CARBONDALE — Margaret Nesbitt, Melvin “Pepper” Holder, and Milton McDaniel all remember a time when northeast Carbondale was a very different place from what it is today.
All three lived through the 1960s in the northeast neighborhood and tell stories of a community with plenty of businesses and commerce. It was also the part of the city where black people were segregated.
These longtime residents remember when there were 18 locally owned businesses, before the Model Cities Project tore down several homes to bring in housing developments and build the Eurma C. Hayes Center, and when there was a tight-knit community that looked different from what is there today.
Nesbitt worked a long time for Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and later opened D’s Quick Stop on North Washington Street, along with several other accomplishments. Holder went into his family’s warehouse business, Holder’s Moving Company. McDaniel was the first black person to work on the railroad in Carbondale and later broke the color barrier again in the sheet metal trade in the area.
The following will be three stories from childhood to recent memory about their lives, and northeast Carbondale as they remember it.
The conversation with Nesbitt started behind the empty lot that used to be D’s Quick Stop at 221 N. Washington St. The restaurant burned down in 2011 after more than 30 years of serving fried fish and chicken to the community. The neighboring property is now home to the Center for Justice and Empowerment. Next to the center is an empty lot with a community garden.
The lot is surrounded by a fence, but in the alleyway on Thursday, there were several scattered wood pallets, lumber with exposed screws and several pieces of glass accessible to anybody walking through the alley. Nesbitt said when her restaurant was active, she always kept to the city code for beautification — so much so that she couldn’t let a bush grow into the alleyway without somebody from the city showing up to let her know about it.
Now, she wonders how the times have changed so much that dangerous items can lie outside in an alley without any city interference at all.
“This wouldn’t happen anywhere else,” she said.
Nesbitt moved to Carbondale from Kerrville, Tennessee, in 1940 when she started fourth grade. She remembers the excitement she felt from being able to see Attucks Grade School from her backyard at 417 E. Oak St. In Kerrville, she said she walked three miles to school and white kids in the bus would throw things at her and other black students as they drove past.
She has fond memories from her days at Attucks through high school. She said all the teachers and the principal lived in the neighborhood, expect for one who lived “across the tracks.” She said students not only went to school with the educators, but also they went to church with them and spent time in the community.
Around the time she was set to graduate from high school, she recalled when a representative from Carbondale Community High School — a white-only school at the time — came to Attucks and told the students they didn’t have much chance to succeed in college, so they needed to think about a career. Nesbitt said the boys had shop class to help them, but girls had to find other routes.
She said her mother started to write the school district about enrolling her daughter in typing classes at CCHS in 1947, but continually received denials from then-Carbondale Schools Superintendent N.A. Rosan. The letters said the classes were “overcrowded.” Nesbitt still owns the letters, dated from August 1947 to December 1947.
Nesbitt said later the district compromised by sending a teacher to Attucks twice a week to instruct the students.
After graduating high school, Nesbitt married and started her family. In 1960, she started working at SIUC in food service. While there, he belonged to the NAACP, but was also involved in a concerned citizens group that wrote a letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson about discrimination against hiring black people at SIUC. As a result, the government sent a representative to study the university, which led to affirmative action taking place at the institution.
Nesbitt worked at the university for more than 25 years, retiring as the food service manager at Thompson Point.
Additionally, Nesbitt has been involved in the Northeast Congress — a group formed to assist in the planning of the Model Cities program — Rock Hill Missionary Baptist Church, Church Women United, the Concerned Citizens of Carbondale and — what she calls her passion project — the I Can Read! Program. She also ran for Carbondale City Council in 1979, where she lost in the general election.
Nesbitt remembers walking with the students in 1970 during the Vietnam Riot at SIUC — something she called “one of the saddest things in Carbondale.”
Also in 1970, in northeast Carbondale, Nesbitt lived just around the corner from a Black Panther house when it was shot hundreds of times during a shootout with police.
She recalls not having any problems the Panthers when they came into the neighborhood, adding they started a breakfast program for children.
“But that night," she said, "it sounded like a war."
Her husband was at work when the shooting started, and her children were at home. After bullets started flying, she walked outside to ask a police officer near her home what was happening.
“Somebody wants to shoot up,” the officer told Nesbitt.
