Metro-East Living

Growing up black in Belleville wasn’t easy, but this 99-year-old loves her hometown

Flight crew treats 99-year-old like a celebrity

Doris Lyke, a longtime Belleville, Illinois, resident who now lives in Phoenix, describes the attention she received from a Southwest Airlines crew on her flight to St. Louis. She was returning home for her 100th birthday party.
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Doris Lyke, a longtime Belleville, Illinois, resident who now lives in Phoenix, describes the attention she received from a Southwest Airlines crew on her flight to St. Louis. She was returning home for her 100th birthday party.

As a black girl growing up in Belleville, Doris Lyke didn’t have the same opportunities as white children in the 1920s and ‘30s. But as a woman approaching her 100th birthday, she expresses no bitterness.

Instead, the former housekeeper, cook and babysitter focuses on the positives.

“I had a good childhood,” she said. “I loved Belleville, and I loved all the people I worked for.”

Doris still considers Belleville her home even though she moved to Phoenix, Arizona, four years ago to take advantage of its warm weather and to be closer to her son, Virgil Lyke. She remains sharp and active and has her own apartment at an assisted-living center.

Doris visits her other two children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in Belleville every summer. Last weekend, they threw her a 100th birthday party with more than 150 guests, including Mayor Mark Eckert, who honored her with a city proclamation.

Doris, who is Catholic, also got a congratulatory letter from Bishop Edward K. Braxton of the Catholic Diocese of Belleville.

“It’s a blessing,” said Doris’ great-grandson Armon Wallace, 17, of St. Louis. “You wouldn’t think somebody could make it to 100. It’s pretty uncommon.”

“She has a great memory,” added great-grandson Andrew Lyke, 14, of Belleville. “She remembers everything.”

Mayor Mark Eckert honors former Belleville resident Doris Lyke with a proclamation at her 100th birthday party last weekend. Her actual birthday is Dec. 10, but she will be at her home in Phoenix, Arizona. Provided

The birthday party took place at the East C Street home where Doris raised her three children with the late Gilbert Lyke, her husband of 61 years who died in 2002. It’s now owned by her daughter and son-in-law, Doris Ann and LeRoy Isbell.

Doris is full of stories, both past and present. In an interview Friday, she gleefully talked about her recent airplane ride to St. Louis. The flight crew announced her birthday on the loud speaker and treated her like a celebrity.

“I love to fly,” she said. “And when the plane was landing, 30 minutes maybe from Lambert ... I was sitting there, and all of a sudden, the girls told me, the stewardesses told me, ‘We’d like to have a picture with you when we land.’”

A Southwest Airlines flight crew asked Doris Lyke, who was flying home to Belleville for her 100th birthday celebration, if they could get a photo with her after the plane landed earlier this month. Provided

Delivered at home in 1919

The former Doris Reynolds was born on Dec. 10, 1919, to George Reynolds, a hod carrier, and his wife, Sophie, in their home on East B Street. A white physician, Dr. Walter Dew, delivered her and most other black babies in town. She had three brothers. Her sister died at 9 months.

Belleville had 21,563 residents in 1920, and only 180 (less than 1 percent) were black, according to local historian Bob Brunkow.

The former Doris Reynolds was born on Dec. 10, 1919, at her parents’ home on East B Street in Belleville. Provided

Doris attended Bunsen Elementary School, later converted to Nichols Community Center; High Mount School and Belleville Township High School, graduating in 1937.

“Belleville integrated schools before any of the other towns around here,” she said.

Doris remembers only one other black student at BTHS during her attendance, but she had white friends and liked her teachers. She didn’t even mind the yearbook slight, she said.

“Because she was black, her picture was the last picture in the yearbook, even though the pictures were in alphabetical order and her name was Reynolds,” said daughter Doris Ann, 70, a retired insurance agent and former social worker.

The former Doris Reynolds is in the second row, third from right, in this High Mount School photo from 1929. Provided

After school, Doris walked to the home of Joe and Bertha Gundlach, who paid her $2.25 a week to help with cooking, sewing and other household chores.

“People would say, ‘Why are you going to school when the only thing you’re going to do is work in a white woman’s kitchen?’” she said. “But they didn’t know what I learned there. I learned how to save my money. I learned how to invest.”

