Family and feelings behind the new park name

A move to remember and celebrate diverse local figures

click to enlarge Siblings and Otis B. Duncan's descendants, Wally Phelps Jr. and Gale Borders, stand near one of the new park signs. - PHOTO BY RACHEL OTWELL
Photo by Rachel Otwell
Siblings and Otis B. Duncan's descendants, Wally Phelps Jr. and Gale Borders, stand near one of the new park signs.

Springfield residents of various backgrounds and political persuasions gathered to celebrate the name change of a Springfield park, previously honoring the legacy of Stephen A. Douglas. The park at 943 W. Mason St. is now named after Otis B. Duncan, by means of a park board vote last November. On June 22, park board members, activists and members of American Legion Post 809 gathered for an official ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Most notably present were descendants of Duncan – a World War I hero who rose to become the highest-ranking Black man in the American Expeditionary Forces and a Springfield native who lived from 1873 to 1937. His story exemplifies how robust and related much of Springfield's past is, though the dots are not always so easily connected, especially for those of diverse backgrounds who have largely been exlcluded from history books.

As Erica Holst reported for Illinois Times in 2018, Duncan was actively engaged in civic life in Springfield. As a lifelong Republican, he ran for alderman in Springfield multiple times. Though unsuccessful in his bids, he won primaries against white challengers before losing in general elections. It wasn't until after a change to the city's form of aldermanic government in 1987, due to a Voting Rights Act lawsuit, that Black people would win Springfield city council elections.

Holst wrote that in 1902, Duncan joined an all-Black regiment of the Illinois National Guard and was first lieutenant. Within the next two years, he rose to the rank of major and was in command of a battalion. "Perhaps it was Duncan's political aspirations and high-profile military career that made him a particular target during the Springfield Race Riot of 1908," wrote Holst. "On the night of Friday, Aug. 14, the mob ransacked the two-story frame Duncan home at 312 N. 13th St. while other houses on the block were left undisturbed. Rioters broke the front door off its hinges, smashed windows and fired shots into the house before charging inside to destroy Duncan's piano, break all his furniture, and loot the place of its valuables, including Duncan's uniform and saber."

Gale Borders, a Springfield native and a descendant of Duncan, was at the June 22 ribbon-cutting with other family members. She said her great grandfather was a first cousin of Duncan. And her family roots contain other historic figures whose stories are not often told. "Our great, great grandfather was 'Billy Barber' – Lincoln's barber," Borders told Illinois Times. She then took from her purse a book titled Billy the Barber's Mirror: Reflecting on an Untold Lincoln Story by Glennette Tilley Turner. The illustrated children's book covers the story of William Fleurville, a businessman and immigrant from Haiti, who was Abraham Lincoln's barber for many years in Springfield. Fleurville was Duncan's grandfather. According to the Sangamon County Historical Society, another one of Fleurville's grandchildren was George Richardson. It was Richardson's arrest due to a false rape allegation that led to the Springfield race massacre in 1908.

Vietnam Army veteran Randolph Boschulte, who was at the ceremony, said the name change is "part of a healing process for Springfield, and not just Springfield, but for the state." Boschulte is a member and former commander of American Legion Post 809, which is named after Duncan. "Because of the past racial inequities, this will in fact diffuse a lot of the hard feelings that people had," said Boschulte. He said the park name will increase public exposure to Duncan, which the local American Legion post has worked to do since it was named after him in 1937, following Duncan's death. The current commander of American Legion Post 809, Richard Rump, echoed the enthusiasm about increased visibility for Duncan. "We think especially in this time of progressive social movements that it's timely and appropriate to do so."

The park district first considered a name change last year, around the same time discussion about what to do with a statue of Stephen A. Douglas outside the Statehouse was crescendoing. Douglas, born in 1813 in Vermont, was an Illinois lawyer and politician who ran for president unsuccessfully. He profited from slavery, via a Mississippi plantation in his wife's family, which he managed and earned income on from afar.

A statue depicting Douglas was removed from the Capitol lawn last September. Still, the so-called "little giant" is honored across the state, including a Springfield public school and street named after him. In 2020, a park named after Douglas in Chicago was changed to Douglass Park, in honor of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and his wife, Anna.

The park name change in Springfield started with the idea to change the name to Douglass as well, but instead the board solicited ideas from the public before choosing to honor Duncan. Other candidates included Ruth Ellis, a Springfield native and Black LGBTQ-rights activist, and Eva Carroll Monroe, who started in Springfield one of the nation's first orphanages for Black children.

Sunshine Clemons, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Springfield, spoke at the ribbon-cutting in support of the name change. "I really think it's indicative of what we can do as a community if we come together," she told Illinois Times. "This was a collective effort."

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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