THE RELUCTANCE to alter objectionable names of sports teams—the Redskins are the current poster boys—has an interesting history, and one of the more lurid examples is the Pekin Chinks.
Yes, that's right. The Chinks from Pekin (Ill.) Community High, an astonishing nickname that survived nearly half a century. How it finally disappeared in 1980 could suggest a solution for the team in our nation's capital.
The name was first used in an early 1930s headline of a newspaper in nearby Peoria and soon appeared in stories, including those in the Pekin Daily Times. This seems like the moment to acknowledge that I was part of the problem. I grew up in Pekin, and I was the teenage sports editor of the Pekin Times from 1944 to '46, and for two years I peppered the sports pages with Chinks.
There was some historical justification for Chinks, however misguided. In the 1820s the founders of this little town on the Illinois river, about halfway between Chicago and St. Louis, christened it Pekin because they thought it was on the opposite side of the globe from Peking, China, that exotic capital of the mysterious East. It wasn't; if you dug through the earth, you'd come up in the Indian Ocean.
But early residents were proud of the distinctive name and labeled Pekin, as the Chinese did Peking, The Celestial City. In fact the local sports teams at one point were called the Celestials. The name never caught on.
Instead, Chinks blossomed, including team mascots called Chink and Chinklette, which were students dressed in traditional Chinese silks who would strike a gong whenever the team scored. The name appeared in any story about a PCHS athletic team for more than 40 years. Complaints were a long time coming. One presumed reason was the absence of Chinese residents in that part of the state. Growing up, I remember none at all.
The public battle to expunge Chinks began seriously in 1974, when members of the National Organization of Chinese-Americans in Chicago visited Pekin to speak to city officials. But the Chamber of Commerce threw up its hands, saying the town "was chagrined to find out the word Chink was considered derogatory." The mayor and city attorney said they could not force the school to change.
The disappointed Chinese-Americans met with the student council, and the superintendent of schools agreed to a vote among juniors and seniors. The school newspaper urged a change, its editor writing, "These guys told us the name Chinks hurts their feelings.... Why do we want to keep the name when it really hurts them?" The students voted 1,034 to 182 to keep Chinks.
But the leading Peoria newspaper, the Journal Star, announced that starting in 1975, it would no longer print the name. The Associated Press spread that story nationwide too.
The school board appointed a subcommittee to evaluate the situation, and it suggested a citywide referendum on whether to keep the name, change it to Dragons (a fire-breathing dragon was part of the school's emblem) or drop the Chinese theme entirely. But the vote never came to pass.
Soon thereafter the Illinois Commission on Human Relations threatened to sue. Following a complaint from the Asian American Educators Association, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare's Civil Rights office decided that the name did not discriminate against Asian-American students at PCHS. The reason? Apparently the school had few, if any, Asian-American students.
But pressure was building. More Illinois newspapers stopped printing the name, and the Chink and Chinklette mascots were dropped from halftime ceremonies.
Then, in 1980, everything changed. In June the school board hired James Elliott from a Chicago suburb as superintendent. He was aware of the controversy and had strong opinions; whether he discussed them with the school board is unclear. In any case, two months later Elliott met for the first time with PCHS faculty and announced that Dragons would immediately replace Chinks. New football jerseys, he said, had already been ordered. The teachers accepted the news calmly.
Not so for many students and alums. A couple hundred marched in protest outside the school, chanting slogans like Pekin Chinks, Dragon stinks, and carrying placards saying, OLD CHINKS NEVER DIE—THEY JUST DRAG-ON.
But public anger gradually subsided, except for THE LAST OF THE CHINKS T-shirts that appeared at the graduation ceremony that spring. In 2011 academia got around to celebrating the transition with a journalism master's thesis out of Ball State, "The Pekin Chinks: A Historical Account of a City's Tradition." But online the battle continues. A recent Google search turned up a PCHS graduate who said he had been a proud member of the Chink-Chinklette duo and bemoaned that "the school buckled under," to "pointy headed pablum sucking liberals who run the political correctness gestapo in this country."
In the end all it took to eliminate a damaging nickname was one brave man. Whether it's an example for Washington, well, that is up to the team owner. He should note that attendance at Pekin High's sports events never fell off.
"In the end all it took to eliminate a damaging nickname was one brave man."
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