The month of February is noted as being Black History Month. In Rockford, IL currently the city is over 150,000 population, and the 3rd largest city in the State of Illinois. Listed below are the chronological dates of early black citizens in the city of Rockford, IL.
1834: Lewis Lemon, a 22 year old slave belonging to Germanicus Kent, establishes Rockford with Kent and Thatcher Blake. Five years later, Lemon purchases his freedom for $800.00. There is a stature in the center of the street intersection of S. Main, across from the current Rockford Park District’s Office. The stature deplicts Lewis Lemon, Kent and Thatcher Blake, the intersection is S. Main & Wyman Streets. Lewis Lemon is buried in Greenwood Cementery, located on the corners of N. Main and Auburn Streets.
1850: The U.S. Census reports nine blacks living in Rockford. Isaac Wilson listed as a grocer, and barbershop owner Rueben Armstrong. The other seven were Amstrong’s family and staff.
1875: First Black graduates from the old Rockford Central High School. David Summer goes on to become a podiatrist. The old Rockford Central High School was the Rockford Board of Education’s main office until a few years ago, (district #205).
1884: James Holland moves from Rockford, by now was overrun by barbarshops to Belvidere, to open same. His wife’s mother was a Winnebago Indian.
1891: Peter Blakely founded Allen Chapel AME church, Rockford’s first black church. They are now located on Rural Street in a predominately white neighborhood. Their former location was downtown on Winnbeago Street.
1893: Daniel Hale Williams, a former Rockford resident and prominent Chicago Surgeon, conducts the first successful closure of an open heart wound. Swedish American Hospital in Rockford, is one of the most renown Heart Hospital in the area, today.
1900: The census reports 212 blacks in Rockford, which has a total population of 31,051.
1925: E.W. Williamson, the first black to run for public office, loses his independent bid for 5th ward alderman.
1931: An article in the Rockford Morning Star calls the recently opened Booker Washington Center, “an important factor in the promotion of the civil welfare of the city.” Booker is the 1st black center and is still being considered the only black top recreational facility today.
1945: Naval Yeoman Donald Brown drowns, the only casualty among Rockford blacks who fought in World War II.
1946: Blacks in Rockford enjoy “greater economic opportunity, more security as a citizen of the U.S. and wider acceptance as a human being than in the south,” concluded a study by students at Rockford College. The study also pointed out, however, that blacks “are kept out of better jobs and strong prejudice in personal relations exists”. Rockford College which has a name change to Rockford University, has as its President an Africian American, Dr. Head.
1950: Black population doubles to 2,499 in 10 years due to migration caused by wartime and postward labor shortage in Northern factories.
1954: Constance Lane becomes the first African American to teach in the Rockford Public School District #205. Margis Sturgis was the 1st African American to teach in the Winnebago County School District, the year before.
1968: In a 12 – 8 vote the Rockford City Council adopts an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in the sale of rental or real estate. The ordinance was considered to be stronger than federal legislature signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson that same year.
1971: Victory Bell wins a seat on the city council and in doing so becomes the first black to hold a municipal office. It was in 1925 that the 1st black ran for the 5th Alderman position and lost. Alderman Bell also ran in the 5th Ward and won many years later. The Bell family were some of the first members of Pilgrim Baptist Church, of which the family currently are members today.
1971: After a 20 year run, the weekly black newspaper, Crusader, folds.
1973: Ralph Lee was appointed the city’s first black firefighter.
1989: The city’s first African American Mayor, Charles Box received 63% of the vote and won re-election four later with 71%.
1990: African American population in Rockford surpasses 20,000.
1993: U.S. Magistrate Judge P. Michael Mahoney, in recommending a finding of guilt, writes that the Rockford School District “committed such open acts of discrimination as to be cruel and committed others with such subtlety as to raise discrimination to an art form”.
1997: Mayor Box campaigns for a third term as mayor. Mayor of Rockford “Charles E. Box” wins 3rd term 4/1/97. He decided not to run again in 2001.
The school district, meanwhile in 97 remains under court order o desegregate.