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Sunday, November 13, 2011

"I Doubted I'd Ever be a Streak"

The old GHS located just off the square.
When we think about segregation and racism in America during the 20th century, most of us in the North immediately turn out thoughts to the South. The reality is that there were many examples of segregation and racism in the North during the 20th century.

My mother told a story of when my father was coaching basketball in Savanna, Illinois in the 1940’s. Savanna was located about 40 miles from Wisconsin, so definitely the “North.” My father had an African-American player on his team. If the team was going to stop for a meal after a road game, my father would always go into the local restaurant to see if they would serve an African-American. If they would not, he would go back out and tell the team, “The restaurant is full.” And they would look for another place to eat. Having grown up in the 1960’s, I found this story to be a revelation. I was sure that only happened in the South.

When one looks at Galesburg’s founding, it is obvious that the founders of Galesburg in the 1830’s were on the liberal side of the spectrum when it comes to issues of race. Galesburg was a hot bed for abolitionism and a strong force in the underground railroad. There are numerous stories and individuals in the 1800’s which show Galesburg’s view on race. Some of the stories that support this thought-
      Hope Cemetery has a veteran from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry buried in the cemetery. For most small towns it would have been unusual to find integration in the 1800’s.

      Stories of the Galesburg citizens protecting Susan Richardson, “Aunt Sukey”, from slave owners who came to Knoxville to take her back to the South.

       Abe Lincoln being willing to make a progressive stance on slavery because he knew the political leanings of Knox College.

      Hiram Revels attended Knox College and then became the first Black U.S. Senator.

       Rev. George Washington Gale basically being kicked out of his church because some members did not want to remain Presbyterian because church members in the South owned slaves.

       Barnabus Root is believed to be the first African-American to graduate from an Illinois college, graduating from Knox in 1870.

So it is safe to say that at least Galesburg and Knox College’s origins were associated with people who were progressive in their thought about race in the 1800’s.

Pete Thierry is a lifetime resident of Galesburg. Pete grew up as a young African-American in the late 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s. Pete graduated from GHS in 1953. Pete described life in Galesburg in the 1940’s and 1950’s as an African-American.

According to Pete there were four movie theaters in Galesburg. The “West” on Prairie Street, the “Colonial” next to the West, the Orpheum on Kellogg, and the “Bond” next to what became Big 10 Liquor. As an African-American, Pete had to sit in certain spots. At the Orpheum, you were shown the door to the third balcony. At the West one sat on the right side, while next door at the Colonial you had to sit on the left side. One kid sit wherever you wanted at the Bond, but usually you no one wanted to go to the Bond because “you could often feel rats crawling over your feet as you watched a movie.”

Pete described that Blacks could shop at Walgreens but could not sit at the lunch counter in the back. At lunch time he could pick up a hot dog at Coney Island but you had to get it to go. As a young Black, he knew that he was not allowed to go into places like Woolworth’s, Bower’s Drug Store, and Gregory’s Ice Cream Parlor. And in the 1940’s, he was not allowed to go on the north side of Lake Storey. Pete described restrictions at the Custer Hotel. “At the Custer Hotel Blacks were not allowed to go through the dining area. The only time Blacks could go through the area was when Mrs. Rose Welch, my grade school principal, would take a couple patrol guards on a tour.”  

Anyone who knows Pete Thierry, knows that Pete has a passion for sports. Growing up, Pete was an exceptional athlete. When Pete entered GHS in the early ‘50’s, he did not have many former GHS stars who were African-American to look to as role models. To Pete’s knowledge, Galesburg had only two African-Americans start for GHS before 1950. Adoph “Ziggy” Hamblin was a 1916 grad of GHS. “Ziggy” started for GHS in basketball but was not allowed to travel with the team to out of town games because some of the other towns would not receive a Black on the team well. “Ziggy” went on to star at Knox college in four sports and graduate in 1920. “Ziggy” was one of the first athletes selected into the Knox Hall of Fame. The only other starter that Pete was aware of was a young man by the name of Henderson who started for GHS in the early 1940’s.

