A lot has been made recently of legislators and University of Illinois trustees who have helped nudge the state’s flagship university to admit certain students. Of course, this is generally viewed as a bad thing. But in the state’s not-so-long-ago history, a member of the General Assembly was very proud of the work he did to help certain students get into the U of I. And what he did, clearly, marked positive progress.

A lot has been made recently of legislators and University of Illinois trustees who have helped nudge the state’s flagship university to admit certain students. Of course, this is generally viewed as a bad thing.


But in the state’s not-so-long-ago history, a member of the General Assembly was very proud of the work he did to help certain students get into the U of I. And what he did, clearly, marked positive progress.


The Rev. Corneal Davis was a member of the Illinois House from 1943 to 1979. Known as Deacon Davis, the Democrat from Chicago’s south side was denied a room in the old Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Springfield after first being elected to the legislature because he was black, and he spent his first night in the capital city sleeping on a bench in a train station.


Things certainly improved during his time in Springfield, and in 1978, he was given a key to the city from then-Mayor William Telford in a ceremony in the House chamber.


Davis had co-sponsored creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission while in the House. But among battles he had to fight while in the General Assembly was trying to get the U of I to be more open to a racially mixed student body.


Davis told about such battles in interviews done as part of a series of oral histories on file with the University of Illinois at Springfield. Davis was interviewed in 1979 and 1982.


Davis tells in his oral history of how he used a position on an appropriations committee to force the U of I to do things including getting more than an occasional qualified black student into medical school; to open dormitories to black students, including his daughter, so they wouldn’t have to seek housing elsewhere; and to allow qualified athletes to be admitted.


“I tell you, I was a one-man civil-righter in Illinois,” Davis recalled. He said that then-House Speaker Paul Powell “used to call me in to raise hell with me. ‘Why don’t you stop all this stuff?’ And I told him, I said, ‘Paul ... you’ll say you’re my friend, but I’m not going to stop this fight until the people in my district are treated like the people in your district. Then I’m going to stop it.’”


Powell, a Democratic powerhouse from Vienna in southern Illinois, later would become secretary of state, and upon his death, created a giant, continuing mystery with the discovery of $800,000 in cash, including $150,000 in a shoe box at his suite in the St. Nicholas, then a Springfield hotel and now an apartment building.


But Davis, as he told it, didn’t back away from using the power of the state purse to push change. Being on the appropriations committee, he said, gave him the chance to question university leaders about issues such as why, in an annual class of 116 medical school students, there usually would be no more than one or two black students, if that.


He told of being informed by the president of the medical school at the time that the president “had nothing to do with admissions,” and that there was a committee on admissions headed by someone from Nashville, Tenn.


“‘And furthermore, the class is closed now,’” the president told Davis. “‘We can’t get any more in.’”


“So I simply did everything I could to hold up their appropriations,” Davis said. “We got five in that class that was ... supposed to be filled. ... I fought them.”


Davis described how he keyed on an 1870 state constitution provision at the time calling for all spending to be itemized. Davis said he knew it was impossible for that to be done by an institution the size of the U of I in the 1950s and ’60s, but he demanded such itemization anyway as a way to stall approval of funds until administrators did what he wanted.


Davis said he also heard of discrimination against admission of Jews, and fought that as well.


As for campus housing, he recalled, “it was an unwritten law that they (blacks) couldn’t stay in the dormitories. ... I took my own daughter down there and a woman come telling about ‘there are some nice colored people out there in the cities of Champaign and Urbana.’”


Davis described his strong reaction to the idea that his daughter would have to find housing with others in the community, and he said that things changed.


He also talked of working with other legislators to pool the scholarships they could give so that four football players from what he described as a “black school” in Chicago, Wendell Phillips High, could go as a full backfield and join the team at the U of I. One of the players was Buddy Young, a great running back.


“They went first on a scholarship from me, and I hustled up the scholarships for them because I wanted them (the U of I football team) to play some blacks,” Davis said. “And to win. ... We sent a whole backfield down there.”


State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, didn’t come to the General Assembly until 1985, after Davis had left the House. But she said last week that he clearly did the right thing by using the clout of a legislator to help students get to the state’s top public university.


“As legislators, we are an advocate for the people in our district,” Flowers said. “If we can’t help our constituents, what are we here for?”


She said test scores don’t always tell the whole story of a student, and noted the wide differences in educational opportunities that can exist in different areas of Illinois — affluent suburbs north of Chicago to Chicago’s south side to downstate areas and cities like Decatur.


While “racism is still alive and well in our country and our state,” she added, education “is the one thing that no one can take away from you once you’ve got it.”


She said lawmakers are elected and accountable, and she thinks they have a right to advocate for constituents with schools and try to cut through red tape involving other state-funded services. She doesn’t think U of I trustees, who are appointed, have the same right.


Davis died in 1995 at the age of 94. He had been known for his fiery oratory, and I noted upon his death that late State Journal-Register columnist Ken Watson had written in 1977 that “when the Deacon speaks nobody sleeps in the chamber of the Illinois House.”


Speaking at a 1979 Springfield breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Davis recalled his arrival in Springfield as a legislator, and how he had been told at the old Abe Lincoln that “they would tear down the hotel before they would admit me. ...”


“Thank God, the Lord let me live long enough to see it not torn down, but blown down,” he said then.


The hotel was demolished by implosion in 1978.


Transcripts of oral history interviews of Davis and others are available online at www.uis.edu/archives/contents.htm. The parts of the Davis documents involving higher education are from pages 204-212.


State Journal-Register political columnist Bernard Schoenburg can be reached at (217) 788-1540 or bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com.