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Pekin, a place of pride and prejudice

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Warning: This article includes the use of racial epithets and offensive images.

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, U.S.A. – My gut is hesitant: Should I tell them I’m from Pekin or Peoria? 

“Hi, I’m Norah from Pekin, Illinois.”

(Google Maps)

As I watch to see the person’s reaction, there are two possible outcomes. One: the person will smile, nod, and then continue on. Two: the person will look confused and go on to ask further questions about my hometown.

But ultimately, no matter what, it doesn’t take long before I encounter the interrogation of where I am from.

Pekin, Illinois is my home. 

I am a Pekin “Dragon.” 

Just last year, a TikTok video by influencer Ed Choi went viral about the racist history of my hometown. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the younger generation receives their news from social media.

With over three million views, I knew what the video would talk about, but I put my biases aside and watched it. It is difficult to observe a stranger on the internet (who is not from Pekin) inaccurately degrading your home.

Pekin Community High School’s former logo.

I scroll to the comments to distract myself from the TikTok as a scapegoat for my outrage.

“My mouth just dropped that Pekin is still not safe in 2023;” “Everyone from around Pekin knows not to go there;” “The racist history of that town is firmly planted in generations to generations;” “This is why I do not tell people that I am from Pekin.” 

This is why I tell people I’m from Peoria, Illinois, the largest town next to Pekin. 

When I graduated high school, each speaker at my graduation ceremony included the phrase “once a Dragon, always a Dragon.” As I snarked in the moment about the cheesiness of this cliche, I remembered that just 43 years ago, Pekin Community High School graduates were hearing “once a Chink, always a Chink.”

The 1948 Pekin Community High School lettermen in tennis wearing their team shirts. (Photo of a page in the Pekin Community High School yearbook.)
An old ticket for Pekin Community High School’s skating rink.

Changed in 1980 to the Pekin Dragons, my high school’s mascot used to be the Pekin Chinks.

Romanticized legends told that if you dug a hole in the ground in Pekin, Illinois and kept digging, you would end up in Peking (now Beijing), China.

There is no factual proof yet to be found of how Pekin actually obtained its name.

This myth is obviously proven false thanks to modern technology, but it stuck: the town theater was built to resemble a Chinese pagoda, each year high school students chose a boy and a girl to be the “Chink” and “Chinklette” mascots and the local rollerskating rink was renamed the “Chink Rink.”

A few pages from the 1949 Pekin Community High School yearbook. (Norah Springborn/YJI)

In 2023, these town locations and traditions no longer exist, but the verbal legacy persists. Many people still believe that being called Dragons continues this discriminatory inheritance. 

The Chinks as a mascot is blatantly racist and was used to purposefully degrade all Asian groups in Pekin. I believe this is where the origins of Pekin’s “white-washed” history begins – an increasing number of changes in the community that made people of marginalized groups feel excluded.  

A poster for a 1924 KKK rally in Pekin.

If this wasn’t enough, during the 1920s heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacy organization, Pekin was the KKK headquarters for 40 Illinois counties, almost half the state.

Pekin was known for being a ‘sundown town:’ African-Americans had to leave the downtown city before sundown or risk harassment or arrest, if not worse. 

A sign stating “Whites Only Within the City Limits After Dusk” once hung near the Pekin bridge, warning African-Americans of the risk they faced being in Pekin after dark. 

I’m not proud of Pekin’s history. While 2023 Pekin has moved long past its white supremacy values, reputations never die.

And I’m a white kid from Pekin.

Growing up in a small, Midwestern town with a population of about 30,000, I always felt enthralled by the pride of community. Most people knew who you were or had at least heard of your family name.

Every Friday, we would wear our school spirit clothes to celebrate Pekin pride. Each year, my town comes together for the Pekin Marigold Festival, our Fourth of July celebration, and the Christmas on Court festivities. 

All these events culminate to be perceived as a “Hallmark movie” setting of a homey small town. And I’ve never seen my Pekin any other way.

