EQUALITY — In the absence of a state plan for the property, an important piece of Illinois history is in jeopardy.
The Crenshaw House, built in 1837, is one of Southern Illinois’ oldest remaining structures. Many regionally know it as the Old Slave House, which is how it was marketed to tourists for decades by its private owners until 1996.
The state bought it in 2001. Some repairs have been made to the 182-year-old home, but other structural repair needs have been neglected and are accumulating, according to people familiar with the historic rural site.
Under state ownership, it has never been open to the public. The state has now owned it for nearly two decades, spanning five governors: George Ryan, Rod Blagojevich, Pat Quinn, Bruce Rauner and current Gov. JB Pritzker.
Thus far, Pritzker has been about as noncommittal about the site’s future as his predecessors. Asked about the state’s plan for the property, Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh told The Southern via email: “The administration looks forward to talking with local authorities about the future of Crenshaw House to figure out what best serves the public in a cost effective way.”
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Historians are calling on state officials to take action to preserve it before it is too late.
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“This is the epitome of overlooked history that’s in danger of being lost,” said Daniel Pogorzelski, who is vice president of the Northwest Chicago Historical Society and a lover of Illinois history. He’s also a writer and editor of the blog, ForgottenChicago.com. Pogorzelski said that, year after year, officials put off coming up with a plan to preserve sites like this, and eventually they deteriorate beyond the point of return and are forever lost to neglect.
“That’s often how this happens,” Pogorzelski said.
The Crenshaw House is one of the few remaining structures that could effectively tell the somber story of Illinois’ complicated role in slavery, including that it did exist here in various forms before and after statehood, historians say.
The site has been identified as a historic “station” on the Reverse Underground Railroad by the National Parks Service. Crenshaw is believed to have kidnapped free black people in Illinois and then illegally sold them across state lines.
Records indicate that Crenshaw kept black people in his home as indentured servants. Indentured servitude, in which a person entered into a contract to work for someone else in exchange for food and shelter, was legal in Illinois. Typical contracts were to last seven years, and the process offered a way for orphans to get on their feet in some narrow cases. But more often, the contracts were used to enslave black people under a loophole in the law under contracts that stretched for decades, often the entire life of a black person.
These contracts were taxed as property, and could be gifted or auctioned off to a highest bidder. But the contracts could only be transferred within state lines.
Historians have unearthed records indicating that Crenshaw, in the spring of 1842, sold the contract for Maria Adams, an indentured servant living in his home as a cook, to slave runners, who transferred Adams and her children to the Territory of Texas. He was charged and tried for kidnapping in the case, but was acquitted by a Gallatin County Grand Jury, historian Ron Nelson previously told The Southern.
It is not known what became of Adams and her family.
Though slaves did not live on the site that Crenshaw called “Hickory Hill,” Crenshaw likely was a slave owner before he built the home given his involvement in running salt mines in Gallatin County. Illinois entered the Union as a “free” state 200 years ago, but slavery was legal in the state for another seven years in the Southern Illinois salt mines, as well as the lead mines in Gallena.
The Crenshaw House should be used to tell the story of slavery in Illinois, said Mark Wagner, director of the Center for Archaeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and an associate professor in anthropology. He noted that it is also believed that an indentured servant living in the home was related to some of the black families living at Miller Grove in rural Pope County, which was settled by freed slaves from Tennessee and then became an important station on the Underground Railroad.
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“I’d like to see it preserved,” Wagner said. Beginning in 2010, Wagner led field work at the site with SIU students in an effort to determine its history. Though the private owners of the property for years led tours through the home, much of what was portrayed there wasn't reality. For instance, the infamous attic with torture devices and tiny rooms enclosed by bars that tourists were told is where Crenshaw kept slaves was not portrayed accurately, Wagner said. It was more likely a hotel of sorts for traveling workers. But the home is still a hugely significant piece of history and linked to slavery.
Saving it, he said, would likely take a hard push by area lawmakers to earmark funding specifically for the site into the budget of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. While no one has offered a hard figure on what it would take to open the site to the public as an interpretive museum, Wagner pegged it in the millions. The home itself would require a significant amount of work to make it safe for the public. Further, the road leading to the home regularly washes away and a new road would have to be built to the site. A parking lot and restrooms would have to be added.
“Nobody in Southern Illinois has the money to do that sort of thing,” Wagner said. If this site were in Chicago, it would be preserved, he added. “There’s money and interest in history there. But we’re at the opposite end of the state as far away as you can get from Chicago.”
Pogorzelski, of Chicago, said that lawmakers and the governor should view it as a property of statewide and nationwide interest, not just of importance to Southern Illinois' history. “The American project has always been about improving our country and you can’t improve it without understanding the historic injustices that have been part and parcel of our historic legacy,” he said.
Wagner said the property faces increasing risks as time goes by. “You’ve seen what happened with Notre Dame,” he said of the fire that ravaged the historic cathedral in Paris this week. “This house has nearly 200-year-old timbers in that attic. A similar situation could occur because the wood is so dry. If it catches on fire, it would do what Notre Dame just did and we’d lose it.” A lighting strike or electrical failure could bring it down, he said.
But despite the call to action, it’s not clear what will come to be of the Crenshaw House. Rep. Patrick Windhorst, R-Metropolis, whose district includes Gallatin County, said that he would be supportive of the state preserving and reopening the site, but only if the funds can be found by making cuts somewhere else so as not to add to Illinois’ debt or force a tax increase.
“As a state, our budget is in a difficult position. We have a large budget deficit,” he said. “But it’s important to me that we preserve our history.”
Local officials say that, short of an unexpected donation from a wealthy person, it's unlikely that local historical societies and governmental entities have the means to save it without the state's help.
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI