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posted: 8/10/2013 5:00 AM

A true pioneer among African-Americans

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I am going to miss my longtime friend Mary Wheeler West. I first met Mary in 1985 when I started to do research into Elgin's African-American community. We met at the library, and she gave me her help without much coaxing. Hers was the first family I worked with. In return I got her father's World War I service record. He served in the Navy on one of the big battleships (USS Utah) during a time when a persons "of color" were only allowed to work in the galley as a cook, busboy or waiter.

Later I helped her get a Prairie Pioneer Family certificate sanctioned by the Illinois State Genealogical Society. Her family was in Illinois in about 1862, and her mother's first husband served in the 29th United States Colored Infantry, an Illinois regiment that served during the Civil War. He was a guard at Camp Butler in Chicago, keeping an eye on the Confederate POWs.

I once did a presentation before the Elgin Genealogical Society on doing research on Elgin's African-American community. Mary was in the front row with, I think, her two sisters saying, "I just wanted to hear what you were going to say about me!" She was just going to make sure I was nice -- and I was!

But with Mary, a person always got more out of the deal than one ever put in. One of my favorite pictures is of Mary smiling from ear to ear -- something that she was good at. I used to see her when she worked for the parks department in the old Woolworth Building. It was some sort of silent justice as she and her friends couldn't get served there but in the off chance they could, the waitresses broke the "contaminated" glasses afterward.

Raleigh Sutton


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