Segregation in the Southern Illinois area and how SIU students helped bring it to an end

Southern Illinois University was an integrated school from the time of its opening in 1869. 

SIU held its first class with two Black students in attendance on March 9, 1869, four years prior to Illinois’ mandate for public places to integrate after laws were passed in 1874 by the Illinois legislature

Despite the university opening as an integrated school, much of the region’s schools and public facilities remained segregated into the later half of the twentieth century. 


Students at SIU were an integral part in the desegregation of the southern Illinois area. In 1962, students at SIU created the Student Nonviolent Freedom Committee (SNFC), which used peaceful measures to help end segregation in the region.

SIU students led and participated in protests in Cairo, Ill., to desegregate the pool and skating rink there and 40 of the protestors were arrested, according to “The SNFC in The Civil Rights Movement in Carbondale, Illinois” by Brian Jenks. 

At one of these protests in Cairo, a protestor, Mary Mccollum was stabbed in the thigh and needed 12 stitches after.

The SNFC also helped the SIU administration decide to reverse discriminatory policies, including hiring. 

The university president at the time, Delyte Morris, decided to give the students room to protest and not get in their way. 

Morris was open to many of the changes the group proposed and helped bring those changes to the university.

The SNFC helped change segregation laws in southern Illinois even after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. 


The Brown v. Board of Education decision reversed the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of allowing “separate but equal” facilities for people of different races and ethnicities, and therefore made school segregation illegal on a nationwide scale. 

Segregation in the Carbondale area, however, continued for years after Brown v. Board of Education was decided. 

Although Carbondale Community High School followed the1954 Brown v. Board Decision, the school wasn’t integrated until 1956 when Delores Lily and Albert Blythe II attended the school.

The segregated African American Attucks High School in Carbondale stayed open until 1965.

Lincoln Elementary in Carbondale was first integrated in 1957 by Greg and Deborah Woods, which completed integration in the school district. 

Roscoe Jenkins, 74, of Marion went to an all-Black school in Marion called Douglas School through tenth grade.

“We went to that [Douglas school] all the way up until 11th grade, and then they integrated and then attended the junior high,” he said.

Jenkins said he also once went to a steakhouse and experienced segregation when he wasn’t allowed inside.

“I attempted to buy some food, a sandwich there and he offered to bring it to the door so I guess you could say that’s a form of segregation, I wasn’t allowed to go in so I refused the service,” Jenkins said. 

Jenkins said at the movie theater in Marion there was an unwritten rule that African-Americans had to sit at the top of the theater.

“On occasions I would go down to the bottom and sit and watch a movie for a while just for that simple reason and then I would go upstairs where my friends were,” Jenkins said. 

Jenkins said it wasn’t as prevalent as in the South but segregation was still there in the southern Illinois area.

According to the research article from Jenks, there was a long history of segregation and racist laws in place in Illinois until after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. 

“Black codes” were in place from 1819-1865, which prevented voting rights, serving on juries or in militias.  “Black laws” passed the Illinois legislature in 1853 and stayed in place until 1865. They prevented Black people from staying in the state for more than ten days who weren’t already living there. 

Enslaved people were still forced to work in Illinois, even after The state banned slavery. These codes allowed work arounds where slaves from Kentucky didn’t count towards the Illinois population if they left for one day a year. Enslaved people from Kentucky would work in Illinois for 364 days a year, but by leaving one day a year they weren’t given protection under Illinois law. 

In the 1950’s, most Jim Crow laws became illegal in the state including housing discrimination and healthcare among others.

Sports reporter Ryan Scott can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @RyanscottDE. 

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