Developed at Stanford, a website about comedian Richard Pryor's early years reveals the complex history of race in an American sin city
With maps, photos, news clippings and written artifacts about Pryor's roots in Illinois, the interactive website "Richard Pryor's Peoria" offers an online tool to learn about segregation, urban renewal and the roots of Pryor's comedy.
Most people remember Richard Pryor as a groundbreaking African American comedian and social critic who crossed over Hollywood’s racial boundaries in the 1970s with a string of buddy comedies co-starring Gene Wilder. What many don’t know, however, is how his early years spent in the red-light district of Peoria, Illinois, shaped his evolution as an artist.
Pryor’s early experiences have been brought to life in “Richard Pryor’s Peoria,” an interactive website with rich archival detail created by Stanford’s Spatial History Project and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), along with the D-Lab, a resource at the University of California, Berkeley, for data-intensive social science projects.
The website curates over 200 primary sources drawn from the comedian’s formative years growing up during the mid-1950s in brothels run by his grandmother and father. Photos, news clippings and other written artifacts not only offer insight into the comedian’s rough childhood and adolescence but also convey the complicated racial history of this legendarily “typical” Midwestern city.
Visitors can feel the thrill of being a historian as they move around the site and explore its primary materials, browsing by people, places, eras and themes. The site also features custom-made maps that provide a bird’s-eye view of Pryor’s earliest stomping grounds.
The site is a digital companion piece to scholar Scott Saul’s recent biography, Becoming Richard Pryor (Harper Collins, 2014). The book and web project were incubated at the Stanford Humanities Center, where Saul was a fellow from 2010 to 2011.
An associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, Saul specializes in 20th-century American literature and cultural history. He was drawn to Pryor because of his ability to make remarkable comedy out of sensitive subjects like sex and race.
Saul calls Pryor “the most hilarious and the most troubling of comedians – an artist who radically expanded the range of what comedy could be.” He also sees Pryor as a pioneering, historical figure who was “first and foremost a product of Peoria, Illinois, and of a family that was shrewd, loving and bruising.”
Erik Steiner, creative director of Stanford’s Spatial History Project, worked with Saul to develop the site and create maps of the region. Steiner describes Peoria as not just a stage for Pryor, but a main character in his life story. It was a diverse, heterogeneous place where issues of class, race and sexuality intersected with the geography of the city.
“The website seeks to explain the evolving geography of Peoria and chronicle Pryor’s position and movement, both literally and figuratively, through it over the course of his childhood,” Steiner says.
Mapping sex and sin
According to Saul, very little historical work has examined segregation in a mid-sized Midwestern city like Peoria, until now. “Richard Pryor’s Peoria” presents a unique, detailed history of segregation and desegregation in the city that could not be incorporated into the book because of space restrictions.
“Part of the strength of digital humanities resides in the storytelling that can be given more detail through the versatile medium of a webpage,” Saul says. “These are the details that don’t always end up in a biography, which has to tell a more streamlined story of a person’s life.”
As a curated archive, the site serves as an example of how digital tools can complement biographical research in innovative ways.
Drawn from the extensive body of written and visual artifacts that Saul collected, each artifact has been carefully selected and annotated. Visitors can view such items as Pryor’s elementary school record, with grades varying widely from B’s to F’s, reflecting the turmoil of his early years. He attended seven different schools because he moved so frequently.
The site also features his parents’ divorce papers, which document his father’s repeated abuse of his mother. Visitors can also explore newspaper clippings about the racial tensions of the times, such as the Peoria City Council banning African American singer and activist Paul Robeson from performing.
Led by Saul, the team of research assistants, including William Bottini, recent graduate Camille Brown and Alex Tarr, did most of the site design, content and development at CESTA.
“The site development was as authentic a collaboration as I have been around – with undergraduate students, graduate students and technical staff from both Stanford and Cal all working toward a shared vision. Great digital scholars recognize how valuable that synergy is,” Steiner says.
A geographer who specializes in information design, Steiner says the team wanted to use maps to reveal how Pryor experienced his childhood neighborhood.
With that in mind, the team drew from the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps to reconstruct the Peoria locale. What emerges from the mapping project are visualizations of how black residents were concentrated together in the same areas as the city’s taverns, brothels and industrial segments.
“Pryor spent his youth literally surrounded by sex and sin,” Steiner says, adding: “There were 10 to 15 bars and brothels within a block of his house in the 1930s and ’40s. His neighborhood was down by the river, next to the industrial core of the city in an area deemed so undesirable that it would eventually be leveled by the time Pryor was 18.”
Steiner says that the maps and other resources not only support the story in the Saul’s book but also tell other stories and raise new questions about Pryor’s experience for future researchers to explore.
The historian’s process
When perusing the site, visitors can learn about events that while not central to Pryor’s life are nonetheless illuminating for understanding the history of Peoria.
Robeson, visiting Peoria in 1947 for a concert, was ultimately banned from performing by an all-white chapter of the American Legion. The chapter also revoked the charter of the black American Legion chapter whose commander had initially invited Robeson.
Robeson’s blackballing in Peoria became the first in a series of incidents in which the singer was banned from performing in public. A visitor can see how the onset of the Cold War effectively forced performers with a history of progressive activism underground.
Another news clipping is a police account of how Pryor’s grandmother attacked the proprietor of a confectionary for slapping a black boy in her store. The site also features archival photographs of the Pryor family and of Peoria nightclubs, which reveal how black and white, and gay and straight, commingled in after-hours Peoria.
“The website exposes the historian’s process – the raw research material and the setting, people and themes that emerge from it,” says Steiner. “The hope is that the viewer will experience similar delight and discovery as a historian, and be able to raise their own questions.”
Saul hopes that generations of students will go to the site as an entry point to learn about urban history and African American history. He also hopes that “Richard Pryor’s Peoria” will be the first of many websites to come that root a historical figure in a place.
“Think ‘Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia’ or ‘Langston Hughes’ Harlem,'” Saul suggests.