Making history

Demonstrators are driven by desire to acknowledge, learn and rectify

click to enlarge This year instead of Juneteenth celebrations at Comer Cox Park, participants marched to the Capitol. - PHOTO BY ZACH ADAMS, 1221 PHOTOGRAPHY.
Photo by Zach Adams, 1221 Photography.
This year instead of Juneteenth celebrations at Comer Cox Park, participants marched to the Capitol.

As demonstrators continue to plea for justice for people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Juneteenth was marked differently this year. Many say its unofficial status is proof that, collectively, we need to do a better job of acknowledging our roots.

The Juneteenth holiday comes from an announcement of emancipation made in Texas on June 19, 1865 – more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Celebrations date back all the way to 1886. We all know the Fourth of July as a national holiday. But on July 4, 1776, Black people in the U.S. were not free. Their independence was not part of the deal.

Last year, state Rep. La Shawn Ford of Chicago filed a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday. "Many people have no idea about it. And many people have no idea about the harm that slavery has done to this nation," said Ford. "The holiday is a reminder that we still have work to do to make sure that there's justice for all." The measure has stayed in a rules committee since October.

In Chicago on Friday, June 19, Ford marched with those advocating for reforms in policing, education, health care and more. Gov. JB Pritzker proclaimed Juneteenth a holiday and said he would support legislative efforts to make it official. The same day, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators announced a bill to make it a federal holiday.

In Springfield, Juneteenth has been celebrated for more than two decades with parades and gatherings that feature Black culture. But this year, in addition to the ongoing protests and calls for change, there's also a pandemic. So participants decorated cars and drove and marched to the Capitol, where they then held a rally. This year, they crossed the invisible line that segregates the city.

Michael Williams is one of the early Juneteenth organizers in Springfield. From the podium at the feet of the Abraham Lincoln statue he told the crowd Springfield should have the biggest Juneteenth events in the country given its history as home to the Great Emancipator. Later he said, "The difference between prior years and now is that our white brothers and sisters are saying with us, we're tired, we're done." Williams said COVID-19 has made "the big gap in health care, between those who have and those who don't – between the white community and the Black community" impossible to ignore.

It's far past time to rectify the way systemic discrimination hurts Black people through no fault of their own – 400 years overdue, many will tell you. Health, housing, economic development, the list of discrepancies is long, according to Williams and others who study and live through the insidious ways discrimination is institutionalized.

In Springfield, calls have been echoed to mark Juneteenth as an official holiday. Ald. Shawn Gregory, who has been an organizer for the celebration, said he'd push for the move in city council. The mayor told rally goers this year he supported the idea.

But for many, the recognition of the day is just one step. Widespread education about the lives affected by slavery and its aftermath is also necessary, advocates say. After all, oppression did not end with slavery. Systemic white supremacy was written into law in other ways.

Reckoning with our roots

Many of us learn that slavery was a sin unique to the South. But Illinois was an active participant. Schools don't have to teach that though. Darrel Dexter is a high school teacher in Tamms, Illinois, and a historian who focuses on the subject of slavery in the state. "Here in Illinois, our state history is not a required class. If people aren't taught about it and they don't hear the stories, then of course they don't know about it. That just encourages this myth that in Illinois and in the Northern states there was no racism," Dexter recently told ProPublica Illinois.

Less than half a century after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, white people in Springfield burned down Black residences and homes and lynched two innocent Black men. The massacre, ignited by a white woman's false claim of rape by a Black man, became known as the 1908 Race Riot. Historian James Loewen, the author of books such as Lies my Teacher Told Me and Sundown Towns, said the murderous violence was an attempt to make Springfield a sundown town, a place Blacks were not allowed to live in or visit after dark. Throughout the country, there are communities of mostly white people, and scholars such as Loewen say it's often by no accident. "When I began this research, I expected to find about 10 sundown towns in Illinois (my home state) and perhaps 50 across the country. Instead, I have found about 507 in Illinois and thousands across the United States," he said on his website. Loewen is a Decatur native.

click to enlarge Members of the Springfield Black Theatre Alliance sang Lift Every Voice and Sing, aka The Black National Anthem, at the Juneteenth rally. - PHOTO BY ZACH ADAMS, 1221 PHOTOGRAPHY.
Photo by Zach Adams, 1221 Photography.
Members of the Springfield Black Theatre Alliance sang Lift Every Voice and Sing, aka The Black National Anthem, at the Juneteenth rally.

As reported by Governing magazine last year, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the city's poverty rate shows a divide along racial lines that is larger than national averages. For Black Springfield citizens the poverty rate was 41% while the same rate for white people was 14%. The reporting shows that segregation in Springfield and other Illinois cities is worse than similar areas throughout the U.S. Springfield's segregation is a fact of its past and present, but it doesn't have to be its future.

Mbanna Kantako, formerly named Dewayne Readus, has long lectured on such topics. Kantako lived in the John Hay Homes – housing projects that used to be on the east side of Springfield. There, some 33 years ago, he started a pirate radio station where he reported on the activity of police scanners and interviewed people about their claims of police abuse. Kantako, decidedly radical, called attention to colonization, police brutality and other forms of systemic racism to anyone who could manage to pick up the low-frequency signal of Human Rights Radio.

