CARBONDALE, IL (KFVS) - February is Black History Month and as we near the end of the month, we celebrate those in our Heartland community that have paved the way for African-Americans today.
Carbondale resident, Milton McDaniel, Sr., considers himself "The Gentle Giant." He is the first black locomotive engineer in Illinois.
"No Negro fireman were allowed North of Ohio River, period," McDaniels said as he explained the railroad policy in 1967.
Unknowingly then, McDaniel was making history more than 50 years ago.
"I was the first African American locomotive fireman engineer to ever run a train north of Ohio River Crossing into Cairo coming from the south," McDaniel said.
Back then, a man named Harry Koonce went against the grain and took a chance hiring McDaniel.
"I was a young black man in a white man position, that was not to be," he said.
McDaniel said that he hopes times have changed.
"Hopefully these days there's no such thing as white and black positions," he said. "My dad always instilled in us to do the job that we like and not a job for the money, but it just so happens the railroad paid very good money."
That made his wife, Corene McDaniel, very happy and able to volunteer in the community.
She became the first African American woman on the Carbondale City Council.
"The problems that my husband went through, I didn't have to go through that," she said. "He was the one out providing for his family. And like I said, he afforded me the opportunity to stay home, and go to the school, go to the hospital. I needed to go and do whatever needed to be done."
Milton and Corene McDaniel founded one of the only African American Museum in southern Illinois in 1997. They said it is a means to educate the community about the African American history.
"Blacks have made a large contribution to the U.S. as a whole, but most of all right here in our own community, we have made a large contribution to how Carbondale has come successful in the way that it did."
"It's not, in my opinion, a sacrifice or hard work, because you are doing what you love. And both my husband and I enjoy working in the community."
Sitting with the McDaniels, they shared many experiences living during the civil rights era. Despite the many challenges they faced, McDaniel said knows there's still hope.
"I'm not going to sugar coat it, we still live in southern Illinois and southern Illinois still has a long way to go to be equal," he said. "Yeah we have come a long way, but we have a long way to go to be treated as the same, being treated as equal and being the same."