ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — Rockford is home to one of the oldest African American community centers in Illinois, a direct descendant of World War I’s Camp Grant.
For more than a year, Joyce Higgins has been the executive director of the African American Resource Center (AARC) at Booker Washington Community Center, 524 Kent St, but she’s been involved at the center for decades.
“The Booker Washington Center would not even exist if it wasn’t for segregation,” she said. “It’s an excitement to tell this history…there’s so much of it.”
Camp Grant was one of 16 cantonments across the United States, used to train soldiers. The camp, like the country, was racially segregated at the time.
“By November of 1917 to October 1918, a maximum of 13,898 Negro enlistees had come to the Rockford area,” Higgins said.
In the 1910 Census, Rockford had fewer than 200 Black residents, and soldiers volunteered for service, despite what many prominent Black leaders across the country were saying.
“Many of them were anti-war,” Higgins said. “They were like, ‘America is not gonna do anything for us.’ But, African Americans still lined up, 400,000 of them.”
Camp Grant created clubs for soldiers to be entertained, both on the grounds and in the community. Those were also segregated.
“They created this area for soldiers to socialize: dances, parties, just pure entertainment,” she said.
The “Colored Soldiers’ Club” formed on S. Main St. downtown. After the war, the Colored Soldiers’ Club became the Booker Washington Association.
“It tells you about a people…not just African American people, but all people, the people who served to make sure this building still stands,” Higgins said.
For more of this story, watch the “Honoring Black History” special on Saturday, February 20th at 10:30 p.m. on WTVO, Sunday, February 21st at 9 a.m. on MyNetwork TV, or 10 p.m. on FOX 39.