PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — When you think of education in Peoria, you likely picture Bradley University, founded in 1897. However, it wasn’t until 50 years later in 1947 that the university hired its first black teacher, Romeo Benjamin Garrett.
“You can’t talk about Bradley, you can’t talk about Peoria, you can’t talk about Black History without mentioning Dr. Romeo B. Garrett’s name, his scholarship and his work,” Norris Chase, executive director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion on Bradley’s campus, said.
Born in 1910 in Mississippi, Garrett received his bachelor’s degree from Straight University (now Dillard University) in New Orleans before coming to Peoria in the mid-1940s.
Garry Moore, retired news anchor, said upon coming to the River City, Garrett started working as a janitor and later became the first African-American to receive his Master’s degree from Bradley, becoming a sociology professor shortly after.
Chase said as a professor, Garrett encouraged students to learn about Black culture and pushed to hire more black staff.
“He allowed his scholarship, his presence in the classroom and his networking, both in the community and on campus, to be centered on promoting the inclusion of all people especially Black people,” Chase said.
Moore also said while it’s unknown to many, it was another historic, Black Peorian who inspired Garrett to move to Peoria. Maude Sanders, Peoria’s first Black female doctor and Garrett’s sister-in-law, asked him to relocate to the River City when his wife became ill.
Garrett would go on to write several books documenting Black achievement in Peoria including “The Negro in Peoria,” “Famous First Facts About Negroes,” and “The President and The Negro.” He made sure his publications were accessible to everyone.
“He had a phenomenal project and experiences on campus as a faculty member but he had an equally if not more impactful career in the community,” Chase said.
Garrett’s legacy is also honored by the city of Peoria by naming a street after him, Romeo B. Garrett Avenue, and promising to leave his house still standing on its block.
Contributions Garett made throughout the community include serving as the vice president of Peoria’s NAACP chapter as well as being associate pastor of Zion Baptist Church for nearly 40 years.
“He’d always say “keep on keeping on,” Samuel Duren, pastor of Zion Baptist Chruch, said. “He’d say that at the end of his message and as words of encouragement. So many people would say this nowadays “keeping on keeping on by Dr. Romeo B. Garrett.”
Back on Bradley’s campus, The Romeo B. Garrett center is a hub for diversity and inclusion. It’s also the starting place for Peoria’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. march.
Those who attend the school and frequent the center said Garrett’s legacy for creating spaces for people of color lives on.