Peoria YWCA archives offer glimpses into attitudes on race and gender in the early 20th century
Researchers at Bradley University's Virginius H. Chase Special Collections Center are sifting through more than a century's worth of archives from the Peoria Young Women's Christian Association.
The documents offer a rare glimpse into how attitudes on race and gender issues changed in Peoria throughout the 20th century.
When the Peoria YWCA dissolved in 2012 after nearly 120 years, it left behind a lot of records. More than twenty banker's boxes worth, in fact.
The voluminous archives now reside at the Special Collections Center at Bradley University's Cullom-Davis Library, where they're being preserved and digitized.
Libby Tronnes is director of special collections and a historian. She said the correspondence and reports offer a rich resource into more than a century of Peoria's history.
"So if we're interested in progressive-era reform efforts, if we're interested in issues of integration and how people dealt with tensions over race, racism, ethnicity, different religions at different points in the city's history," she said. "And really, broader than Peoria, because there are stories of surrounding areas in these documents as well. That's what's exciting about this."
Kaitlyn Morrison is a senior at Bradley and a research fellow working at special collections. She's focusing her efforts onto the Traveler's Aid Society's trove of documents. The group styled itself essentially as an organization of women dedicated to helping other women. But biases could sometimes affect their work.
Morrison is combing through the writings of a single traveler's aide, Davina M. Barnhart, who worked in Peoria from about 1919 to 1929. Barnhart was an immigrant, but she was also white and educated.
In June 1923, a drunk white man entered a train station with his young daughter and a man of color who had offered to help him carry his suitcase. The father asked Barnhart where he could get the girl's shoes shined. The traveler's aide asked the stationmaster to kick the man of color out of the station, then took charge of the father and daughter herself.
"It seems like she expelled the person helping out in the situation, rather than the father who was causing the trouble in the station," she said.
In another story, a young woman from Texas had ran away from her abusive family. The Traveler's Aid Society in Peoria talked to her father, and returned her.
"And so it's more not believing the woman and sending her back to her family, rather than sort of getting this woman out of the situation that she's in and allowing her the freedom and sovereignty over her own life that she deserves even no matter what the circumstances are," Morrison said.
Often, Morrison said women seeking help escaping abusive relationships or suffering after surviving a sexual assault are often called "hysterical" or "mental cases" in the reports.
Libby Tronnes said accusations are also sometimes dismissed.
"These people believe they are helping, and in many instances they are. But they have their own categories of prejudice in which they see different people as vulnerable or believable in different ways. And I think Kaitlyn's doing an excellent job kind of sifting through that story," Tronnes said.
Morrison said there's value in looking back at the YWCA records.
"The significance of these documents shows sort of lost voices in history, even though they're coming from a biased perspective," Morrison said. "We can sort of interpret it and see stories from marginalized groups throughout history. So that's something that's really powerful and really exciting to get to look at."
Special collections assistant Liz Bloodworth said there's signs the YWCA's conversations begin to change as the decades progress.
"We kind of sorted through as much as we've been able to find through the 1930s, maybe into the '40s. But we've seen some evidence that the Peoria YWCA is starting to talk about race more and integrating their organization," Bloodworth said. "And I really am hopeful to find more documents like that as we move into the '50s and '60s, in that era."
For Morrison, the documents offer a lot of value for better understanding what's happening in the world around us.
"I think that's the important part about being a historian is using the past to better understand the present and using the present to better understand the past. And so it's interesting to compare the social side to what's been going on with the more modern day civil rights movement," she said.
Tronnes said the Bradley University special collections center plans to eventually offer the entire Peoria YWCA archive online for free. The work is funded by a National Society Daughters of the American Revolution grant.