African American history in photos

A fresh look at many who shaped Springfield's character

click to enlarge African American history in photos
Members of the Cansler family pose on their farm near North Eighth Street and the Illinois State Fairgrounds. From the 1940s to 1960s Leslie Cansler owned Cansler’s Café and Cocktail Lounge at 807 (later 423) East Washington Street, part of a bustling strip of African American-owned clubs. It was listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book during the 1950s. Note: All photo captions are taken from the book and are used with permission.

African Americans in Springfield is a new book by Mary Frances and Beverly Helm-Renfro of Springfield that brings to life African Americans who lived and worked in Springfield. Prominent African Americans who visited Springfield are also featured. Richly illustrated with nearly 150 black and white photos, the deeply researched book celebrates people who shaped the fabric and character of our community. Many photos are by Eddie Winfred "Doc" Helm, who was Illinois' state photographer for over 50 years and had a commercial studio which documented African American life in Springfield. Others are from the Illinois State Archives, Illinois State Museum, Lincoln Library Sangamon Valley Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield Urban League and Brookens Library. The book, released July 25, is part of the Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing.

Frances has lived in Springfield for 33 years and taught environmental science, both locally and online. She has a passion for history. She spent four months gathering photos, which led to her partnership with Helm-Renfro, Doc Helm's daughter. Helm-Renfro has thousands of her father's images in her personal collection. Frances did extensive research to write the descriptive captions. The book covers art and education, civic engagement, employment, entrepreneurship, military and public safety, politics and the Springfield Urban League.

click to enlarge African American history in photos
Here Dr. Webster works with an unidentified young patient and a woman. Webster was a dentist for over 40 years and had an office at 501 S. 13th St. in the 1960s. In 1969, at a testimonial dinner held at the St. Nicholas Hotel ballroom, Springfield saluted his years of service, particularly to youth. He examined orphans at the Lincoln Colored Home, founded in 1898 by Eva Carroll Monroe.

"African Americans were in every walk of life from the very beginning and made significant accomplishments," said Frances. "There's more to Black history in Springfield beyond the 1908 Race Riot."

We learn about Hiram Jackson, staff artist at the Illinois State Journal newspaper; Louis Evans, who directed the Springfield Colored Municipal Band in the 1940s; Harry Eielson, a gifted Springfield High School athlete who served as mayor from 1947-1951; and Mark Conley, charter faculty member at Sangamon State University (SSU) in 1970 who taught the university's first class addressing African American issues. We meet Don Robinson, a 1965 car salesman; Gertrude Dant, who began working as a cook at the governor's mansion in 1945; and Bert Singleton, butler for 11 governors, starting in 1897 while in his 20s.

Comer Cox played Negro League Baseball and at the end of a long career became executive director of the Springfield Urban League. Marvin Jackson grew up in the John Hay Homes in the 1950s and after musical stints in San Francisco and Nashville returned to Springfield and formed the Ebonies. Homer Butler was vice-chancellor for student affairs at SSU from 1970-1996. Earl Rice had a 30-year career at Commonwealth Edison after serving in the Korean War. Simeon Osby created the Capital City News African American newspaper. Alvin Rountree was assistant archivist at the Illinois State Archives for 36 years. Maurine Shipp worked at the Illinois Department of Agriculture for 24 years, founded a real estate agency and was Springfield's outstanding businesswoman in 1988. Several businesses were listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, including Leon Steward's service station, George Sykes' barbershop and Mabel Pettiford's Panama Tavern. Dr. Edwin Lee, surgeon and family practice physician, was Springfield's 1972 First Citizen; he founded the Springfield chapter of Frontiers International, was president of District 186 Board of Education and a lifelong member of the NAACP.

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Dr. Edwin Lee received his medical degree in 1941 and eight years later moved to Springfield, where he worked as a surgeon and family practice physician. In 1972 he received Springfield’s Copley First Citizen award. He founded the Springfield chapter of Frontiers International, was president of the Springfield District 186 Board of Education and was a lifetime member of the NAACP.

Helm wants people to realize there were once thriving businesses of all types on Springfield's east side. "Dad had put down a history lesson for us," says Helm. She hopes to publish another book representing her father's vast photographic collection.

Individuals portrayed in the book came from all walks of life. Harlan Watson was a Springfield police officer for 20 years, Democratic politician and state worker. Rosalee Harris was proprietor of the Subway Club, a tavern and brothel. Joseph Bibb was the first African American to hold a cabinet post, appointed director of the Dept. of Public Safety by Gov. William Stratton. We also see day-to-day life – laborers laying sewer in Washington Park around 1902, six African American students in Iles School's 1931 graduating class, the Springfield Urban League nursery in the 1940s, demonstrators in front of the Lincoln statue on the State Capitol grounds in 1963 and a Springfield Colored Women's Club meeting in the John Hay Homes in the 1960s.

Numerous dignitaries and famous African Americans visited Springfield. Martin Luther King Jr. was at the Illinois AFL-CIO convention at the Illinois State Armory on Oct. 7, 1965. Sen. Charles Chew brought Muhammad Ali to Springfield in 1975. World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis visited. George Pierson and Etta Moten performed a benefit concert for the Springfield Urban League in the Springfield High School auditorium in June 1950. Governor Dwight Green hosted W.E.B. DuBois in the governor's office in 1941. Numerous NAACP leaders have visited Springfield.

click to enlarge African American history in photos
Wabash Tavern was located at 1001 East Washington St. near the Wabash Railroad Company’s 10th Street tracks. It was operated by Albert Miles until the mid-1940s, when he bought a different tavern. Employees behind the bar are, from left to right, Mildred Caldwell, Flabby Robinson and Richard Robinson.

African Americans were also active in the military, including the Illinois National Guard's 8th Illinois Infantry in 1901. Doc Helm photographed many African Americans returning from all branches of military service.

In spite of enduring segregation and racism, African Americans built careers, raised families and gave back to the Springfield community. Thanks to Mary Frances and Beverly Helm-Renfro, we have a glimpse into this rich history.

To order the book, go to

Karen Ackerman Witter is a frequent contributor to Illinois Times. She previously wrote about Doc Helm's career as Illinois state photographer

About The Author

Karen Ackerman Witter

Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after a 35-year career in state government holding various senior leadership positions. Prior to retiring she was associate director of the Illinois State Museum for 14 years. She is the past president of the Kidzeum Board of Directors and is an active volunteer...

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