Stewart filed a housing complaint during the Civil Rights movement that helped achieve a strong fair housing ordinance in Bloomington in 1967. As someone who had always lived in mixed-race areas growing up, she was surprised to see all-black neighborhoods on visits to St. Louis and Chicago. Stewart opened her home and “kept” ISU and IWU students while working as a pastry cook at Illinois Wesleyan University until her retirement in 1972.
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Grace Huddleston Stewart (1910-1996) became known throughout Bloomington after she brought a fair housing complaint to the Bloomington Human Relations Committee during the summer of 1967. She attempted to rent an apartment and was denied because of the color of her skin. She sought the help of the local chapter of the NAACP because she felt that she should be able to live wherever she wished. It was her perseverance that helped set things in motion to finally get a fair housing ordinance passed in Bloomington.
Grace Huddleston Stewart was born on August 15, 1910, to Daniel Huddleston and Mabel Johnson in Bloomington. Her mother was born in Perry, Missouri, and she, along with two sisters, came to Bloomington to join their older brother around 1900 or 1901. Her brother offered to look after his sisters and help them find work. Mabel soon met Daniel Huddleston and had their first child, Vernon, in 1904. Around 1907, Mabel and Daniel married and continued to grow their family with the addition of Grace three years later. Throughout these years, Mabel worked as a servant in private homes, a job she held while pregnant with Grace. Despite being married, Mabel and Daniel did not live together as recorded in the 1910 census. In fact, she lived with her sister and brother-in-law—Elizabeth and James Shaper.
Not much is known about Grace’s father, Daniel. According to her 1986 oral history interview for the Bloomington Normal Black History Project, she indicated that he was likely raised in Gibson City, Illinois, worked as a laborer on farms and in private homes, and that he separated from her mother when Grace was young. Her father passed away in 1912 when she was a toddler.
Mabel married her second husband, Donald Bagwell, on February 14, 1913. Over the years, Donald worked on the Chicago & Alton Railroad and in downtown Bloomington offices as a janitor, a laborer, and a porter.
Grace lived with her mother at 604 S. Madison St. before moving to 915 E. Empire St. around 1917. She recalled that the area “wasn’t all built up out there then. It was nothing but pasture.”
After they moved to Empire Street, Grace attended elementary school at Franklin School, located at 1101-1107 N. Park St. Between 1919 and 1923, the Bagwell-Huddleston family resided at 507 W. Miller St. In addition to Vernon and Grace, Mabel and Don had three children of their own by 1920 (Genevieve, Alice, and Julia). Four years later, the family resided at 603 S. Wright St. The family continued to grow with the births of Maybelle in 1921, Louise in 1923, Margaret in 1926, and Donald, Jr., in 1928. In all, Mabel had eleven children. During this time, Grace had moved on to Lincoln Grade School before attending Bloomington High School for three years. It is unknown if she graduated high school.
Grace did not have much experience with segregation as a child. She recalled that she was “never brought up in an all-Black neighborhood or Black school. Always went to school with whites. And lived in neighborhoods that was mixed. And I never knew nothing about all this stuff until I’d go to Chicago to visit, and I thought it was so strange to see nothing [but] Black people…. I had never seen nothing like that before […].” According to Grace, her mother controlled her movements much of the time. “I had very strict parents, my mother especially. She didn’t allow us kids to go nowhere—church and school, church and school.” Because Grace had limited opportunities to recreate, it is possible that she avoided much of the racial segregation at restaurants and shows. “Now maybe my mother had known what was going on…,” she added.
Grace married George Stewart on March 1, 1928 when she was 17 years old. Twenty-four years her senior, George was a World War I veteran and a member of the all-Black Redd-Williams Post of the American Legion. When they first met around 1928, George worked as a post office clerk in downtown Bloomington, an unusual occupation for a Black man at that time.
Shortly after their wedding, Grace and George left Bloomington and travelled throughout the eastern United States. Grace recalled: “I had never […] been away from home before, and I just wanted to go somewhere.” George quit his job, sold his property, and together they travelled to Washington, Pennsylvania, where his uncle lived. After “rambling around” the eastern states between 1928 and 1932, Grace grew homesick, their money ran out, and they came back to Bloomington.
