When Ralph and Ellen Smith arrived in Bloomington-Normal in 1959, they found that Jim Crow was still alive.
Sure, there were some changes since World War II. Movie houses no longer forced African-Americans to sit in the back rows. At Miller Park, swimmers could now swim anywhere, no longer just in segregated areas.
But Jim Crow was still around, lurking behind each “For Sale” sign and every restaurant manager’s frown.
For it was only four years before the Smiths took up residence here that a visiting black soloist dined at a leading restaurant — at a table set up behind a screen so white diners would not see him. No hotel was open for him.
And in Normal that year, where Ralph would soon begin teaching at Illinois State Normal University, only five (of 295) homeowners would sign a “Covenant of Open Occupancy” that Campus Religious Center students carried around, a simple promise to rent a room to any student regardless of their race.
Housing discrimination was one focus among many for Ralph and Ellen throughout their years here — from 1959 right up to Ralph’s death on May 3.
In 1960, shortly after their arrival from Buffalo, N.Y., Ralph helped organize a Freedom of Residence (FOR) group. FOR’s first project was to ask ministers to distribute cards to their congregants urging non-discrimination in rentals and sales. About one-fourth signed.
Ralph became president of the NAACP, confronting Realtors who gave the same arguments used everywhere to keep out blacks — that an owner “must have the right to rent or sell to anyone he chooses.”
Ralph and Ellen then teamed up with an African-American — usually Merlin Kennedy, who arrived the same year as the Smiths — to test whether Jim Crow was dead here. Merlin would reply to a rental advertisement:
“Sorry — we just rented that.”
Some 30 minutes later, the Smiths would arrive:
“Yes — come right in. Would you like to rent this apartment?”
Ralph recalled some 21 instances of this.
But Ralph Smith’s concerns reached far beyond housing discrimination. In 1965, he and Kennedy traveled to Mississippi to help blacks register to vote. And when the McLean County Economic Opportunity Corporation was established, Ralph and others in the “US” activist group became its leaders and helped gear it toward such things as funding Head Start and helping people in low-income neighborhoods fight legal and job discrimination.
“Ralph was for equal opportunity in every facet — housing, hiring,” recalled Charles Morris, who led campaigns at ISU to open up hiring and enrollment. “Ralph believed deeply in equal opportunity, and practiced it.”
Jack Porter, who worked closely with the Smiths, recalled how thoughtful Ralph was.
“I can’t imagine him shouting,” he said. “But it was wrong to assume that his quiet demeanor was in any way a contradiction to his determination. He was relentless, impatient with injustice.”
Others recalled how Christian beliefs formed the underpinnings for everything Ralph Smith did. His minister at the United Methodist Church in Normal, the Rev. Kent King-Nobles, said that Ralph explained “it was his Christian faith that led him to get involved in social justice issues — that this was what it meant to be a Christian.”
The Campus Religious Center’s founder, Rev. James Pruyne, agreed: “It was clear — positions he took were based on his religious beliefs.”