Pete as a junior high student, would after school leave Churchill and across the building to Steele Gym to watch the Streaks practice. He remembers being allowed to scrimmage with the high school players while still in junior high. As a junior high player, Pete showed great talent and was successful on the court. But with the history of few Blacks ever playing for GHS, Pete said, “I doubted I would ever be a Streak, I figured my career was going to be over after junior high.”

One has to realize that by all accounts, Pete Thierry was not just a good basketball player. Pete was a great basketball player. The YMCA had a league for high school, college players, and adults to play. The best of Galesburg went there to play. Pete after high school set the scoring record in this league by once scoring 53 points. It is interesting to note that Pete’s record was broken when John Thiel played in the league his first year as a coach. Thiel scored 57 points in one game.

Imagine what it must have been like to be a talented young player like Pete, and to feel like you would never be given a chance to play at your high school. Pete says the first time he began to think maybe his dream of playing for the Streaks was possible was when one of the older players on the Streaks talked to him. Pete says he still remembers when Jim Frakes said to him, “Pete, don’t you worry, you are going to be a Silver Streak.” Pete described how that made him feel to have a player he looked up to, tell him he had a shot.

Pete played and started for GHS in 1953, being according to Pete the third African-American to ever start for GHS. He played for Ken Menke, a legendary player for the Illini and one of the “Whiz Kids.”  I asked Pete if he ever had a time where because of how he was treated in Galesburg as a player he thought he didn’t want to play for GHS. He said, “Never, no one from Galesburg ever said anything to hurt me, and I was treated first class.”

Were there any negative things you remember? Without hesitating, Pete uttered one word, “Pekin.” He went on to describe a banner as they entered town that said, “Be Out by Dark.” And at the game fans threw actual Coke bottles onto the floor at him, and it was the first time people yelled racial slurs at him as a player. Pete recounts, “I told Coach, ’Do you hear what they are saying?’”  Coach Menke told him, “Pete, there is nothing we can do about people like that, all we can do is just beat them. In what was I am sure was a very satisfying win, the Streaks beat the #3 rated Pekin team that night.

Pete described after playing at Pekin he tried to tell the young Kimbrough brothers what it was like at Pekin. He said he could tell that they thought he was exaggerating it, but after they played for GHS at Pekin, they came back and told him he had been right.

After Pete Thierry graduated in 1953, one of the more dramatic years in terms of race and athletics at GHS was to follow in 1957. John Thiel chose to start four African-Americans. At this time, that was unheard of in downstate Illinois. In the book “True Stories: John Thiel,” Albert Kimbrough tells, “The biggest obstacle facing John was how to best handle the racial problem of starting four black players, the first time in the history of Galesburg basketball. Albert Williams, Jim Range, my brother Elbert, and I were the four black starters. John displayed undisputed support and loyalty to us and we respected him immensely for it.”

According to Pete, “John Thiel was going to play the best players, it didn’t matter who liked it and who didn’t like it.”  Obviously there were people in Galesburg who did not like him starting four Blacks, he received hate mail from some Galesburg residents. But most people in Galesburg were very happy with Thiel’s decision. My grandparents clipped out every article on the Kimbrough twins. I have often thought when I met Mr.Kimbrough when he was substituting at GHS, my grandparents would have been thrilled that I got to meet him.

I think Pete’s perspective as to why Thiel was successful is significant. Pete’s view of Thiel, “Fair, he had no favorites. He was intense, he was not afraid to get in anyone’s chest if they needed it.”

I have been around Galesburg sports for a long time and knew Pete was a great fan, but quite honestly I was unaware of how good of an athlete he was. And I was totally unaware of the struggles he faced as a young African-American in Galesburg in the 1940’s and 1950’s. There is no doubt in my mind that Pete Thierry is one of legends of Galesburg and of GHS. Thanks Pete for what you have done for our school and our community.

3 comments:

  1. Just a great story. Thanks, Evan and Pete.

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  2. Wow, Evan. Wonderful yarn. I guess you never know what you'll find in someone's memories, right? Thanks, to both of you, for sharing.

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  3. Pete is a Galesburg treasure. Has to be one of the best supporters the athletes in Galesburg have.

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