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I am in Peru, Illinois, asking about Jelani Day, who is every bit as human as Gabby Petito

I will tell you the story of a young Black man who disappeared on Aug. 24 from the campus of Illinois State University.

Jelani Day
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This is the first column in a series titled “Justice For Jelani.” Read John W. Fountain’s second column in the series here, and the third column here.

PERU, Ill., Sept. 23 — Here in this historic sundown town, population 10,300, where the Illinois River and a railroad stretch for miles across a scenic emerald valley, a Black body was found nearly a month ago floating in the river, and questions surrounding his death still swirl like a cool autumn wind.

I have driven here as a reporter on this sun-splashed day. An eagle glides above the haunting green Illinois Route 251 Bridge, where search crews reportedly found the body on Sept. 4.

Standing above the river’s serene banks, I am well aware of the documented history of Peru and the adjoining town of LaSalle as having been among the hundreds of all-white Illinois towns and suburbs north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Sundown towns. All white communities where, once upon a time in America’s history, the written or unwritten warning for decades — before and long after the Civil War — to people who look like me was made clear:

We don’t want your kind livin’ ‘round here.

Don’t let the sun go down on your Black ass.

N-words better be out of town by sundown.

Or else risk the certain wrath of good townsfolk aiming to protect the status quo and keep out miscreants and riffraff, namely Black folks.

A flyer with pictures and information about Jelani Day’s disappearance is taped to the door of the Riverfront Bar & Grill, where late Thursday afternoon the authorities announced that an autopsy had positively identified a body found on Sept. 4 as the missing Illinois State University graduate student.
John W. Fountain

This is not supposition on my part but well documented in a rather thick book — 576 pages — “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” by sociologist James W. Loewen. First published in 2005, the book names Peru as being among those towns.

I make no assertions about the quaint, aged town. And indeed I had not, before today, ever been to this river city that lies a stone’s throw from Starved Rock State Park and less than a two-hour drive from my home in suburban Chicago.

I have traveled here, self-assigned and compelled as a journalist and also as a Black man. Convicted by my conscience, and purposed in heart and craft, amid the national news media’s obsession with the story of a missing and murdered white woman whilst stories of missing and murdered Black people continue to go largely MIA.

Like the story of the 51 mostly African American women murdered in Chicago since 2001, and whose cases remain largely unsolved. Like the story of a missing young Black man who disappeared Aug. 24, from the campus of Illinois State University in Normal, about 64 miles south of here. The story of Jelani Day.

The disappearance of Jelani, a graduate student and handsome 25-year-old with a brilliant white smile and a bright future, troubles me.

Not just because he is Black and reminds me of my son, or my beloved nephews and other young Black men who must walk this unenviable path in this Black skin that makes us targets in Black and in white America.

But because Jelani is human. As human as Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito.

And ultimately because Jelani’s case deserves the same media attention. Because the disappearance of a white daughter is not greater than the disappearance of a Black son.

Gabby’s case appears closer to being solved. What happened to Jelani remains a mystery. His mother and family deserve answers.

I’m not the national media. Just a trained Black journalist with one damn pen.

But if I can use it to help bring some justice for Jelani, maybe shake out some truth, I figure it’s at least worth my time, talent and gas.

A bit nervous, I’ve asked my brother Jeff to ride with me to Sundown USA — trusting him, God, and Illinois Concealed Carry to return me safely home.

We drive into Peru, bound for the woods where police said they found Jelani’s car, and down by the river, where 11 days after Jelani disappeared, they found a Black body in this historic sundown town.

Author@johnwfountain.com

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