Civil rights sit-in led to lifelong love affair for Peoria couple (2024)

PAM ADAMS| Journal Star

The headline read “36 Negroes Arrested for Cilco Sit-In.” But that’s not what grabbed his attention.

It was 1963, and Roscoe McCall was fresh from the South when he saw the picture in the newspaper. That’s what interested him.

He had been in Peoria one month, planning to attend Bradley University while working as a chauffeur, butler, first mate and yard man for a wealthy white couple. He didn’t know anyone except the couple and the black lady who cooked and ironed for them. When he saw the photo of the girl sitting demurely on the floor, protesting racial discrimination at CILCO’s downtown office, he asked the cook, “Who is that pretty girl? I’m going to find her and marry her.”

He did.

Roscoe McCall, a semi-retired dentist, likes to tell the story slowly, drawing out the suspense of how he found the girl in the photo. His details are precise.

To make a long story short, McCall and the former Geraldine Williams will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary next month. The theme of an anniversary party could be “Civil Rights, CILCO, A Love Story.”

Growing up in Florida, Roscoe McCall had been trained to stay in his place. He didn’t know how bad things were for black people in the South, he says, because he had been taught not to see the racism. He had never seen a civil rights protest, never participated in a demonstration.

His future wife’s family was just the opposite. Many of L’Overture and Josephine Williams’ 13 children were deeply involved in the civil rights movement. They were steeped in family lore of how their parents had moved the family to Peoria from Missouri in the 1940s to make sure his children went to integrated schools.

Geraldine McCall was about to begin her senior year at Richwoods High School when she walked into CILCO and sat down on the floor. Her brothers, Harry, Larry and Robert, were also demonstrating at the utility company that day. By 1963, they were well-practiced in protest strategies. Even the youngest, Harry, who was going into ninth grade, went to jail that day, though juveniles were released to their parents.

“My parents were very proud of us, extremely proud,” Geraldine McCall says. “You have to understand the house I grew up in. If your parents didn’t agree with what you wanted to do, you didn’t do it.”

The protests weren’t popular, she says. She recalls other black people telling them they looked silly and verbal abuse from white people passing by. But they believed in John Gwynn, president of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Geraldine McCall and her three brothers also went to the March on Washington that August. She had not intended to go. But when she and her mother went to see her brothers off, her friends, who were already on the bus, begged her mother to let her go. After all, she had just won the “Miss NAACP” title, having sold the most memberships in a fundraising drive.

Roscoe McCall didn’t know anything about the girl in the photo. He didn’t know her name; he barely knew where black people lived. But his mother had always told him, if you want to find a decent woman, go to church.

He didn’t see her at the first church he visited. The next Sunday, he went to Friendship Baptist Church. Right before the offering, someone tapped his shoulder from behind and asked for change for 50 cents.

“I turned around and guess who it was,” he says. “I wasn’t sure at first, so I went home and looked at the newspaper again. Yes, it was her.”

In the 50 years since Roscoe McCall saw the photo, he and Geraldine, or “Geri,” built a family — three children, seven grandchildren, one great-grandchild — and a private dentistry practice.

She was with him during pharmacy school in Tallahassee when he became the first black to work at a white-owned drug store. “To do that, I offered my services for free,” he says. “I worked there two years to prove their business wouldn’t run away if a black man was behind the prescription counter.”

While he worked for free, his wife worked as a bank teller.

Roscoe McCall made his point, but he also learned he didn’t like pharmacy. In the early 1970s, he returned to his first career choice, dentistry. Once again, Geraldine McCall helped keep the family afloat while he went to dental school in Nashville.

They returned to Peoria where he practiced and she worked in the office, retiring together in 2007 after 30 years.

Roscoe McCall was officially retired three weeks, before he returned to work, examining teeth of inmates at the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Geraldine McCall helped her husband build a career, but she also introduced him to a family’s tradition.

“I participated in my first march in Peoria,” he says. “After that, every time I could get in a demonstration I did.”

Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or padams@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.

Civil rights sit-in led to lifelong love affair for Peoria couple (2024)
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