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Kewanee's diverse population continues to grow

According to the 2020 census, Kewanee's Black population increased by almost 40%, that being roughly 873, and Hispanics were up 34% around 1,810 people.

KEWANEE, Ill. — Kewanee's rich history continues to expand as it could be called a tale of two cities. The town has seen growth through an increasingly diverse population.

"It sort of followed the national trend during the Civil Rights Movement, during the late 50s and early 60s," Kewanee native and historian Dave Clarke said.

Clarke is a retired newspaper journalist for Kewanee's Star Courier.

"Kewanee went through, like a lot of towns, through a transformation," Clarke said. "One sign of Kewanee's history is that we did always learn how to get along."

He decided to document the changing times after noticing developments.

"It occurred to me as a historian, that there was a lot of history of the Black community that was just never recorded," Clarke said.

One of the most notable was honoring Illinois' first Black licensed architect, Walter T. Bailey, from Kewanee.

"He lit the fire," Clarke said. "While he was alive, he more or less, was under the radar."

Bailey's parents were freed slaves who came to town after the Civil War.

"I think his story is what inspires us today," Clarke said.


A large mural features the icon near one of the main thoroughfares in town. 

"Now, if people come to Kewanee, there's a huge mural with a guy with a big face that's 2 stories tall almost," Clarke said. "That's what young people can see now or they can know the story of Walter." 

History is also being made with Kewanee's first Black elected city council member, Tyrone Baker.

"We want to put Kewanee on the map," Baker said.

Baker is also the first Black member who was on the Wethersfield School Board.

"I look at it as being an honor and a privilege that I can serve," Baker said. "That's not why I took those positions and, to be totally honest to you, I never brought it to my attention."

According to the 2020 census, Kewanee's Black population increased by almost 40%, that being roughly 873, and Hispanics were up 34% around 1,810 people.

"The struggle I see with the diversity is getting people involved," Baker said. "I want people to know that their voice does matter."

Life-long resident Anita Blanks is a voice who feels Kewanee has always had a long-standing controversy.

"This Division Street is what separates Kewanee from Wethersfield," Blanks said. 

She is passionate about a street name called "Division Street" that splits school boundary lines between the Kewanee School District from Wethersfield School District.

"I'm on Kewanee's side and I can walk down four blocks and I'm in the Wethersfield district," she said. "I just wish that Division Street sign wasn't there. I'd like it if it was 'unity.'"

"We still have one Kewanee, we just happen to have two school districts and we happen to have a street for some reason, it's called Division Street."

Blanks said the issue has seen no sign of a replacement after being brought up for years.

"It just separates things more," Blanks said.

There were two different towns at one point. Kewanee and Wethersfield didn't merge together until 1921.

"Because there wasn't a lot of animosity, it was more or less a business decision," Clarke said.

Clarke said Kewanee saw a boost once more families took advantage of an expansion of public transportation.

"There were parts of town that were Black, parts of town that were white, but there was still a mix," Clarke said. "In the schools, the kids, more or less, were all together. It was an integrated school system from the start."

He said housing was on the same track except for income disparities on each side of town.

"Outside of those two federal housing projects, the other 90% of Kewanee was integrated," Clarke said.

The depth of Kewanee's diversity is wide-ranging, according to Clarke.

"Black, white, Hispanic, Swedish, Germans, Poland," Clarke said.

The city reinstated the Kewanee Human Relations Commission in 2022. According to the commission chair, Taurean Bond, the group's focus is on community togetherness, education, activism, and progressiveness.

"In our small town, we are fortunate to be presented with many choices; Education, health care, religion, etc.," Bond said in a statement to News 8. "Despite social class, sexuality, race or even what side of Division Street you reside on, we as the commission are here to provide each individual with the opportunity to be seen, heard, valued and exist in our community."

To reach the commission, click here to be directed to its Facebook page.

Watch more Kewanee stories on News 8's YouTube channel

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