SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Colorful street signs with the names of Black men who left a lasting impact on the community and a mural featuring a roadmap of the area’s history now point passersby to Springfield’s checkered past outside newly reopened Route History, a museum highlighting Black stories around historic Route 66.
“I love how they expanded it to the outdoors,” said Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder, who was among those in attendance for last Friday’s ribbon cutting. “It kind of engages the person that’s just walking by wondering what’s in there. Now you have that interactive space from the outside. They’ll draw you into the inside. So they’ve done a great job of grabbing someone’s attention and teaching an important part of our history.”
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Pointing to the past
Four traditional street signs sit in a square to the right side of the building. Each of them features the name of a Black man who was a local business owner. Below each of the four green street signs, there are bright red, blue and yellow signs with details about each of the men and the impact they had.
The Thomas Houston Avenue signs share details about Houston escaping slavery in Missouri and settling in Springfield, where he used his home as an Underground Railroad station. Houston’s family helped found Zion Missionary Baptist Church, which served as a depot in the Underground Railroad.
“In these times that we live in, it’s very important that we provide opportunities for all youth to see themselves in positive images,” said Gina Lathan, one of the owners of the Springfield museum. “For this particular exhibit, we wanted young Black males to be able to see that many years ago, there were Black men who were leaders in the community, who owned and operated their own businesses, who were very mindful of the social climate of the environment they lived in.”
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The Scott Burton Boulevard signs tell the story of Burton, who owned a barbershop at the corner of Ninth and Jefferson streets. During the Springfield 1908 Race Riot, he was lynched, and his shop was burned to the ground.
‘Good, bad and whatever. It just needs to be told.’
“If we don’t tell history, we’re destined to repeat the bad parts of it,” said former Springfield Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson, who helped Lathan and fellow Route History owners Stacy Grundy and Kenneth Lockhart secure funding through an Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity grant, which allowed them to purchase the building. “It needs to be told from every corner — good, bad and whatever. It just needs to be told, and I’m so glad that this entity is being recognized and starting the telling of the story.”
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The William Donnegan Lane signs tell of the entrepreneur’s success. As a shoemaker, Donnegan made shoes for Abraham Lincoln, and as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, he helped enslaved Black men and women escape to Canada. During the 1908 Race Riot, he was beaten, his throat was slashed, and he was hanged from a tree — dying the following day.
Jameson Jenkins Court tells the story of another successful Black entrepreneur who helped enslaved men and women pass through Springfield.
‘How far we need to go’
“I look at our city or anything in life like a puzzle,” Langfelder said. “When you’re not remembering your history or reporting on it, then you’re missing pieces of that puzzle, pieces of that picture. They’re filling in that picture of what makes our community great. The struggles that we’ve had — it’s not always been pleasant — but it shows how far we’ve come and how far we need to go.”
Behind the four street signs, the new mural painted on the side of the building facing Eighth Street features Eva Carroll Monroe, who dedicated her life to helping Black children in the foster care system in Springfield and throughout Illinois. Lt. Col. Otis B. Duncan, who was awarded the Purple Heart for his service and has a longstanding family history in Springfield, is also featured in the mural painted by local artist Korbin King.
During the 1908 Race Riot, Duncan — who was the highest-ranking Black officer to serve in the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War I — had his home broken into and ransacked by a white mob.
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“Route 66 was called Mother Road,” said Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory. “A mother nourishes her children and things that spring up. So everything that has sprung up from Route 66 or Mother Road, we have to do our part and nourish it. That includes this building, and that includes Black history.”
Route History, which initially opened its doors in February 2019 before shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic, is now open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from noon until 10 p.m.
Contact Natalie Pierre at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NataliePierre_.