PEORIA — What began as words of hope printed on the back of advertising flyers became a lifetime endeavor for Elise Ford Allen, founder of The Traveler Weekly newspaper.
Allen died Nov. 3 at her home. She was 100 years old.
Allen made history in 1966 by becoming the first Black woman to publish a newspaper in Peoria. The effort arose from her desire to fight discrimination and to lift up others. Her first editorial appeared on advertising flyers produced by the family’s printing company. Allen’s husband, James, ran the presses, and her 10 children distributed the flyers around the community.
“When people got the advertisement, they would turn it over and see her work,” said daughter Linda Hollis. “It got to the point where they wanted the advertisement not only to see what’s on sale at the local five-and-dime, they wanted to read her editorial, and that began to grow from one page to two pages, and it eventually became her newspaper.”
‘That was her whole goal — to give people hope’
People read Allen’s editorials because they were insightful and hopeful, Hollis said.
“People were clamoring for her work,” she said. “She gave people belief that the world was a better place. She believed that all her life. She believed that the pen has power and the words that you speak have power, and if you tell the people the truth and show them how their actions can harm or help others, then maybe they can do better in life. That was her whole goal — to give people hope, because people who don’t have hope have nothing. If she could give them hope, they could make a better day for themselves.”
In addition to providing hope, Allen also worked for equality. She touted efforts to end cyclical poverty, which perpetuates discrimination by keeping the poor out of mainstream society. In the 1970s, Allen wrote these words in an editorial:
“We not only want to take part in solving our own problems, but also in making the true principles of democracy a living reality to all Americans without regard to race color or creed; the dignity of the individual, and their civil rights must be defended always. The real test today is the ability and desire of all of us to meet Americans as Americans and all peoples as equals.”
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In addition to being Peoria’s first Black female newspaper editor, she was also the city’s first Black female mayoral candidate. She ran in 1973 on a platform of bringing to light the plight of Peoria’s poor. She placed fifth among the eight candidates — otherwise all white men — who ran.
‘I wish everyone could experience what we did’
Elise Ford was born in Peoria in 1921 into a family of high achievers. Her father was Dr. Cecil Bruce Ford, Peoria’s first Black dentist, and her grandfather was Maj. George Ford, a member of the 10th Cavalry — the Buffalo Soldiers, one of the first peacetime, all-Black regiments in the Army — and the first president of the NAACP in Springfield.
The Fords are descendants of West Ford, who some believe to be the son of America’s first president, George Washington. Hollis has done extensive research and written a book on the topic, “I Cannot Tell a Lie: The True Story of George Washington’s African American Descendants.”
Elise Ford was just 18 years old when she met James Allen in 1939.
“It was love at first sight, and that was it. They were bonded, from that time on. They stayed together until the day he died. I think they had been married over 65 years,” said Hollis. “They were such good parents. They were just awesome to be with. I wish everyone could experience what we did.”
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Allen was a tireless mother who helped with homework and prepared hot meals every day, said Hollis.
“I don’t know how in the world she did it. She raised 10 children, had a husband who had his own business, ran a newspaper and took care of a household,” said Hollis. “She was a mother first, but also a shrewd businesswoman.”
From segregation to seeing a Black man elected president
Over the course of her 100 years, Elise Ford Allen saw many changes. She began life during segregation — she and her siblings weren’t allowed to swim in Peoria’s public swimming pool unless it was about to be cleaned. In her later years, she saw a Black man become president.
“She never thought in her lifetime that she would see it,” said Hollis. “She was amazed at it, she made sure she got out to cast her vote, and she encouraged others to vote.”
Allen’s daughter Angela Henry began taking over more duties at The Traveler after Allen had a stroke 15 years ago, but Allen never completely relinquished control of the product. In the last five years, as speech became increasingly difficult, Allen communicated with her eyes.
“Her eyes spoke volumes,” said Hollis. “Just a lift of an eyebrow or a blink of her eye, you knew if you were on the right path or the wrong path.”
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Every week Henry, who was also her mom’s caregiver, would discuss what was being published. Henry feels well prepared to take over the reins and keep her mother’s legacy alive.
“The paper continues. We’ve got a great, great number of writers who love my mom, and are grateful to be on her platform,” Henry said. “Before there was Facebook, before there was social media, there was The Traveler. I think that’s why today it’s held in such high regard.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at (309) 370-5087 or email@example.com. Follow her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.
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