A. Morris Williams came to Springfield as a 23-year-old cobbler in 1902. Within five years he had obtained a law degree, which he put to use helping fellow African-Americans file retribution claims against the City of Springfield after the 1908 Race Riots. A pioneer in the black real estate business, he was responsible for the construction of many houses and civic buildings in Springfield, and he also organized the Enterprise Bank, the second black-owned bank in Illinois. The house where he lived from 1918 until his death in 1936 is still standing on South Walnut Avenue.
Williams’s story is just one of a multitude of significant African-American people and places highlighted in a newly completed report of a year-long architectural survey of the city’s east side.
Produced by Floyd Mansberger and Christopher Stratton at Fever River Research, with assistance from the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum, the report brings to light a wealth of information on the history of African-Americans in Springfield as well as surviving physical structures connected to that history.
The report is the culmination of an architectural survey of Springfield’s Central East neighborhood initiated at the behest of the Springfield Historic Sites Commission and administered by the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development as part of an effort to study African-American life in Springfield. The survey’s goal was to inventory and research historic properties and to identify potential candidates for local landmark and National Register of Historic Places designations.
Because the National Register nominations require the survey of a specific geographic region, Fever River chose the focus area as the more than 500 acres on the east side of the city bounded by Madison Street and Clear Lake Avenue on the north, 19th and Wirt Streets on the east, South Grand Avenue and Brown Streets on the south, and 10th Street on the west, historically perceived as the heart of Springfield’s African-American community. Within that area, Fever River documented more than 800 buildings, completed detailed survey forms for 105 buildings, and identified 37 buildings of particular architectural and historical significance.
More than just an architectural record of the survey area, the report draws on maps, historic newspaper accounts, city directories, census information and oral histories to paint a portrait of the rich and dynamic social and cultural history of African-American life in Springfield, which in turn provides important context for the evolution of the east side neighborhood.
African-Americans in Springfield: Pre-Emancipation
African-Americans have been present in Springfield since the town’s founding in the 1820s. Indeed, two of the four founders of Springfield (John Taylor and Thomas Cox) owned slaves. Census records indicate that, despite the challenges posed by anti-black bias and restrictive black laws, the black population of Springfield grew to 166 in 1840 (including six slaves); 171 in 1850, and 234 in 1860. The African-American community, though small, was dynamic and engaged. Springfield’s first black church, the Zion Missionary Baptist Church, was organized in 1838; its minister, John Livingston, was the first black ordained minister in Illinois. Springfield sent African-American delegates to the First Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of Illinois in 1853. By the late 1850s, African-Americans had annual parades and celebrations honoring the anniversary of the 1834 emancipation of slaves in the West Indies.
Building on Richard Hart’s groundbreaking research on the pre-Civil War African-American population in Springfield, the Fever River report shows that Springfield’s residential character was integrated in the years before the Civil War: “There was no obvious segregation of black housing from white-occupied residences.” While most residences with black heads of households were located north of Washington Street, they were located in neighborhoods alongside the homes of native-born whites and European immigrants.
Life during Reconstruction (1865-1877)
The African-American population of Springfield grew from 203 to 808 persons between 1860 and 1870. Many new arrivals to Springfield were former slaves who were drawn to the city by its association with Abraham Lincoln. Although housing was still integrated, many African-Americans chose to reside on the city’s near north side, which was now home to two black congregations, the African Methodist Evangelical Church on Fourth Street north of Madison and the Colored Baptist Church on the corner of Carpenter and Eighth.
The latter place often served as the organization point for the Emancipation Day celebrations staged by Springfield’s African-American community beginning in the late 1860s. Held on Sept. 22, the anniversary of Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, these celebrations saw hundreds if not thousands of participants parade to Lincoln’s home to pay their respects, then listen to speeches by prominent citizens, both black and white.
Jim Crow through the Race Riot
Reconstruction ended in 1877, when the United States pulled federal troops from the South. Without a federal presence to enforce civil rights for African-Americans, southern governments began passing legislation limiting the rights of black citizens. As the 19th century came to a close, Southern blacks saw their rights to vote, serve on juries and enjoy equal access to public places stripped away by harsh “Jim Crow” laws. Springfield was not immune to anti-black bias. Fever River’s report notes that “although not codified by law, segregationist practices were tacitly practiced and accepted in Illinois, including Springfield.”
Despite the challenges of Jim Crow, however, the late 19th century saw Springfield’s African-American population expand to more than 2,000 people. Its community, which embodied values of empowerment and self-help, become even more influential and engaged. In 1898, local social activist Eva Monroe established the Lincoln Colored Home for the care of black orphans and the elderly (see side bar p.13). In 1901, the Ambidexter Institute opened as a vocational school for black youth, patterned after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
African-Americans established a vibrant business community in Springfield during the Jim Crow era. Prominent black businessmen included A. Morris Williams, an attorney and real estate developer; Charles Gibbs, an attorney and philanthropist; Oscar Birdsong, a carpenter/builder and Elmer Lee Rogers, the founder and editor of two black newspapers.
