New website is a digital chronicle of Richard Pryor's early life in Peoria
By Pam Adams of the Journal Star
Posted Nov. 27, 2014
PEORIA — These are heady times for Richard Pryor’s place.
It looks like a statue will finally go up in Peoria, his hometown. A Hollywood bio-pic is in the works. A documentary and two biographies came out last year. Another biography, “Becoming Richard Pryor” by Scott Saul, hits book stores Dec. 9.
Before Saul’s book becomes the latest Pryor biography, “Richard Pryor’s Peoria,” the companion website to the book, takes the stage.
The site, www.becomingrichardpryor.com, is a digital time capsule.
Categorized by people, places, eras and themes, the site organizes more than 200 documents Saul used in his research on Pryor’s early life (including a grade school report card and divorce papers from his first wife) and his family history (dating back to the early 1900s and the family’s life in Decatur, often reported in crime news, before his grandmother moved to Peoria.)
Photos, maps and old newspaper clippings trace the characters and streets of the red light district that led a 1945 Time magazine article to describe Peoria as “the biggest little wide open town in the Midwest.” Before Marie Pryor arrived to set up a brothel in the 1930s, there was Diamond L’il. And before there was Diamond L’il, there was Adaline Cole, “the Colored Queen of the Underworld” who raced a stylish black carriage through the streets in the 1870s.
The website evolved out of Saul’s unsuccessful efforts to find a detailed study of Peoria’s history.
“I needed to do the research that allowed me to set Richard Pryor in Peoria,” said Saul, a critic, historian and associate English professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
“I needed to know what it was like to be black in the 1940s and 1950s, I needed to know about the transformation from a leading sin city of the Midwest to an All-American city. The site is in large part about the conflicts that give energy to the transformation of Peoria from the 1930s to the 1940s.”
The research took him to a Peoria chronicled in major mainstream publications and the major black newspapers of the times, including the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier.
The website serves dual functions, a place for him to compile all the research he couldn’t use and as a promotional teaser for the book.
It also puts the Pryor family and Peoria at the center of a pioneering experiment to move storytelling and history into the digital age. To create the project, Saul got a fellowship from Stanford University’s Spatial History Project, which is exploring new ways to document history digitally.
“My project was unusual because it was so focused on storytelling,” he said. “I do hope it suggests a new path forward in the digital humanities.”He also hopes the website suggests a new path to readers, especially those who may find fault with his work.“I’m not just trying to teach about Pryor’s history and Peoria’s history, I’m trying to get people to engage with the primary documents and be historians themselves,” he said. “If they want to tell the story a different way, I’ve given them all of the tools.”