ROCKFORD - A video, produced about Rockford in 1949 by Bengt Janzon for the Rockford Chamber, shows a bustling, contemporary city with a vibrant business and shopping district.
And yet, despite it's modern appearance, racial discrimination and segregation against the estimated 1,200 African Americans living in the city, was widespread.
Midway Village Museum Curator Laura Furman says, "While we were certainly not in the same position as southern states with Jim Crow Laws, there was definite discrimination against African Americans in Rockford, in other sorts of ways."
The Nelson Hotel at the corner of South Main and Chestnut Streets was the premier spot in Rockford for social gatherings and hosting dignitaries. It was also the site of a civil rights protest.
Like most Rockford establishments of the time, the Nelson Hotel refused to serve African Americans. In response, Reverend Eldridge Gilbert from Pilgrim Baptist Church took a stand. One day, Gilbert entered the dining hall at Nelson Hotel. And he wasn't alone.
Furman says, "With him were Isadore Behr, who was a well known, respected Jewish businessman, and also Reverend Francis McNally from St. Patrick's Catholic Church."
The three men sat down quietly and waited patiently to be served.
"The staff, who was not accustomed to serving African Americans, ignored them for quite awhile, made them wait for a long time, but finally served the three men a meal," says Furman.
It wasn't long before other institutions in Rockford started doing the same thing ... all because of the event that became known as the Nelson Hotel Sit-In.
Years later, Reverend Gilbert's church members purchased land to build a new church on South Central. Reverend Gilbert went to the bank for help.
Reverend Kenneth Board, the current pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church, says, "He went to them and said 'we need a loan. We need a mortgage on this building.' And so, that was in 1960. The church was finished in 1961. Pilgrim became the first African American church to get a mortgage from a white banker in this city."
Reverend Board says Reverend Gilbert was not only an outstanding pastor, but a significant leader in Rockford.
"Pastor Gilbert... his impact is huge not just on this congregation but on the city of Rockford. To work with business leaders, with politicians to bring about a better Rockford for all people." says Reverend Board.
Now, a special plaque marks the site where the Nelson Hotel once stood, honoring Reverend Eldridge and his courage in advancing equal rights for all people.
The plaque can be seen in Downtown Rockford, as part of Midway Village Museum's Rockford History Walks Tour.
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