Peoria honors civil rights leader Ernestine Jackson in Juneteenth celebrations

AP

PEORIA, Ill.—The NAACP knows how to throw a party. Over 50 parade units packed MacArthur Highway on June 15 to hold the first-ever Ernestine Jackson Juneteenth Freedom Day Parade. Hundreds of residents on Peoria’s southside lined the sidewalks while bands, dancers, and community organizations marched to celebrate the legacy of a recently-passed community leader.

But who was Ernestine Jackson?

There’s no single title that can cover the breadth of all that Jackson did throughout her life. She was an active participant in the struggles for civil rights starting in the 1950s,  a fighter on the front lines of the battle for affirmative action, a minister of a local church where she was a founding member, an elected school board member, a mother of three children, and a part of so many other important activities in her community.

Jackson was born in Benoit, Miss., on June 23, 1940. Six years later, her family migrated north, as did many other Black families, as part of the “Great Migration” to escape the Jim Crow South. The Jacksons were driven by a determination to provide their children with a better education. They settled in Peoria, Ill., where a few other families from Benoit had also relocated.

“She had class,” recalls Rev. Marvin Hightower, current president of the Peoria NAACP. Jackson was also remembered as a singer with a great voice who was the first Black woman in the Manual High School choir and a founding member of the Heritage Ensemble.

Jackson began her work with the Junior NAACP. Gene Petty, a former member of the group, recalls the time he was in high school with Jackson. Petty and his coach went down to the Deluxe Cafe on Western Ave. one afternoon. After sitting there for some time and not being served, the coach went up to the counter to get some help. The server responded, “We don’t serve Black students here.”

After hearing the news, Jackson and the rest of the Peoria Junior NAACP decided to march on the Deluxe Cafe later that evening to demand change. In the period that followed, Jackson was involved in a number of the sit-ins, marches, and protests that we now define as the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

A few years later, Jackson spearheaded the struggle for affirmative action in Central Illinois. In the 1970s, she was hired as the first Equal Employment Officer of the City of Peoria. She later became the city’s Director of Fair Employment and Housing and went on to hold similar positions in Champaign and Bloomington.

According to Sherry Carter-Allen, first vice president of Peoria NAACP, “Because of her work, countless numbers of Black men and women were hired, promoted, or awarded business contracts. Jobs were saved for untold others who might have been fired unfairly.”

Ernestine Jackson, who died in 2023.

After she retired, Jackson returned to Peoria and started her work as an elected public official. Jackson ran for the District 3 seat on the local school board at the age of 75. Up against three other candidates, she won the election with over 34% of the vote, beating incumbent Jon Bateman.

Jackson brought her past work of fighting for affirmative action into her role as a member of the school board. Often, you would find Jackson working in coalition with the NAACP and other minority elected officials across the city for equal employment.

Jackie Petty, a former elected official of the Peoria Park District, said, “Whenever we had work that had to be done, we both made sure it would happen…or it wouldn’t happen. I’m just going to be truthful, it would have never had happened.”

That same resistance to equal employment can still be felt across the country. Only one year ago, the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action. In the context of thinking about the legacy Jackson left in Peoria, Hightower stated, “It’s a slap in the face.”

Alongside the fight for affirmative action, Jackson also was a trailblazer in the struggle to rename schools to honor Black history. According to Hightower, Jackson hosted several town halls on the southside to rename Woodrow Wilson Primary School. It is now named after Dr. Maude A. Sanders, Peoria’s first Black female doctor. Peoria District 150 has since renamed five other schools to honor the legacy of Black historical figures.

In remembering the legacy of Ernestine Jackson, the community cannot look solely at the past; we must also look at the future. Jackson’s impact on fighting racism in Peoria has been seen in employment, housing, education, and politics. Today, Peoria has a diverse group of elected officials, including Illinois State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, The Honorable Dr. Rtia Ali, the first woman and first African American to become mayor of Peoria.

In the closing portion of People’s World’s interview with Rev. Hightower, he stated “Whatever they do for their legacy, is also her legacy because they stand on her shoulders.”

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CONTRIBUTOR

Noah Palm