For me, the sense of Pekin pride is truly a part of who I am – none of this was brainwashing. I discovered an affection for my small hometown all by myself.

But others disagree. According to reviews from the website Niche, Pekin has an “average” rating with a “B- overall grade.” 

A current resident rated Pekin as “terrible” with the explanation that Pekin is “built on racism” and “all people of color are made fun of.”

Since Pekin has a lot of “poor people” and a “bunch of methheads,” posters wrote, you “shouldn’t move there.”

Another resident claimed just months ago that if you’re “caught in Pekin at night and you’re not Caucasian, you’re going to have a fun time.” 

I was aware of what it meant to be “from Pekin” growing up. As I would have conversations with my parents about Pekin’s history and the stereotypes associated with the town, I always accepted the facts and moved on.

I never had to put my knowledge into a historical context, given the communal and generational acceptance of Pekin’s past.

In my town, the collective stigma about our discriminatory past has been diminished. While occasional ‘Chink’ merchandise will surface to remind us of the past, it is the prejudice from people outside of Pekin who are keeping this horrific legacy alive. 

Illinois is coined “the land of Lincoln” as the 16th President of the United States lived throughout Illinois.

Abraham Lincoln is known as the great emancipator for saving the Union and freeing enslaved people during the U.S. Civil War.

Senator Everett Dirksen (U.S. Congress photo)

Specifically to Pekin, Everett Dirksen, the former Minority Leader of the U.S. Senate, championed equality by helping to write and pass the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.  

I owe my upbringing and roots to my hometown and couldn’t imagine growing up anywhere else.

But when I embarked on my collegiate adventures this year, I wasn’t ready for the waves of shade thrown at the place I called home.

This is where cancel-culture takes its toll. 

No one teaches you about the racist history of your hometown at school. No one informs you of the backlash people may give you when you are wearing a simple shirt with your town’s name on it. No one warns you that strangers may call you racist just because you’re from Pekin. 

But just tell people you are from Peoria, Illinois – simple fix.

“Does the Pekin community still worship the KKK?” Absolutely not.

“Does Pekin still have the Chink mascot logos around your school?” Nope. 

“Pekin Community High School must be full of white trash!” Not at all.

There are a lot of white people at my school. According to statistics from the Illinois Department of Education, Pekin Community High School’s student population is 89% white. However, in 2018, 92% of the population was white.

While there is still much to be improved upon, these statistics show a positive growth in the right direction. Pekin High’s 2022 Homecoming King and Queen were both African-Americans.

Pekin changed its mascot in 1980. It’s now 2023.

It is unfair that my town still carries so much of this stigma, especially when surrounding cities throughout Illinois have continue to keep their Native American mascots. Schools such as the rural Momence High School are the Redskins and in Chicago’s southwest suburbs, Minooka High School remains the Indians.

According to a 2022 poll by the Illinois High School Association, 1,922 schools throughout Illinois display Native-themed mascots. 

If you Google “high schools in Illinois with a racist mascot,” the first articles to pop up all have to do with Pekin Community High School.

Pekin’s mascot was changed 43 years ago, yet other high schools that still have racist mascots are not being judged as harshly.

I am grateful to have learned enough about Pekin history to defend my hometown in conversations with people who do not believe our modern evolution of change. 

My town has worked hard to move beyond our racist past. From community events, historical walking tours, and social media groups called “Positive on Pekin,” we’ve made major steps towards reform. As new generations of students emerge from Pekin, I know that prosperous change will become even more evident. 

Reputations may live past the grave, but minds can always be educated. 

I have come to accept that these encounters with the reputation of my hometown are inevitable. The power remains in how I accurately respond and teach others about the place I call my home. 

“I’m Norah from Pekin, Illinois.” And I’m proud to be a Pekin Dragon.

The author in her graduation gown at Pekin Community High School last spring. (Photo provided.)

Norah Springborn is a Senior Correspondent with Youth Journalism International.

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