By the end of the 19th century, distinct black neighborhoods had developed in Springfield. The primary black commercial area was concentrated along Washington Street between Seventh and Tenth streets. This area was known as the “Levee district,” contemporary slang for the “party district” in reference to the social gatherings that took place in this area of town.
The majority of black residences were on the city’s near north side, east of Ninth Street and north of Madison. By the late 19th century, the character of the area changed into something of a “red light” district where gambling dens, brothels and saloons were concentrated. This area came to be known known as the “Badlands,” a racist term which referred both to the illicit activities that took place there and the large numbers of poor African-Americans who resided there.
The Levee District and the Badlands were both targeted during the Springfield Race Riot of 1908, when an armed mob tore through the city bent on destroying black-owned homes and businesses as retribution for an alleged assault on a white woman by a black man. Despite the efforts of the city’s firefighters (including representatives from Engine House Number 5, the city’s first black fire company), dozens of black homes and businesses were burned in the melee. The Journal of Aug. 15, 1908, reported, “The entire district between Mason and Jefferson Streets and Ninth and Eleventh Streets, covering four square blocks, was wiped out.”
The African-American community after the Race Riot
The National Association for the Advacement of Colored People was formed in 1909 as a direct response to the Springfield Race Riot. Unfortunately, however, race relations in Springfield worsened during the 1910s and 1920s, as whites doubled down on maintaining their existing power structure.
One way that racism manifested itself was in the increasing segregation of African-American businesses and residences to the east side of Springfield. Prior to the Civil War, east side neighborhoods represented a mix of ethnicities and economic classes. Beginning in the 1870s, a pattern developed whereby affluent white families would move to new neighborhoods, and the older houses they left behind were broken into multifamily housing and occupied by working class and African-American families.
Racist housing policies and racial bias kept black families from moving into new or predominately white neighborhoods. Some new developments used protective covenants in their sales contracts which prohibited the properties from being sold to black residents. Other neighborhoods rebelled when black families tried to move in. When James B. Osby, a successful black real estate agent, bought the house at 1024 South Sixth Street in 1921, the neighbors responded with a “storm of protest,” according to the Journal. “Of course we could not consider having colored people live in this neighborhood. Having the property owned by them is bad enough,” one resident was quoted as saying.
Urban renewal efforts drastically changed the character of the east side in the mid-20th century. In 1940, an eight-block section of the city bound by Eleventh, Fifteenth, Madison and Reynolds streets was demolished to make way for the John Hay Homes public housing project. The goal of this project was to provide affordable housing to the poor in compliance with the 1937 Public Housing Act, while at the same time removing “blighted” older houses from the landscape. While the Hay Homes did meet these goals, they also resulted in the large-scale displacement of African-American residents in that area. Most of the occupants of the demolished houses were African-American, yet only about 10% of the new Hay Homes were open to African-American residents. Similarly, urban renewal of Washington Street east of Seventh Street in 1966 destroyed what was, in essence, the heart of the black community’s business district and social center.
Today the “east side” project area investigated by Fever River is a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood which displays a wide variety of late 19th and early 20th century building types and architectural styles. Within that area, the report documented more than 800 buildings, completed detailed survey forms for 105 buildings, and identified 37 buildings of particular architectural and historical significance. Yet all of the buildings, individually and as a whole, paint a picture of the evolution of a vibrant African-American community with roots reaching back to the town’s founding. The completion of the Fever River report provides an important resource for future work to document, preserve and interpret black history in Springfield.
Firehouse No. 5
From 1901 until 1954, the building at 1310 East Adams Street was home to Firehouse Number 5, the only firehouse in Springfield where African-Americans were permitted to serve. When the firehouse first opened, it had a stable downstairs for the horses still used to pull the fire wagons.
The firefighters who worked there faced discriminatory treatment. They were given equipment that had been cast off by white fire departments. They were ordered to stay and clean up after fires were put out. Their only white colleagues were either supervisors or firefighters who had been transferred there as punishment.
In spite of their secondhand equipment, Firehouse No. 5 was known as one of the best in the city. Firefighters from this station were called out during the Springfield Race Riot of 1908. They did their best to put out the fires set in black-owned residences and places of business, despite mobs cutting their firehoses.
In 1954, Firehouse No. 5 moved to a new building at 18th and Clay. In 1970, the old building was purchased by the Prince Hall Masons, a black fraternal organization, for use as their Central Lodge Number 3. Coincidentally, an early principal master of that lodge, William Donnegan, was one of the lynching victims of the 1908 race riot.
Since acquiring the home, the Prince Hall Masons have rehabbed it for use as a lodge, replaced the HVAC system, stabilized the structure, added space for a fellowship hall and undertaken necessary repairs to the flooring. Their next goal is to restore the building’s original façade to take it back to its early 20th century appearance. The Masons are hopeful that funds for the façade will be included in the state’s next capital bill.
Once the façade is finished, the Masons hope to have the city designate the building as a historic landmark. Their goal is to create a small museum within the site to display memorabilia from black firefighters.
Ken Page, past Worshipful Master of the Prince Hall Masons, wants people to know that the building is available for the community to use.
“It’s a living site. There’s still work to be done, but it is available to the community. It’s important to us that it will be available to young people as a permanent part of the history of Springfield,” he said.
