Galesburg, Illinois is a small city of 30,000 situated in Western Illinois, about midway between Peoria and the Quad-cities area of Moline, Rock Island, East Moline, Davenport and Bettendorf. Founded in 1835 by the abolitionist minister, George Washington Gale, Galesburg was one of the first outposts of the anti-slavery movement and home of the first anti-slavery society in Illinois. It was a major stop in the Underground Railroad and the site of Knox College, a liberal arts school and host to one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Its most notable favorite son is the great Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg. And although it is surrounded by conservative counties in traditionally Republican downstate Illinois, Knox County voted overwhelmingly (58%-41%) for President Obama in 2012.
Despite this background of seeming enlightenment, Galesburg has remained a city deeply conflicted as to the station of African-Americans within its own society. As recently as the late 1950’s, the local Orpheum Theater maintained a separate balcony for African-Americans. There was also a separate skating rink. The local public lake, Lake Storey, had two separate beaches: the North beach for Whites and the South beach for Blacks.
As the summer of 1959 approached, plans had been made within the Black community to stage a minor protest by holding their annual picnic on the North Beach of Lake Storey. One of my classmates of the Galesburg High School Class of 1959 was an African-American student by the name of Alva Early. An excellent student, Mr. Early had been accepted by both Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. He was planning on attending this picnic and was responsible for arranging the food for the event. Word of this apparently reached Mr. Early’s high school counselor who advised him to not attend the picnic. He further threatened that if he did attend the picnic he would prevent him from getting his high school diploma and would inform Northwestern and University of Chicago that he was not a high school graduate.
Mr. Early did attend the picnic and the counselor made good on the threat to disallow his graduation and issuance of a high school diploma, and notified both universities of this fact. As a result, both Northwestern and the University of Chicago rescinded their acceptance of him.
Fortunately, one of our classmates was Jim Umbeck, whose father, Dr. Sharvey Umbeck was the President of Knox College at the time. Dr. Umbeck, outraged at learning of this travesty and in consultation with other faculty members, arranged for Early’s admission to Knox College. He successfully matriculated at Knox and subsequently transferred to the University of Illinois where he received a Bachelor’s Degree. He then went on to obtain a Ph.D. from Rutgers.
This year marks the 55th reunion of the Galesburg High School Class of 1959. Two of my classmates, Lowell Peterson, a minister, and Owen Muelder, a historian and faculty member of Knox College, have made arrangements with the local school district to award Mr. Early his high school diploma. The ceremony will take place in August during our scheduled reunion.
While this story has a happy ending and contains a certain “feel good” element, it is also a reminder to those of us from Blue States that while we may maintain a certain smug condescension with respect to the Red State culture, the perfidy of racism and xenophobia has infested even the most liberal elements of our society.
Congratulations to Alva Early! Though justice delayed is justice denied, his determination and success is the triumph of the human spirit over the forces of bigotry and intolerance.