“Tho’ she is little, she is mighty.” That is how Eva Gaiter Jones described herself in the 1948 Aepix yearbook when she was a senior at Bloomington High School. And that quote certainly seems fitting for a woman who never turned away from challenging situations or tough decisions. Certainly, her three terms as a member of the Bloomington District 87 Board of Education were filled with challenges — both for her as a woman of color and for the entire Bloomington community.
Jones was born in Frenchmans Bayou, Arkansas on March 15, 1930, to James and Tommie Lee Dearing Gaiter. When Jones was a child, she picked cotton during the hot Arkansas summer, which she despised. It was this experience that led Jones to want more for herself and to obtain an education and a career. In 1944, when she was 14 years old, her family moved to Bloomington.
While at BHS she became a member of the Concordia Y-Teens, which was a leadership group for Black female students through the YWCA. During her time with the Concordia Y-Teens, Jones helped plan events and engaged in leadership training classes. This experience likely helped develop her life-long interest in politics and local affairs.
After graduating BHS in 1948, Jones went on to attend Cortez Business College in Chicago. The school’s Chicago branch, founded in 1941, was one of the first Black-owned business schools in the nation that prepared African Americans for business and civil service. Students like Jones were trained in “commercial subjects including typewriting, shorthand, filing, and all related subjects as well as preparation for Government Civil Service Examinations.” Many graduates who earned two-year business certificates from Cortez obtained jobs in the federal government or went on to college.
After Jones graduated from Cortez, she returned to Bloomington and took additional courses at Illinois State Normal University. She worked as a telephone operator for a time and eventually began a long and successful career at Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in Normal, moving from receptionist and administrative assistant to traffic manager.
In 1952, she married James Jones, a Springfield native and graduate of ISNU. The couple settled in Bloomington and eventually had seven children.
Eva Jones very much cared about young people, especially young members of the local Black community. While she was a member of Union Baptist Church, she was the general chairperson of the Young People’s Day in 1953. She eventually became the director of the youth department at Union Baptist. She also took an active role in the Bloomington school district, which all of her children attended, by joining the PTA and serving on the Family Service Board Advisory Council to the school board. But Jones wanted to do more and knew that she could help build better schools and a better community.
So, in 1969 she announced her candidacy for the school board. She was one of 10 candidates (and the only person of color) running for two vacant seats. She ran on a platform of “bridging the communication gap.”
She felt breakdowns in communication were at the root of many problems in the school district, especially the growing racial tensions at BHS that came to a head from February to May 1970. (It was during that time that police in riot gear were called in to keep the peace between Black and white students at BHS. Black students also boycotted classes and demanded more Black teachers and a Black studies program).
Jones wanted to bring people together at the same table. She wanted everyone to work together “with understanding and a deep interest in a well-balanced and meaningful education for every one of our children.” Jones felt that the school board should represent all families in Bloomington.
Though she lost the April 1970 elections, coming in fourth, she was not deterred and announced her candidacy again that fall for the 1971 election. That time around, Jones was the top vote-getter and won one three open school board seats. She became the first person of color elected to the board and at the time was its only female member.
Jones’s term began one year after the only teachers strike in District 87’s history. The 1970s was one of the district’s more tumultuous eras, and animosity between teachers, administrators and board members was intense. Even within each group, differences of opinion appeared, and it took many years before labor strife eased in the district.
Jones was reelected twice, in 1974 and 1977, and spent her final two years on the board as its first Black president.
Jones resigned her seat on April 1, 1979, to run for the Bloomington City Council. That same year, she won an at-large aldermanic seat by a tight margin of 11 votes. With this win, Jones became the first person of color to sit on the City Council.
In that same election voters unexpectedly approved a proposition to reestablish the ward system, which meant Jones’ term was cut short by two years. Jones ran in 1981 in Ward 3, but was defeated.
She set her sights even higher and became the first Black woman to run for mayor, but she lost in the 1984 primary. Nevertheless, her efforts in local politics paved the way for many women who came after her to serve in elected positions.
In addition to her elected positions, Jones worked on several local projects, such as organizing a west-side baseball league for children from low-income families. She served on the YWCA board and in the League of Women Voters, the United Way, and several professional organizations and church positions at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church.
In 1972, she co-founded the Bloomington-Normal Minority Voters Coalition, which worked “to improve relationships among and between members of various political, social, cultural, religious, ethnic, and professional groups in the community.”
In 1983, Jones’s involvement in local civic and governmental affairs was recognized when she received the Bloomington-Normal Human Relations Award. That same year she was one of eight people statewide to receive the Illinois Municipal Human Relations Association’s annual award.
Eva Jones will be one of 20 women featured in the program “Artists, Advocates, Acrobats, & More! Women Who Made McLean County History” at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The free online program will feature such women as Florence Fifer Bohrer, the first woman to serve in the state Senate; Antoinette Concello, the “Queen of the Flying Trapeze”; and Sister Mary Antona Ebo, a Civil Rights activist who marched in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. To register for this Zoom presentation, visit www.mchistory.org.
20 B–N places of the past
The Jefferson Cafeteria
College Hills Mall
Double Nickel Drive-In
The first Steak ’n Shake
The Eureka Co. (later Electrolux)
Mr. Quick Drive-In
Gil’s Country Inn
Cotton’s Village Inn
Biasi’s Drug Store
Livingston’s Department Store
Bombay Bicycle Club
Red Lion Inn
Metropole Pool Hall
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Pieces From Our Past is a weekly column by the McLean County Museum of History. Candace Summers is director of community education at the museum.
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