After this, she told her son to get their gun, and if somebody walks through the door in anger, “We are just going to have to shoot,” she said.
She also remembers seeing a young man who was shot near her backyard — a few hundred feet from the site of the shooting. She witnessed two police officers standing over the black man with weapons drawn telling the man “if you move, I’m going to shoot your head off.” The other officer said “somebody is watching you,” Nesbitt said, and they left him alone.
She says each time that man is in Carbondale, he looks her up to say thank you for saving his life.
“Seven hundred seventy-eight bullets shot in the house and nobody got killed. It was a miracle,” she said. “It was something that you just couldn’t believe happened.”
A 2013 showing of a documentary about the incident made by SIUC professor Angela Aguayo at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Carbondale led to the start of the Racial Justice Coalition in Carbondale.
Back in the ‘60s and before, a lot of people didn’t have transportation, but there was a place in northeast Carbondale where people could get the supplies they needed, Nesbitt said.
The Model Cities Project, an initiative by President Johnson to combat the “War on Poverty,” led to several housing developments in northeast Carbondale. However, as a result of that effort, Nesbitt said "a lot of those businesses closed and there was nothing to replace them."
“When we opened in D’s, that was one of the only black businesses opened in the town in a long time,” she said. “A lot of people in Carbondale now don’t miss the stores, because they weren’t here (during the that time).”
Nesbitt said the neighborhood now has been replaced by younger generations — and little hope.
“I don’t know how to change that,” she said. “The only way to change it is by the actions by those leaders in authority.”
She said the mindset in the community is different from other communities because when reports of shootings and drug deals happen, most people in communities think “How could this happen where I’m from?”
“In this neighborhood, we expect this to happen,” she said.
Pepper Holder, 68, was born in St. Louis in 1949 and moved to Carbondale later that same year.
He says northeast Carbondale was built by black laborers who worked at the former Koppers Wood Treatment plant at 1555 N. Marion St. The plant operated from 1902 to 1991. It treated wood products by pressure-injecting a creosote wood preservative solution and other chemicals into wood products. The intent was to prevent decay. During that time, railroad ties, utility poles and other products were treated at the site.
He says contamination left from the operation has resulted in several individuals who worked at and lived near the plant developing illnesses and dying. He said nobody knew about the harm when the site was active.
Holder’s father, James Holder, owned a moving company, which performed many of the moving duties on SIU’s campus in the middle of the 20th century.
He also says certain parts of Carbondale’s history are told by the victims. He told a particular story about the first Carbondale police officer killed in Carbondale. Lenard Sizemore was killed Aug. 20, 1933, by Joseph Brinson, a black man.
On the Carbondale Police Department website, it says that the 10-year officer Sizemore was killed at about 2:20 a.m. when he attempted to arrest Brinson at “a bootlegging joint” for disturbing the peace. Brinson resisted arrest and produced a handgun, which he fired to fatally shoot Sizemore.
The website says in less than an hour, a manhunt involving the Jackson County Sheriff and deputies were brought in to locate Brinson. Once located, a gunfight between Brinson and deputies ensued in a cornfield — now the 200 block of East Oak Street — resulting in Brinson’s death.
In 2002, Sizemore’s name was added to the Illinois Police Officer Memorial in Springfield, as well as the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Holder says he was told the story a bit differently by his aunt, who was 15 years old at the time of the shooting.
He says his aunt told him when the shooting occurred, it was the third time Sizemore came to the house that night to “shake down” the establishment. Holder said the story was told to him that when Brinson said he wasn’t going to pay the officer, Sizemore went for his gun, but Brinson shot him first, fatally wounding him.
Holder said there was a manhunt, and once the police located Brinson and apprehended him by shooting him in the leg, the police then fatally shot Brinson in the head.
The next day, Sizemore was buried in Carbondale. As the family began to exit the cemetery, Brinson’s family began to enter because there was only one cemetery at the time. Holder said was it was described as a “tense moment.”
Seven years later, Carbondale would hire its first black police officer, Lee English, in October 1940. His only patrol was in northeast Carbondale.
Holder said there have been two progressive periods in Carbondale affecting black citizens.