Those wishing to support the restoration of Firehouse Number 5 can contact Ken Page at Kenpage1@comcast.net -Erika Holst
The Lincoln Colored Home
The large brick building at 427 S. 12th St. served as the site of Sangamon County’s first orphanage for African-American children from 1904-1933. The Lincoln’s Colored Old Folks and Orphans Home was founded in 1898 by Eva Carroll Monroe, who was so moved by the condition of Springfield’s black poor that she cared for three orphans and two elderly women in her own apartment. Aware that Springfield’s existing orphanages only took white children, Eva and her sister, Olive, raised $125 to purchase an old house at 427 S. 12th, which they opened to African-Americans in need.
Initially, Monroe kept the house going through force of will alone, traveling around the state to ask for donations of straw, coal and furniture. She also received support from the Springfield Colored Women’s Club, which held fundraisers to keep the home supplied with money, medicine and necessities.
Monroe’s fundraising efforts soon caught the attention of wealthy widow Mary Lawrence (mother of Susan Lawrence Dana). Lawrence paid off the building’s mortgage, then helped underwrite efforts to raze the old building and construct a new, red brick house on the property. Construction was completed in 1904, and for the next 29 years the home housed as many as 60 orphans and elderly women.
“Eva Monroe was a pioneer in the field of human services, leading the way for child welfare and services for the elderly,” said Gina Lathan, president of Route History. “She exemplified the core tenets of social work and human services.”
The Lincoln Colored Home closed in 1933, when the national mood moved away from institutionalized care and towards foster care for orphaned children. The house was sold at auction in 1944, though the new owner allowed Monroe to continue living there until her death in 1950. The house changed hands several times in subsequent years.
Today the Lincoln Colored Home site remains in private hands. Its owners would like to see it restored and used as a museum and community center, but funding remains an issue. Recent work by Springfield High School’s 4-H Spark Tank Club, led by students Zaire Harris and Jesse Harris, has been instrumental in raising awareness and funds for the site. Today the Lincoln Colored Home is a designated a historic landmark by the Springfield City Council and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This year Route History launched a public campaign called the #ThankYouMsEva project to raise awareness of Eva Monroe’s contributions to Springfield history and the field of social work. “There’s been a lot of conversation around the building, but not so much about the person in the building,” Lathan said. The project kicked off with an event at Lincoln Library which drew more than 200 people. Future events are being planned in Chicago and in southern Illinois.
To support the #ThankYouMsEva project, buy t-shirts at the Route History headquarters at 737 E. Cook St. after May 20. Proceeds will go to supporting local youth education projects in Monroe’s memory. –Erika Holst
The Taylor Home
Built as a residence for Judge John Wycliffe Taylor in 1857-58, the house at 902 S. 12th St. played an important role in Springfield’s African-American history from 1901 to 1908, when it served as the site of the Ambidexter Industrial and Normal Institute. Modeled on Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, the Ambidexter Institute’s goal was to provide African-Americans education and training in the skilled trades. The curriculum included classes in domestic science, millinery, dressmaking, plumbing, painting, carpentry, bricklaying, shoemaking and general mechanics, as well as music and elocution. A shortage of funds caused the Institute to close its doors in 1908.
By 1982, the house had fallen into severe disrepair. Upon learning that the house was slated for demolition, Jerry Jacobson of Save Old Springfield stepped in, acquired the property, and put more than $50,000 of his own money into its restoration. In an attempt to raise awareness about its significance and its dire condition, Jacobson brought the Taylor House to the attention of Landmarks Illinois, which put it on its annual list of the state’s 10 most endangered structures in 2004.
Ultimately it became clear to Jacobson that he did not have the resources to restore the house alone. In 2013, with the support of local preservationists, historians and neighborhood residents, Jacobson transferred the house to The Springfield Project, a nonprofit organization that empowers Springfield’s underserved and minority populations to identify and solve neighborhood problems through collaboration and partnership with various stakeholders.
The Springfield Project has a vision of redeveloping a 49-block area of Springfield’s east side, bounded by South Grand Avenue, MLK Jr. Boulevard, Cook Street and 11th Street, which the organization calls the Neighborhood of Hope.
“The idea is that the Taylor House could be kind of a community center for an entire redeveloped neighborhood on the near east side,” said Sue Massie of Massie, Massie and Associates, who has been instrumental in efforts to save the building.
The Springfield Project has invested considerable time and resources into improvements to the Taylor House, including removal of old vinyl siding and removal of two later additions. Still, it is facing an uphill battle. Massie notes that “redevelopment of that area of town has not gotten the attention or support it has needed to get off the ground.” Meanwhile, the house still requires work, and the projected costs are rising.
“I think we’ve lost a little bit of opportunity by letting time go by,” Massie said. Still, The Springfield Project has talked to contractors and gotten estimates on the work needed. “We’d be ready to go if we got an infusion of a little money.” –Erika Holst
To learn more about how you can help the Taylor Home, contact The Springfield Project at 217-753-3551 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erika Holst is the Curator of Decorative Arts and History at the Illinois State Museum.