Upon their return, they lived at 1004 Linden St. in Bloomington for 14 years. George worked as an auto mechanic, laborer, and janitor during this time. Grace was usually unemployed; however, at some point during the Great Depression years, she briefly found work in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) office (located in the downtown Bloomington post office at the corner of East and Jefferson streets) making shirts for people in need.
Well into the 1950s, Black students could attend Illinois State Normal University (today known as Illinois State University) but were barred from living or dining on campus. During that time, Stewart and other local African American families opened their homes to help house those students. As early as 1940, Grace housed primarily Black women who attended ISNU and continued housing students until the late 1960s. She later switched to housing boys, which she stated, “was worse, I think.”
Stewart enjoyed the experience, but “as the years went along, it got a little rough on me. […] I just couldn’t cope with them. I’d be going to work in the morning […]. As soon as I’d leave, the house turned into a party house.” The recollections of Eldridge “Skip” Gilbert, Jr., and Carl Sneed corroborate that her home was indeed the “Party House.”
Gilbert first encountered Stewart in the cafeteria at Illinois Wesleyan University in August 1963 during football training. Soon, Gilbert met Carl Sneed (an ISNU freshman) and the two were introduced to Stewart’s boarders—two freshman football players at ISNU. The foursome became fast friends and often hung out at Stewart’s home.
African American students desired a place to socialize off-campus, and Stewart’s home became that place. Gilbert recalled:
We continued to meet at Mrs. Stewart’s [house] and asked her if we could invite several other students to come over for a party on a Saturday after the football game. She consented but ‘laid down the Law’ […] about the number of guest we were allowed to invite, the volume of the music, the use of her records and her ‘record player’ sound system, and the provision of our own snacks/refreshments. We did adhere to her rules, religiously, until students at both campuses found out about the parties.
Gilbert continued, perhaps with some exaggeration, “By the end of my junior year Mrs. Stewart’s house was known by students on campuses throughout the entire state of Illinois.” Despite their best intentions, the parties sometimes got “a little ‘rowdy’” and consequently “had to reach an immediate conclusion!”
Even after the parties ceased to be, the young men continued to visit Stewart, who “expected us to become responsible mature ‘gentlemen of distinction and worth.’” Later in life, the two men fondly remember their “Bonus Mother.” Sneed emphasized that “Mrs. Stewart’s positive impact on Skip, me, and other young black men and women was lasting and unrecognized by many in the general population.”
Grace and George welcomed another addition to their home in 1943 after Grace’s younger sister Maybelle Bagwell Toplyn passed away. Maybelle left behind a husband and three children. Following this tragedy, Grace and George adopted Maybelle’s two-year-old daughter, Sheila Ann. Maybelle’s two sons remained with their father. Between 1949 and 1959, George, Grace, and Sheila lived at 312 S. Prairie St. Upon their move to Prairie Street, George began working as a janitor at city hall until his retirement in 1954.
Although they were married for more than three decades, Grace and George’s relationship had its ups and downs. It appears that the couple separated around 1953. George remained at the Prairie Street address, while Grace and Sheila Ann lived at 510 E. Market St. A second separation may have also occurred at some point because Grace recalls leaving George and briefly moving to St. Louis, Missouri, where one of her sisters lived. While in St. Louis, Grace began studying practical nursing at Barnes Hospital.
Stewart never became a nurse. Instead, she enjoyed a long culinary career. In 1955, she began working in the Illinois Wesleyan University (IWU) cafeteria. Five years later, she was the head baker there. When asked where her cooking talent came from, Stewart shared that “[W]e always had something to do. […] I’d get up with her [mother] in the morning, […] and I’d help fix the breakfast […] and I guess it just come natural to me.” Stewart regularly worked 12 to 14-hour days at IWU that often began at two o’clock in the morning.
On May 25, 1959, George passed away at the age of 73 and was buried in Bloomington’s Evergreen Memorial Cemetery. He and Grace had been married for 31 years.
