Pride in My Peoria

by Molly Deadmond

A series profiling the fascinating locals that
you probably haven’t heard of…!

Growing up in Peoria, I never gave much thought to the history of the area or its people. In nearly 22 years, the most prominent Peorians I had heard of were comedian Richard Pryor, who influenced generations of comedians globally, and Susan G. Komen—a woman whose death from breast cancer spurred her sister Nancy Brinker to form the largest breast cancer foundation in the United States, tackling issues of advocacy and resources for patients. I remember hearing an announcement every year for the Race for the Cure, and seeing the city decorated in the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s iconic pink color. I hadn’t known about Richard Pryor’s connection to the city until I was well into high school, and it took me several years after that to look into who he was and what he was known for.

Recently, I began to wonder, “If I didn’t know about Komen and Pryor—two of the most well-known Peorians to exist—who else did I not know about?” Upon joining Big Picture Initiative as an intern, I was assigned the task of creating a list of notable Peorians nominated for the Portraits of Peoria project. This project, which is a collaboration between Big Picture, Discover Peoria, and ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, is producing a series of portraits created by local artists displayed on the Central Building at the corner of Main and Adams streets in downtown Peoria. This gave me an opportunity to research nearly 50 people whose efforts have impacted Peoria… and the world.

During my research, the Peoria Public Library became an invaluable resource. There were many people whose information could be found with a short Google search, but there were some—like former president of the Peoria chapter of the NAACP John Gwynn—whose information was much harder to find. Luckily, the Local History/Genealogy room at the downtown branch was there to help. After submitting a list of names, I was contacted with those they were able to find, and I scheduled a visit to look at the appropriate documents.

Through my research, I have come across many fascinating people, like Norman V. Kelly. Kelly was a retired private investigator-turned-author, whose works span short stories, novels, and articles, ranging from murder mystery fiction to historical accounts of Peoria. Or Annie Turnbo Malone, a chemist and entrepreneur who developed and manufactured hair care and beauty products specifically for Black women. She became one of the first African American woman to be a millionaire. Today, her name lives on via a series of beauty schools across the nation.

Learning so much about my hometown and the people that emerged from it has been an amazing experience; one I encourage others to start. A quick Google search regarding influential people from your school or neighborhood can get you started, and resources such as the Peoria Public Library can help supply more information. In the coming Giving Voice issues, I’ll be writing about the individuals displayed in the Portraits of Peoria project. Next month will be a profile on feminist writer and activist Betty Friedan.

About Molly Deadmond

Molly Deadmond is a recent graduate of Eureka College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications. Born and raised in Peoria, IL, Deadmond has a deep love for her community, and hopes to contribute to making her hometown a better place for all. Deadmond is a lover of all things creative, with a special love for creative writing. She believes that art is a form of therapy and escape that anyone can enjoy, regardless of talent or skill level. She enjoys video games, nature, and spending time with the ones she loves.