At left: former Bradley University standout and NBA player Mitchell “JJ” Anderson. Right: the late Dana J. Davis, former executive for the Memphis Grizzlies.
The City of Peoria sits in the heart of America. Our small-town Midwestern lifestyle offers a city vibe few locations in the country can compete with. We are a proud community with many diverse cultural achievements spanning multiple generations. When we celebrate local legends, it is critical to reflect and understand how our rich, diverse background has molded our city. Without diversity, we are not a unified front capable of reaching our maximum potential as human beings.
When you think about Peoria legends, what comes to mind? In the entertainment and sports industries, Richard Pryor and Shaun Livingston are obvious choices. Another sports legend—who passed away far too soon—was Dana “Double D” Davis. As founder of the famous Mitchell “JJ” Anderson & Dana J. Davis All Star Basketball Camp, he represented Peoria in the NBA for 13 years with the Memphis Grizzlies, and loved returning to his hometown, where he attended Manual High School. Other legendary basketball icons include Oliver Mack, who was famously the last player to wear Chicago Bulls uniform #23 before Michael Jordan, and David Booth, who was just named vice president of basketball operations by the NBA last month.
In academics, Dr. Romeo B. Garrett made his mark on Peoria when he became the first African American professor in Bradley University’s history. Teaching tolerance and focusing on the history of minorities in America, his impact is still felt at the Garrett Cultural Center on Bradley’s campus. More recently, the Honorable Joe McDade has nearly four decades of judicial experience and sits on the U.S. District Court as a federal judge. His story, previously told in the July 2019 issue of Peoria Magazine, is worth another read. His courage to fight through blatant discrimination and racial injustice in both sports and the law is nothing short of inspiring.
Perhaps one of the most important figures in Peoria history was John H. Gwynn. As president of the Peoria NAACP, he challenged the community to be better and was a fierce advocate for racial equality during the 1960s and 1970s. Peoria is stronger because of his strong-willed influence, and his impact and fight to obtain justice for all still resonates today. His name lives on through the Peoria Park District’s John H. Gwynn Jr. Park and Gwynn Family Aquatic Center, as well as John H. Gwynn Jr. Avenue near downtown Peoria.
When you bring together people of various backgrounds, traditions, cultures and ideologies, and when you listen and live with an open mind, special things happen. The leaders described above represent just a small fraction of legendary figures who have made—and are making—a positive impact on our community. Because of their achievements and contributions, Peoria is undeniably a better place. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. I look forward to the next generation of diverse legends in the Peoria area. You should, too. PM
Mitch Gilfillan is a former Division I scholar-athlete, coach, NCAA March Madness Tournament participant, and partner at the Quinn Johnston law firm.