver Community Center in 1944. But the history of the Colored Women’s Aid Club didn’t begin or end with Carver.

The club actually started in 1899, in the home of Melvina Cotton, wife of one of Peoria’s earliest Black doctors. Other early members included Sarah Floyd, Fannie Summers, Sidney Wagoner, Fannie Barnes, Addie Conway, Ella Stanford, and Julia Lindsay Gibson.

Gibson was the sister of Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, a Chicagoan who had spent her childhood in Peoria, graduated with honors from Princeton Township High School and went on to become a national leader in the Black Women’s Club Movement. They were the daughters of Thomas Lindsay, one of Peoria’s pioneer Black residents and an early advocate for Black equality.

Davis, a founder of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, was also a national organizer and historian for the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She helped organize the Peoria’s Colored Women’s Aid Club, which was one of the first members of the state federation of colored womens’ clubs. She also wrote histories of the state and national organizations.

Gibson, a businesswoman, was married to Peoria’s first Black constable, Henry Gibson. She was also a founder of the local chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star. Another early member, Sarah Shepperd, was the city’s first Black welfare worker.

The Peoria women were clear about their goals when they formally incorporated in 1907, “dispensing Charity in Aid of colored people.” But they helped lead the way in interracial collaborations. They were original partners in what is now the Heart of Illinois United Way, which is also celebrating its 100th anniversary. They were also early members of the Peoria Women’s Civic Federation, a local coalition of White women’s clubs founded in 1905.

They were active in their churches, Ward Chapel AME, Zion Baptist, and later Mount Zion Baptist Church. Their husbands were probably active in fraternal organizations like the Henry Brown Lodge or early civil rights organizations like the Afro-American Protective League, and, later, the NAACP. (Club members continued to give out scholarships at least until the early 1970s. Descendants of some members still live in Peoria.)

No doubt early members were aware of the split between how the world saw them — Aunt Jemimas or Jezebels — and how they saw themselves. . .as respectable Race women, pushing our people beyond the past and into the future. It’s almost certain they knew Ida B. Wells Barnett and supported her anti-lynching crusade. They were definitely aware of Booker T. Washington. They made their first charitable donation in 1900, $25 to Tuskegee Institute, about the same time Washington spoke at Bradley University.

From the beginning, they understood the power of what one early member, Lina Henry, called “group work” and the importance of institution-building.

Photo Credits:

“The Story of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs” by Elizabeth Lindsay Davis, via Illinois State Historical Society website

Other sources:

Journal Star newspaper archives

“The Negro In Peoria” by Romeo B. Garrett

Peoria Historical Society Collection – Bradley University