A discarded term!? I guess Bill Kemp has never visited this blog. I’m grateful for this little piece of our history.
By Bill Kemp Archivist/librarian McLean County Museum of History | Posted: Saturday, December 12, 2009
For much of the 20th century, Bloomington-Normal residents thought it necessary to maintain segregated group homes for underprivileged children. One would be hard-pressed to find a better illustration of the embarrassing state of race relations over the decades than the fact that impoverished, neglected and unwanted children were separated by race until the 1960s.
From World War I until JFK and Camelot, African-American children lived at the McLean County Home for Colored Children, later renamed for Booker T. Washington, on Bloomington’s far west side.
This institution dates to 1918 when Alexander Barker and his wife Cedonia, with assistance from Margaret Wyche, took it upon themselves to care for six orphaned black children. Not long after, the Missionary Union, a group of four local churches stepped in to lend much-needed assistance. Though chartered by the state of Illinois in December 1920, the home was a rather primitive operation, with 25 children and 2 adults living in a six-room house with no plumbing or running water.
Improvements in the home, both in its physical plant and operation, soon followed. Located on the 1200 block of West Moulton Street, now MacArthur Avenue, the home’s mission was to “foster self respect, independence and good character.”
Overseen by a 15-member board of progressive-minded women, the home expanded to an adjacent residence. Also acquired in the early years were five nearby lots that were converted to truck gardens so the home could grow much of its own food. The boys generally worked the garden plots and the girls handled the laundry and canning, along with other duties.
The 1920 U.S. Census identified 15 of the 18 children at the home as mulatto, a since-discarded term for someone of mixed-race heritage. Back then, children with one black parent and one white were often outcasts, and into the 1940s, if not later, the home served as a safe haven for mixed-race children abandoned by their parents and local communities.
Money was always tight and the needs of the new arrivals great. “A special effort has been made to give each child his full quota of milk and butter fat, as many of the children were underweight,” read one report from 1921.
“There is absolutely no place of good repute open to such children in Illinois, except this one,” noted The Pantagraph two years later. “The question arises, shall a child be permitted to subsist on the contents of garbage cans … simply because of their race? Paraphrasing the Biblical interrogatory, ‘Who is thy brother’s keeper?’”