Black Lives Matter Springfield co-founder and vice president Khoran Readus is his niece. As a child, she marched with her uncle and others for causes such as tenants' rights. Those were formative experiences. She attended summer school that Kantako and the late Mike Townsend, a social work professor at Sangamon State University/University of Illinois Springfield, would coordinate. They would go on trips to places like museums and farms. "It was an experience kids in the projects never got," said Readus. And they'd learn about Black history. When she turned 15 she became a counselor herself. Now, at 40, she said it helped her develop a strong desire to help others and she questions where she would be without the programming. "A lot of people don't get that opportunity."

"Each one teach one"

"My dad – he's the reason I'm standing out here today," 17-year-old Nykeyla Henderson said after the rally she helped organize outside the Capitol earlier in spring, which more than a thousand people attended. As a result, she later met with the governor, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and local officials. She said her late father took it upon himself to teach his kids about Black history.

In the midst of the current resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Henderson also resurrected an effort of her father's called the Black People Party of America. "It's about unity, bringing people together, bringing the community together," she said. Teenagers like Henderson make up the current iteration of the group. Jerry Banks is one of the older members. The Springfield High School graduate will be a freshman at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City this year. He too had family who taught him about Black history. His mom had him submit essays for an annual Martin Luther King Jr. writing contest. She passed on her love for Maya Angelou. Banks read Angelou's poem "Still I Rise" at a recent protest. The poem begins:

"You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise."

Banks grew up witnessing history being made. "Some of my first memories are watching Obama get inaugurated," he said. Banks said, "In high school we learned about the slave trade, how Africans were products ... and we had a Black history assembly every February." He said the assemblies focused on people who had recently passed, like Aretha Franklin and Muhammad Ali. Banks said he would have preferred to also learn more about current changemakers. "There are multiple Black people that are still alive and actually still changing the world."

click to enlarge Youth who are part of The Outlet in Springfield have taken trips to prominent civil rights sites. - PHOTO COURTESY THE OUTLET
Photo courtesy The Outlet
Youth who are part of The Outlet in Springfield have taken trips to prominent civil rights sites.

Erica Austin from Springfield helped organize the recent Juneteenth rally. She's a community coordinator for SIU School of Medicine. She has also led Black History Month assemblies for Feitshans Elementary School and Washington Middle School "because our kids are powerful, but we have to educate them. And the education starts with each one of us." Austin chose to focus a recent assembly on Black inventors "that we tend to not talk about." She had the kids learn about the people who had invented Black hair products, the toilet and the cellphone.

Austin quotes an African American proverb she's taken to heart: "Each one teach one." The saying came about because enslaved people were not only denied education, their learning to read was often against the law. Still, they found ways to subvert and educate one another.

Austin takes education seriously. She's studying at Illinois State University where she's taking a class about Black liberation and radical traditions. "The stuff that I'm learning, even at my age, it's mind blowing," she said. It's "stuff I should have been taught." Austin said she considers herself fortunate to have been in after-school programming with Doris Chambers "who took it a step further than what the school taught us." While kids are generally taught about key figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, it was Chambers who taught her about Claudette Colvin, who as a teenager did the same thing as Rosa Parks on a bus nine months prior. Chambers served many years as a youth coordinator for the Springfield Urban League. Austin plans for a Ph.D. degree in education administration. "I want to see policy changes," she said, namely "across-the-board curriculum changes."

Representation and empowerment

In lieu of a more inclusive curriculum, Michael Phelon of The Outlet has taken educating kids about Black history into his own hands. He heads the mentorship program in Springfield which is catered toward youth who lack a father figure. For the past three years he's led trips to Birmingham, Selma and Memphis, among other places. He said the things they learn is "American history. It's not just Black history, it is all of our history."

"Some of our history is ugly. But in order to make progress, you have to deal with it. I think we can no longer hide behind closed doors and say racism doesn't exist," he said. "We're still feeling the impact and the effect now, so how do we change it?"

Phelon makes a point of exposing the kids to stories of Black success as well as struggle. "You don't hear those excellent stories of entrepreneurship," he said, citing Black Wall Street as an example. The Black business district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was one of the most affluent of its kind, before white people massacred Black residents, destroying their businesses and homes in 1921. Hundreds were killed.

As of last year, and before COVID-19, Phelon was able to expose the kids to related local history at the Route History museum, which opened in February 2019 at 737 E. Cook St. in Springfield. The museum describes itself as "a space to experience and learn about the tragedy, resilience and excellence of Black people along the Historic Route 66 highway and in the city of Springfield, Illinois."

President Gina Lathan is a Springfield native who got the idea after traveling and learning the international appeal of Route 66. "I realized the uniqueness as well as the popularity." But in the telling of the highway's history, she said, "I didn't see people who look like me, or hear about people from my community and background being told." The museum aims to incorporate the Black experience into the history of the "mainstreet of America." While it includes content about the 1908 Race Riot, it also provides information about the Green Book – a guide during the Jim Crow era to help Black people travel safely through a country full of sundown towns and racist laws.

Lathan said the museum has supplied educational workshops for after-school programming, and is working on developing a school-based curriculum. "It would be a great opportunity to be able to have conversations with our district."

State Rep. Ford, a former history teacher for Chicago Public Schools, wants a more inclusive education for all Illinois students. He's sponsoring a measure that would have schools include lessons about the contributions of Black people and their civilizations pre-slavery, as well as the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Ford said, "It's a disservice to the whole state of Illinois and the country when you miseducate people."

He also sponsored a measure approved in 2018 that required an audit of school districts throughout the state on how they teach Black history. The task force was also charged with answering what the state's position is on teaching Black history, and what protocols it might put into place. A final report has yet to come.

You can contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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