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VOICE OF THE READER: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 01, 2003

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[Tue Sep 30 2003]

Be careful regarding Old Slave House

To the Editor:

Your recent editorial calling for the reopening of the Old Slave House in Gallatin County as an educational and research center and a tourist attraction strikes me as a bad idea.

When I was a history professor at SIUC, I taught a course in historic preservation and history museums. Each class went on field trips to important sites in the region. I took several classes to the Old Slave House as an example of what not to do as a history museum.

The problem at that site was an incompatible mixture of rural gentility and sheer racism. Visitors were shown the rooms on the lower floors with their fine furniture and furnishings and told that Abraham Lincoln once stayed there. Then they were shown the attic with its slave pens, whipping block, manacles and the main attraction -the cell where one slave supposedly bred dozens of women to produce slave babies.

Some of the more objectionable items were removed in later years, but the overall impact remained the same. Each class found their visit to that place a deeply disturbing experience -especially the African-American students.

It simply boggles the mind to think of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, the president who freed the slaves, dining on fine china and silverware downstairs or sleeping in one of the sumptuous four post beds, while upstairs in the attic, slaves were being beaten and treated like livestock.

No one has determined exactly what was going on in the house of John Crenshaw, the owner of the Old Slave House, but the physical evidence indicates that he was a slave trader, perhaps involved in capturing free blacks or runaway slaves in Illinois and selling them in Kentucky. Whatever he was, it was not only reprehensible, but completely illegal.

Slavery in Illinois was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and abolished by the first state constitution. The only slaves permitted in Illinois were brought in when their masters moved from a slave state before statehood.

It is clear that Crenshaw had slave labor to operate his salt works, probably using slaves contracted from Kentucky owners or legal slaves held since territorial days. These slaves were probably housed in cabins near the salt works. In that regard, there is evidence that Crenshaw was a hard slave master. One rebellious slave attacked him with an ax and cut off his leg.

The slave pens in the attic of Crenshaw's house, however, were clearly not for workers, but for some sort of illegal slave trade. Otherwise, why would Crenshaw keep the slaves locked in pens in his attic and why did he have a covered sally port in the back of the house where slaves could be brought in secretly?

My question is why should this sordid story be considered an important part of Southern Illinois history? And why should the Old Slave House be reopened as a tourist attraction and educational center? What kind of history and education is Crenshaw's slave trading supposed to portray to the public?

If it is the story of slavery, that blight on mankind was rejected by the people of Illinois early on. It was never a significant part of Illinois history. Not only that, but if Crenshaw was in the business of capturing free individuals on the sole basis that they were black and sending them into slavery, he was the worst sort of slaver and racist. It is a pity that the slave with the ax did not kill him and end his slave trading at an earlier date.

If the Crenshaw House is to be reopened to the public, it should not be as a "Slave House." The house has some architectural merit because of its style and age, and the interior is interesting, except for the attic which is disgusting. The house could be opened to the public as an ante-bellum country house and perhaps the history of the salt works could be developed. But great care should be taken that the slavery aspect not be exploited in the sordid way it was done in the past.

DAVID CONRAD, MURPHYSBORO

Restrict ATV use by children

To the Editor:

Thank you for the editorial on the dangers of ATV use. The death and injury statistics cited for young people were sobering. Your piece addressed the need for better training from dealers and more responsible actions from parents.

I would like to propose a responsible action that will reduce the death and injury statistics for young riders. Pass a law requiring ATVs to be operated by licensed motor vehicle drivers only, no matter where they are used.

My conclusion from the data is that young, non-licensed individuals should not be operating these powerful and fast machines. For this class of rider, better training will not necessarily reduce deaths and injuries. Most young riders (under 16) lack the physical and mental capabilities needed to operate this type of motor vehicle in a consistently safe manner.

To help ensure the future safety of Illinois children, I urge parents and guardians to contact their state representative and demand that a law be passed limiting ATV use to state licensed operators only. If you question the logic for this type of law, I suggest you first speak with family members who have lost a young child in an ATV accident.

STEVE BELLETIRE, MARION

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