Although she claimed to have never experienced segregation as a child, Stewart certainly encountered it as an adult. In 1967, her home at 105 E. Empire St. was being sold by the landlord, so Stewart looked for an apartment to rent. She responded to a newspaper advertisement offering an apartment for rent. She learned that there were two apartments, not just one, for rent at that location. The real estate agent’s secretary showed her one apartment, but said she would have to make specific arrangements with the agent to see the other. Stewart left her phone number, expecting a return call. When she did not hear back the next day, Stewart called the office. Unfortunately, the apartment had been rented by occupants of a house that the agent had recently sold. She again left her contact information. Two days later, she had still not heard from the office. That afternoon, White civil rights worker Ralph L. Smith, chairman of the Housing Committee for the Bloomington Branch of the NAACP, called the office to inquire about the apartment. He was told that one apartment was still available for rent.
As a result, Stewart submitted a housing discrimination complaint to the Bloomington Human Relations Commission on May 6, 1967. The complaint “accused a city real estate agent with not renting a unit in an apartment house to her because of her race.”
Shortly afterward, Smith reached out to the head of the Illinois Department of Education and Registration. In a letter dated May 14, Smith wrote that, “Bloomington does not have an open-occupancy ordinance (although the commission presented the council with one six months ago), and for that reason we are turning to your office for whatever relief you can give in this matter.” Smith believed that existing language in the real estate licensing code could be applied to remedy Stewart’s situation.
Several days later and after learning of her allegation, an office representative visited with Stewart. The agent said the apartment was about to be rented, but they had another property elsewhere.” Unfortunately, this house did not meet her needs. It was too large for Stewart, who wanted an apartment. Based on this evidence, Human Relations Commission chairperson Thomas F. Jones requested an investigation and that a report be submitted by their next meeting on June 12.
During the investigation, Rev. Jack Newsome, a member of the commission’s research and investigation committee, spoke with the real estate agent, who “felt Mrs. Stewart would have a hard time paying the rent,” which was $130 per month plus $10 for air conditioning (about $1,100 in 2020). The agent claimed that he was unaware that the apartment house manager had promised the apartments to other parties, which supposedly explained why he told Smith that the apartment was available. Commission member Dr. Benjamin Hubbard reacted to this information by saying, “This is the best documentive [sic] case we’ve had. I feel this is one which should be added to the files.” Indeed, of the complaints received by the commission in the prior two years, this was the first one involving a real estate company. At its June 12, 1967 meeting, the eight-member Human Relations Commission unanimously voted to forward the complaint to the Bloomington city council “for possible criminal action.”
Work had been underway to eliminate housing discrimination in Bloomington for years. The Bloomington City Council had passed a fair housing resolution four years earlier. On December 27, 1966, Joseph C. Cronenberg, Chairman of the Bloomington Commission on Human Relations, had submitted the first version of the ordinance to city council “for their immediate consideration.” This original ordinance applied to anyone, including owners and lending institutions, who offered real estate for sale or rent, and called for fines and imprisonment for those guilty of housing discrimination. With the ordinance came a resolution of support from the Bloomington-Normal Area Council of Churches. The city council voted to refer the ordinance to the Corporation Counsel for review.
More than six months later, on July 10, 1967, Corporation Counsel James R. DePew presented his report on the proposed ordinance. Citing similar ordinances in other Illinois cities such as Chicago, Peoria, East St. Louis, Springfield, Maywood, Decatur, and Freeport, DePew acknowledged that there was precedent for such an ordinance. Furthermore, he reported that all ordinances were similar in nature to the Chicago ordinance, which had recently withstood scrutiny by the Illinois Supreme Court. However, DePew concluded that because the proposed ordinance “attempts to expand the control beyond that approved and passed upon by the Supreme Court in the Chicago ordinance,” he recommended limiting the provisions. DePew stated that his revised ordinance “goes as far as possible under our existing statutory authority and the opinion of the Supreme Court. Rather than step out into the unknown phase of it, I am recommending that we follow what is known to be a valid ordinance.” DePew’s revised ordinance only applied to real estate brokers, which municipalities were allowed to regulate. It also eliminated monetary fines and jail time for guilty parties. Instead, under DePew’s plan, brokers would merely lose their licenses. Furthermore, it did not extend to individuals selling or renting property.
Public reaction to the watered-down ordinance was critical. An editorial in the Pantagraph stated, “It is a legally safe ordinance. It may be an adequate ordinance. It is not the best ordinance […]. The enforcement of any fair housing ordinance is difficult […]. But the moral weight of a broad open occupancy law […] cannot be overlooked. This moral weight, this clear statement of what is right, should apply to owners of property as well as their agents.” During the public comment period at the next council meeting on July 24, Bloomington-Normal NAACP President Merlin Kennedy called the revised ordinance “so ineffective that it would be completely worthless.” Rev. Jack Newsome called it “a step in the right direction, but only barely so.” At the conclusion of debate, Councilmember Frank Hartenstein moved that the original 1966 ordinance submitted by the Human Relations Commission be passed. Council unanimously voted to pass the ordinance, resulting in applause from the local NAACP delegation. Merlin Kennedy was astonished at this unexpected win, which finally made housing discrimination illegal in Bloomington.
Furthermore, this landmark legislation “assure[d] equal opportunity to all residents, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin or ancestry, to live in decent, sanitary and healthful living quarters; in order that the peace, health, safety and general welfare of all the inhabitants of the city may be protected and insured.” It prohibited discrimination based on the aforementioned qualities in the area of financing, rental and purchasing decisions, real estate advertisements, among others. Finally, and the piece that would most affect Stewart’s situation, “It shall be unlawful for an owner or his agent to refuse to sell or rent property because of race, color, religion or national origin.”
The Commission on Human Relations would serve as the investigative body for complaints submitted by members of the public. From there, the commission would determine if a violation had occurred, conduct hearings, and interview the complainant and alleged offender. If private conciliation efforts failed to bring a solution, findings could be made public. Furthermore, the commission could recommend that the city council file a complaint with the Illinois Department of Registration and Education against any real estate broker or owner to have their licenses suspended. Further penalties included criminal prosecution and a fine not exceeding $500 and/or imprisonment for not more than 90 days. This ordinance put teeth in place that would allow the existing commission’s process to carry true consequences for discriminatory behavior.
Ralph Smith called it “the best open housing ordinance in the nation,” though he tempered his enthusiasm in a Pantagraph editorial:
Now, a housing unit which is offered for rent or sale to the public will be accessible on equal terms to all home seekers in that public. That it should take the combined energies of civil rights groups, church groups and editorial writers four years to generate the passage of this ordinance, is indicative of the long road we have yet to travel toward satisfactory human relations—toward the time when equal opportunities can really be taken for granted. We must now realize, of course, that a law on the books is not a new neighbor next door. This legislation must be used.
The Pantagraph mirrored Smith’s cautious optimism: “It will be accepted by many, however, reluctantly, because such a city ordinance is one way, at least, to show a commitment to the theory of equality which most of us treasure. In practice not all of us are so sure.”
The resolution of Stewart’s specific complaint remains unclear. However, the passage of Bloomington’s fair housing ordinance ensured that future allegations of housing discrimination would be taken seriously and carry the full weight of the law.
The following year—her Empire Street home now sold—Stewart resided at 1502 N. Franklin Ave., where she lived until 1971. In 1970 and 1971, she shared this home with a colleague, Gladys Walker, who worked as a maid at IWU. Stewart then moved to 216 E. Wood St., where she lived from 1972 until 1979. It was during this time that she retired from IWU after approximately 20 years of employment.
Stewart resided at 1301 W. Monroe St. between 1980 and 1984, when she made her final move to Apartment 1112 in Wood Hill Towers, located at 101 E. MacArthur Ave. She lived there for the last 12 years of her life.
Grace Huddleston Stewart died at 10:00 a.m. on September 21, 1996 at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington. Graveside services, led by Rev. Julia Smith of Christ Temple Church, were held six days later at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery. Stewart’s ashes rest in a niche in the cemetery’s mausoleum.