“You shoot for the moon, you're bound to hit a star, but if you never shoot, you'll never hit anything.”
— Juliette Whittaker
When Richard Pryor met Juliette Whittaker, misfit met misfit, and interlocked. Whittaker was the head of the Carver Center’s theater program and the Center’s resident bohemian — the one who wore dashikis instead of dresses, played Miles Davis from her office, and believed in children, like Richard, whom others considered too wayward for the Center’s mission of uplift. More than anyone else in his hometown, she recognized Richard’s talent, gave him a sense of what it meant to be an artist, and helped catapult him out of Peoria.
Juliette had an unusual childhood for a black girl growing up in a segregated Houston, where blacks were denied equal treatment and barred access to public facilities. Raised in a family whose main rule was “You can’t say you can’t,” Juliette learned to live by the motto “You shoot for the moon, you’re bound to hit a star, but if you never shoot, you’ll never hit anything. You’ve got to aim.”
Juliette’s parents, both graduates of Fisk University, knew plenty about aiming. Her mother was an English teacher. Her father, a Harvard Law alum, had worked with Thurgood Marshall on Smith v. Allwright, a crucial civil rights case that banned racially restrictive primaries, and enjoyed active side careers as a painter, poet and playwright.
A high school graduate at age 14 and college graduate at 18, Whittaker was vivacious and creatively driven. She arrived in Peoria in the late-’40s, fresh from completing a MA in theater at the University of Iowa, to become the director of Fine Arts and Drama for the Carver Center. It was at the Carver Center that Whittaker met Pryor, one of the many disadvantaged youth that she inspired and, even, saved with her drama productions and after-school programs. After Pryor talked his way into Whittaker’s already-cast production of Rumpelstiltskin, she took it upon herself to mentor him in the theater and ensure he had a stage to perform on. She wrote plays for him and set him up as the comic emcee of the Center’s well-attended talent shows.
A practicing member of the Bahai faith for most of her adult life, Whittaker believed in the potential and unity of all people. Whether it was as a playwright, a civil rights activist, a principal of innovative schools, or even a hostage negotiator in the line of fire, she put this belief into practice on a daily basis. Her plays at the Carver Center were remarkable for balancing a deep sense of black pride with an equally deep cosmopolitan engagement with all the cultures of the world.
By her death at age 80 in 2007, Whittaker had become recognized in Peoria as a distinguished artist, a visionary educator, and a community mentor who inspired generations of young people.