All Caisha Gayles, 28, Galesburg, wanted was to graduate from high school, but when graduation day came, she was denied her diploma, along with four other students, because her family cheered as she walked across the stage. Typically a day for celebration, Gayles’ graduation from Galesburg High School in May of 2007 turned into one of the worst days of her life — simply because she believed the school was attempting to make an example out of her and the other students because they were minorities.
“It was heartbreaking; I was speechless,” Gayles said, remembering the moment she was denied her diploma. “We were black and Hispanic and we didn’t deserve our diplomas. I know for a fact that white people were being cheered for.”
Students and families signed a contract prior to graduation promising to act in a dignified way and were warned that violators could be denied their diploma and barred from graduation activities. However, Gayles believes that it was not a coincidence that four out of the five students denied their diplomas were black and one Hispanic.
“It’s already hard to be a minority as it is, even more so when you live in a small town — a white town — it’s not a coincidence,” Gayles said. “I haven’t felt any racism, [but] I do see it. It’s not completely abolished here, and it’s tough to watch. There are people who can’t get a job because of the way their names sound or the way they look.”
Before the students could earn their diplomas, the school made a deal that they would have to perform eight hours of community service. According to Gayles, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) quickly got involved after hearing about the issue and the students were eventually awarded their diplomas without having to complete any community service. Still, the day is marked as one of the first times Gayles remembers coming face to face with racism in her community.
“It was a struggle after that to trust people in power,” Gayles said. “[But] it definitely taught me that I have a voice and I have the right to speak my mind.”
While Gayles has not experienced any overt racial discrimination against her since her diploma was denied, she mentioned that there have been many instances when racism has come out in other ways, such as an increase of Confederate flags on trucks. Others, such as David Amor, a former Knox College professor and administrator, have mentioned various ways racism is alive in Galesburg.
There have also been instances of international students being harassed along South Street, according to Amor. He noted that while incidents might not be as common, they still have negative effects on the community.
Amor, who is spearheading a group known as United Against Hate: A Community Commitment, has fostered a place where Galesburg citizens come together to discuss issues of racism in the community. In a recent meeting, during a time when the group breaks off into smaller discussions, a few concerned citizens mentioned how minority students are faced with racial discrimination at early ages.
Racism in Galesburg: a historical perspective
According to Owen Muelder ‘63, Director of the Galesburg Colony Underground Railroad Freedom Station, examining the history of Galesburg may provide some background information on how racism in Galesburg has evolved over time.
Knox College and Galesburg were founded by abolitionists who embraced anti-slavery principles, and five years prior to the Civil War, the railroad arrived in the small town. With the railroad, Muelder said, people from different kinds of backgrounds began to move and travel to Galesburg.
“[By the] mid-1950s, the character of the town becomes broader and expands,” Muelder explained. “Galesburg begins to take on the characteristics of race superiority — segregation of the schools, etc., despite the anti-slavery history.”
This racial superiority mentioned by Muelder began even before the 1950s, however. On Sept. 5, 1924 the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters organized a parade that would march on Main Street and through downtown Galesburg, according to the Evening-Mail, a newspaper that ran in Galesburg between 1895 and 1927. There was an estimation of 300 men and women participating in the march, congregating later at the Lincoln Park baseball stadium to view various Ku Klux Klan ceremonies, complete with burning crosses and Klan emblems.
During the ‘50s and ‘60s, according to Muelder, many areas of Galesburg were at one time segregated. Lake Storey was separated into two beaches one known as “The White Beach,” which was on the north end of the lake, and the “Colored Beach” was located on the south end. The Orpheum Theatre was also segregated and people of color were only allowed to watch movies from the third balcony of the theatre.
Even after segregation was abolished, the Zephyr — an independent newspaper that ran in Galesburg — reported on a Klan gathering in Fulton County in October of 1995. Klan members from the surrounding area, including Galesburg, were supposedly protesting the hiring of undocumented immigrants at a food processing plant in Beardstown.
Diplomas denied: discrimination over two generations
Gayles was not the only one to ever be denied a diploma from Galesburg High School. In 1959, Alva Earley was denied his diploma after protesting segregation on the beach of Lake Storey during his senior year of high school. The protest, an event organized by the NAACP, was held on the “white” beach and gathered several hecklers as they held a picnic.
According to Earley, the high school had heard about the protest sometime before it happened. The GHS college counselor approached Earley in the halls to warn him about attending the protest.
“He said, ‘Boy, if you go to the north side of Lake Storey, you will not graduate high school and you will not go to college,’” Earley said.
Earley, who had already been accepted to Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, shrugged the counselor’s comments off and attended the protest anyways. By the time graduation came around a few weeks later, Earley was denied the fitting for his cap and gown and was not permitted to march.
Shortly after graduation, Earley then received two short letters from both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. The letters informed him that he was no longer accepted to either university.
“They said that it wasn’t their policy to accept students who weren’t recommended by their high school,” Earley said. “Supposedly, I could not get into higher education because my grades were suspiciously [low], but my national test scores were very high.”
Earley guessed that someone had altered his transcript, which he received later only to find “large smudges” over the grades placed for his junior and senior years.
Eventually, however, Knox College accepted Earley, which he attended for two years before his financial situation depleted. Two years after leaving Knox, Earley returned to higher education and graduated from the University of Illinois and later from Chicago-Kent College of Law.
Fifty-five years after being denied his diploma for protesting segregation, Earley was awarded his high school diploma in 2014 with the help of Muelder. He accepted it while wearing his doctorate robes.
Racism in Galesburg today
Chair of Communications Relations Committee Chris King, a transgender woman of color, she first began to get involved with the Black Lives Matter Movement after the police brutality shootings. For her, it started with the marches and then speaking out against discrimination in everyday life, such as people speaking in “roundabout” ways regarding race.
“[A family member] will still come up to me sometimes and be like ‘Oh Chris, I met this woman, she’s so sweet, well, you know who she is, that colored woman,’” King explained. “I’m cringing — you can’t use the word ‘colored’ anymore. Was she purple? Was she green? It’s just educating people.”
King also mentioned that, even today, people will refer to the beach on Lake Storey as “the colored” beach. However, she admitted that she has never had an experience where people made a racist comment to her in Galesburg.
“I’m not sure if it’s because if people know me, because if someone were to ever call me the n-word, I would just flip,” King said. “[In regards to Knox students], people might look at them as outsiders, so it’s okay to say those things.”
Although Earley no longer lives in Galesburg, he did mention that he believes racism is still prevalent in today’s society. A few examples he gave included being denied help after his car broke down in Raton, N.M.
“They said they weren’t going to help me because I was driving a white man’s car,” Earley said.
He also described an incident where he was eating in a diner in Raton when an elderly couple walked in and refused to sit in their booth because Earley was too close to them, even though they were sitting 10 feet away.
“Things have not changed all that much since 1958,” Earley said. “Things are worse now because people realize they can come out and say nasty things about black people because Donald Trump is president.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article had a grammatical and phrasing error which mistakenly implied that segregation was not abolished until October of 1995. That sentence has been re-written for clarity.