The first was when SIU's president was Delyte W. Morris, who had the post from 1948 to 1970. Holder said Morris brought tons of diversity to the university from around the country and the world. However, those individuals of color weren’t allowed to live just anywhere in the city or stay at the hotels. The only place they could stay was in northeast Carbondale. He said several people in the town had welcome arms for students.
The next period was when Robert Stalls was part of bringing the Model Cities Project to Carbondale.
From this, he said many dilapidated houses were demolished, new housing was erected, and the Eurma C. Hayes Center was built. He said there was a dentist office, day care program, the Model Cities Program office and much more operating out of the building.
Holder talked about northeast Carbondale as a place where everybody knew everybody.
“My Sunday School teacher was my neighbor, so I couldn’t get into any trouble,” he said. “I had to behave in church. The same was the truth for school. Neighborhood is so important.”
He said he was reminded in school that “you had to do twice or three times as good as white people to go half as far.”
“In that, the discipline was to do better for yourself and your community with love, not a pat on the head,” he said.
Attucks Park was down the block from where Holder grew up, and he recalled fond memories of playing basketball and checkers, as well as catching a bus that would come on Tuesdays and Thursdays to take children to Crab Orchard Lake to swim.
On North Washington Street, he recalled the block being flush with businesses. There was a Kroger, Seibert’s drug store where Town Square Market is today, and the old Coca-Cola warehouse. What is now the Flyover was once a feed store, then a bar. Additionally, he recalled the WDBX station as a former bar and grill, a classy jazz club next to it, which is now a vacant lot, and a place called “The Stumble Inn,” one of the legal black bars in the area.
He said the city code eventually made it difficult for those businesses to do business and they were eventually phased out. He described the past 20 to 30 years in northeast Carbondale as “losing ground.”
Holder has run for mayor and for a spot on the Carbondale City Council. He has lost each attempt.
“I didn’t think it was possible that I could be elected for mayor here in Carbondale,” he said. “For two reasons. One, because I’m outspoken. Two, because I’m black.”
He called the voting structure in Carbondale a travesty, adding there should be a ward system. Currently, each councilperson is voted “at-large,” meaning each elected official represents the entire city. In a ward system, each councilperson represents a section of town or a “ward.”
“The average black person doesn’t feel the need to vote,” he said. “Who are we going to vote for and what is going to happen if we do vote? Voting for Barack Obama could help people see themselves in what they were voting for.”
He said the neighborhood hasn’t had any representation that he felt had love and concern for the community since Loyd Sumner in the '70s, SIU President Morris and Archie Jones, who spent 16 years on the city council from the late ‘60s through the ‘80s.
Milton McDaniel grew up at 520 ½ E. Green St., now known as East James and Thelma Walker Avenue.
He says he remembers growing up in a very loving and tight community. He grew up in a family with 11 children, but he remembers families with 13 children and 14 children in the neighborhood.
“Everybody made use of the large family then,” he said.
McDaniel, or “Chubby,” as was one of his childhood nicknames, remembers several times when the neighbors would call on the party line to ask his parents to “send over one of the boys” for a variety of different reasons. He remembers older neighbors with adult children no longer in the house calling to ask if one of the boys could take ashes from coal outside, or stay the night with them if they didn’t feel safe.
“We did that kind of stuff without any pay,” he said. “It was the type of neighborhood I wish we had now.”
Although the neighborhood was loving, it didn’t mean McDaniel could get away with anything. He had to on his best behavior at all times, even outside of his parents’ eyes.
“If we were caught doing anything we weren’t supposed to, the neighbors had the right to not only chastise us but whoop us,” he said. “Then, they would call our mom and dad and we would get another whooping.”
McDaniel made his first $5 when he was 8 years old for helping his grandmother in her garden. That money bought him a bike.
Later on, he had a small business in which he would help elderly folks in the neighborhood by taking his red wagon to the corner of Marion and Jackson Streets to pick up government commodities for a quarter per trip.
“Not only did I feel good about making my own money, I felt good that I was helping somebody,” he said. “My parents instilled in us the gift of giving and not giving anything back.”
He talked about the state of the homes in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and how very few of the homes in northeast Carbondale had indoor plumbing — and hardly any had a television.
He recalled businesses in the neighborhood, not just on the edge of town, including Jones Café, which was housed across from what is now the Eurma C. Hayes Center. Also, McDaniel said there was a teenage recreational center open on Friday and Saturday nights on the corner of Washington and Jackson Streets. It was a dime to enter.
