Eastern Illinois University Renames a Residence Hall to Honor Two African Americans

The board of trustees of Eastern Illinois University has voted to rename Douglas Hall, a dormitory on campus that was named for Stephan Douglas, a former U.S. senator from Illinois who in a debate with Abraham Lincoln had argued for the expansion of slavery into U.S. territories. The dormitory will now be known as Powell-Norton Hall in honor of Zella Powell and Ona Norton.

Zella Powell is believed to be the university’s first Black graduate, earning a degree from Eastern State Normal School in 1910. Powell’s family migrated from the south in the mid-1800s and became one of the founding families of Mattoon, Illinois, with her family owning a number of small businesses, persevering through historic discrimination. Powell had a long career as an educator, first in Mattoon and then in Chicago. Her professional achievements inspired her own daughter to earn a master’s degree in library science in Michigan before establishing the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit with her husband.

Ona Norton was the matriarch of a Black family in Charleston, Illinois, during the 1950s, when it was difficult for students of color to find off-campus housing in Charleston. Ona and her husband were approached by the university’s football coach about providing housing for some of the team’s Black student-athletes. The Nortons agreed and took on seven students that year. Over time, the Nortons expanded the number of students they helped to house, eventually acquiring additional residences near campus in which to house students.

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