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New Macomb park to honor city’s first Black police officer

Gregg Huston (left) and Carl Thorpe at the site of the proposed William Thorpe Memorial Park. “This park is recognizing someone who has given his all to this community," Huston said.
Rich Egger
Gregg Huston (left) and Carl Thorpe at the site of the proposed William Thorpe Memorial Park. “This park is recognizing someone who has given his all to this community," Huston said.

Bill Thorpe was born in Macomb and grew up in the community. He served in the military, and later worked at factories and at the Lamoine Hotel in town.

He also was Macomb’s first Black police officer.

Now his family would like to honor him by developing a small, triangular lot on the city’s east side into William H. Thorpe Memorial Park.

Bill Thorpe (left) and O.J. Clark on patrol in Macomb.
Macomb Police Department
courtesy photo
Bill Thorpe (left) and O.J. Clark on patrol in Macomb.

Trailblazing law enforcement career

Helen Thorpe said her late husband’s law enforcement career began with a suggestion from Leroy Daniels, who was one of the organizers and a charter member of the McDonough County branch of the NAACP.

“Leroy Daniels wondered why don’t we get some Black policemen and different things here? Talked him into taking the test and everything,” she said.

Gregg Huston, who was raised by the Thorpes, said there was no guarantee he would get hired.

“It was kind of done on a bet, like, we want you to go test because we know you’re not going to get hired, regardless if you score 100, they’re not going to hire you,” Huston said.

So, Bill Thorpe took the test and forgot about it. And then, much to his surprise, the city called, looking to hire him.

Thorpe joined the department in September of 1961.

Helen said as the city’s first Black police officer, her husband was treated differently than other officers. Bill Thorpe was not allowed to take his weapons home, and for a long time he was assigned to reading parking meters. In addition, he was kept on the third shift for an extended period at the start of his career.

“The chief of police said – at that time, it was Lawrence Brown – and he wasn’t real fond of Blacks, and he said he was giving the town time to adjust and get used to seeing a Black policeman,” Helen said.

Gregg Huston said Macomb was a rowdy town back in the day. Fights were not uncommon as the taverns emptied in the early morning hours. But he said the hooligans paid attention when Bill Thorpe intervened.

“Everybody knew him. And if Bill said hey, you guys need to stop this, this needs to end, go home -- and I’m talking about some real knuckleheads back in the day -- but they listened to Bill,” he said.

Huston credits Bill’s presence for his ability to maintain the peace – he was easygoing and level headed.

Bill Thorpe served 22 years as a Macomb police officer. He retired as a sergeant.

The city hired other Black officers after Thorpe. One of them was O.J. Clark, who also grew up in Macomb and served alongside Thorpe.

Clark said it was a challenge to be a Black police officer in Macomb, which was – and still is – largely white.

Clark: “It was not an easy job. It was not easy. But we persevered.”

TSPR: “What made it difficult?”

Clark: “Probably the most difficult thing is just because it is a rural, mostly white community and we were African Americans. Just that fact alone made it difficult.”

Clark made his comments during an interview with Tri States Public Radio in October, 2019, shortly after Bill Thorpe passed away at the age of 86.

Helen Thorpe at the site of the proposed pocket park in honor of her late husband.
Temesgen Tesfay
courtesy photo
Helen Thorpe at the site of the proposed pocket park in honor of her late husband.

Bill Thorpe Memorial Park

Bill Thorpe’s nephew, Carl Thorpe, came up with the idea of creating a pocket park in his uncle’s honor, and took his idea to the city, which agreed to contribute a $30,000 grant.

 “It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when because it’s not my will. It’s thy will, and thy will be done,” he said.

The site they chose is in the 1200 and 1300 blocks of East Pierce Street.

“It’s just a recognition of a piece of land that he owned that we can give reverence to in his name. That’s the purpose of this,” Carl Thorpe said.

The Macomb Park District is contributing picnic tables, the city will donate garbage cans, and community members have made other donations. For example, members of Western Illinois University’s ROTC program helped install a fence between the park and the adjacent railroad tracks, and members of WIU’s football team helped clear weeds and other unwanted vegetation from the site.

The park will include a story walk so visitors can learn about Bill Thorpe.

But concrete is expensive, so more financial donations are needed. Those can be made through a link on the city’s website, or by writing a check to the McDonough County Community Foundation. The memo line should note the money is for Thorpe Park. Checks can be sent to the mayor’s office at city hall (232 E. Jackson St., Macomb, IL 61455).

In addition to the city grant, they’ve raised more than $15,000 in donations so far. City officials estimate it could cost around $100,000 to create the park as envisioned.

Influenced by a civil rights leader

Gregg Huston said he once asked Bill who he looked up to when he was growing up.

“He says it was my Sunday school teacher. I said really. Who was your Sunday school teacher? He said C.T. Vivian,” Huston said.

The Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian grew up in Macomb, and became one of the leaders of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, working alongside the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A marker in Macomb notes where Vivian’s boyhood home stood, and his life is also remembered through a large mural in downtown Macomb.

A detail from the Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian mural in downtown Macomb.
Rich Egger
A detail from the Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian mural in downtown Macomb.

The Thorpes and Huston said Vivian would visit their home whenever he was in Macomb.

Helen Thorpe said Vivian always left his car running during those visits.

“He might stay at the house for an hour or so, but your car is running. He said he learned to do that, that way people can’t plant a bomb or something under it,” Helen said.

“He said you get in the habit, and you don’t want to get out of the habit of doing that.”

More about Bill Thorpe

Thorpe graduated from Macomb High School and from Western Illinois University.

He was in the military from 1951 to 1955, including service in the Korean War.

Thorpe was a deacon in his church, and helped construct the Mount Calvary Church of God in Christ building, which is not far from the proposed park site.

“He was one heck of a guy. Everybody loved him. I don’t think he had an enemy in this world. A really great person,” said O.J. Clark.

Gregg Huston said he knows he’s biased because the Thorpe family raised him. But he said Bill Thorpe did not have anything bad to say about anybody, and you can’t find anybody who has anything bad to say about him.

“I’m not trying to make him into an angel. But I’m just telling you this is the person that I know and raised me,” Huston said.

“This park is recognizing someone who has given his all to this community. Born and raised in that part of town. To have that named after him, yeah, it’s a good idea. It’s a great idea.”

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.