Doris remembers Belleville having a fairly diverse population during the Great Depression with immigrants from all over the world, and everyone seemed to be poor.

“We had all cultures here, but the lowest was black,” she said. “We weren’t considered African Americans at the time. We were ‘n-----s.’ It was hard for some people to say ‘Negro.’ Some people would say ‘colored.’”

Active in Catholic church

Doris started dating Gilbert, a 1935 Golden Gloves welterweight champion boxer, in 1939. They would drive to East St. Louis on weekends because blacks weren’t welcome in restaurants or movie theaters in Belleville, she said.

The couple got married on Jan. 18, 1941, at the East St. Louis home of a Baptist minister. They had two witnesses, Gilbert’s brother and sister-in-law.

“We lived with my parents for a month or two,” Doris said. “Then we rented two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom (in a Swansea home). We had no electricity, no running water, and there was no toilet.”

Gilbert and Doris Lyke pose on their wedding day, Jan. 18, 1941. They were married more than 61 years, until his death in 2002. Provided

Gilbert worked as a chipper at General Steel Casting Corp. in Granite City for 32 years and later as trucker for Service Oil Co. Doris was a housekeeper, cook and babysitter for white families. The Lykes had three children: Bill, now 75, who is retired from Southwestern Illinois College; Virgil, 74, a former AT&T employee; and Doris Ann.

The family joined St. Luke Catholic Church in Belleville because, Doris said, Catholic parishes seemed more open to blacks at the time. She belonged to several local organizations and volunteered in the community.

Rafe Middeke, editor of The Messenger Catholic newspaper, wrote a story on the Lykes in 1991 for their 50th wedding anniversary. He mentioned that when he first met them in the ‘60s, they were the only black Catholic family he knew in Belleville.

“They refused to allow their racial difference in a white town, church and schools to determine their lives,” Middeke wrote. “But there were times when it couldn’t be ignored and times they were aware of people’s attitudes.

“The Lykes were converts, and they can remember the lady who moved out of the pew when they first went to (St. Luke). But they became active members of the parish church and the diocesan church. Maybe some people thought they joined the church for hand-outs, they said.

“Gilbert is quick to add that people are prejudiced for other reasons than color, and they don’t worry about other people’s motivations. ‘I’m a mover,’ Doris said. ‘I go out and do things, and I don’t worry about a thing.’”

Gilbert and Doris Lyke are shown with their three children, left to right, Virgil, Doris Ann and Bill in the 1950s. Provided

‘Never met a stranger’

Doris lived in the East C Street home for nearly 70 years before moving to Phoenix in 2015. Her daughter believes the change has contributed to her longevity.

“It’s warm, and there’s sunshine every day,” Doris Ann said. “She’s a social person, and she’s able to be with people her own age. In Belleville, most of her friends had passed, and daddy was gone, and in the winter, it was cold, and she had arthritis. It was a good move. She has absolutely excellent care out there.”

Doris keeps busy at the assisted-living center with church services, chair exercise, movies, games and a “brain boosters” class. She gets her nails done once a week. She has even organized an annual Black History Month program.

“I didn’t move out there to sit still,” she said. “I was doing that here in the (Belleville) house. When you have people your age around you, it’s a lot better.”

Armon Wallace, 17, of St. Louis, helps his great-grandmother, Doris Lyke, celebrate her 100th birthday in Belleville. She will be at home in Phoenix on Dec. 10, her actual birthday. Teri Maddox

Doris has seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

“She’s never met a stranger,” said granddaughter-in-law Jenn Lyke, 42, of Belleville, director of admissions at Althoff Catholic High School. “Once you meet her, you’re part of her family. My aunt met her once or twice, and they became pen pals.”

Doris is hard of hearing, but relatively healthy. She uses a walker to get around.

“I was diagnosed with a heart murmur,” she said. “The doctors asked me if I would consider a pacemaker, and I said, ‘No.’ When God gets ready for me, I’ll be ready to go.”

The former Doris Reynolds poses with her baby brother, James, in the 1920s. Provided

Teri Maddox has been a reporter for 35 years, joining the Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.