He said the black kids had their own center and the white kids had their teen center, also on Jackson Street, but it was “across the tracks.”
McDaniel was also reminiscent about the 18 mom and pop stores in the area.
“We didn’t really have a reason to go outside the neighborhood,” he said.
McDaniel said several well-known Carbondale figures lived in northeast Carbondale because they didn’t have anywhere else to go during their time at SIU.
Seymour Bryson — former basketball standout and assistant chancellor at SIUC — lived on Oak Street.
Norma Ewing, who received her doctoral degree from SIUC and later became a professor, lived on Green street across from McDaniel.
Molly and William Norwood, the first black pilot for United Airlines and SIU’s first black quarterback, lived in the neighborhood.
“The northeast side of Carbondale served the city well,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel said things started to change in the mid-‘60s.
Before he was the first black man hired on the railroad in Carbondale, he was a member of the 1967 Carbondale Terriers boys basketball team, who went to the state title game in Champaign. Although that team lost to Pekin High School in the championship, it gained some much-needed exposure for the city. This happened the same year the Walt Frazier-led SIU Salukis won the men’s basketball National Invitation Tournament in New York City.
“Whenever you turned on the television in ’67, there was Carbondale plastered all over the screen,” he said. “The basketball year of 1967 made a drastic change, both black and white, about the city of Carbondale. They came together, and they became proud of Carbondale."
During this same time, the Model Cities Project was taking hold in Carbondale, which is something McDaniel said did more harm than good.
He said his father may have paid $25 a month for his childhood home, but it was their home and didn’t come with additional expenses. He said Model Cities caused them to have a mortgage.
“They started tearing down homes and relocating people, but some people couldn’t afford to pay for it,” he said. “There weren’t any subsidies to help pay for it.”
McDaniel said his childhood home is gone because his parents were one of the first people to get a new home from the project. The only original home on his childhood block is across the street.
Building his first home
In 1977, McDaniel wanted to build a home in northeast Carbondale. He went into the Carbondale Savings and Loan Company, a bank he said he had tens of thousands of dollars in a saving account, to ask for a loan.
“They told me flat-out, if you want to build your home, we would be more than glad to lend you the money if you found a place on the west side of Carbondale,” he said.
By this point, McDaniel had a heating and cooling business and had a prominent client who owned another business. McDaniel informed this client about his situation and the client told him to go to Home Federal Savings and Loans for financing.
This is what McDaniel did, and the bank told him it would take his loan under advisement.
After returning to his client, he told McDaniel to talk to the bank again and let them know if they don’t approve the loan, he would take his couple million dollars out of his account there.
“I went back and told them just that, and they gave me every penny I asked for,” McDaniel said.
He said he built one of the first new homes in the neighborhood with that loan.
“I was determined to stay on the northeast side of Carbondale because that’s my home,” he said. “That is where I am today.”
McDaniel called the current state of northeast Carbondale “terrible.”
He said when he grew up in that neighborhood, he knew everybody. Now, he said he may know a handful of people.
“If you look around the neighborhood now, there aren’t any homes left that was there. There are a lot of vacant lots,” he said. “The projects have allowed people to come in from all over with affordable housing, but with the people coming in came the ‘undesirables.’”
He said when he was growing up, he didn’t hear about shootings in the neighborhood. He said everybody had guns, but the weapons weren’t shot unless somebody was in the backwoods hunting. The only exception was to ring in the new year, when everybody would shoot the guns off.
“There are a lot of undesirables that moved in from the area,” McDaniel said. “Which has now made the northeast side of Carbondale not the best place to raise a family.”
As for the violence in the area, he said there isn’t a way to change it and there are a lot of residents who have said they are just going to stick it out because it’s their home.
“The only thing you can do is protect yourself,” he said.
As for representation in the area, the ward system doesn’t work for McDaniel.
“We want to be one city,” he said. "We would like to have seven people on that (city) council that has the view of representing Carbondale — no matter what location you live in — as the same.
“I don’t care if you live in a million-dollar home in Carbondale, your rights as a citizen are the same as the person who lives in the projects in the northeast side of Carbondale.”
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