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Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006 06:22 am

The Springfield underground

In Oak Ridge Cemetery, courage comes to life

The Springfield underground

The three girls danced around in a circle. “I’m so happy we’re together again,” the oldest one said. I realized they were dancing in heaven. There is no place in Springfield closer to heaven on an October Sunday than this sunny cemetery ridge, surrounded by still-green oaks and a few maples, red and yellow. The Sangamon County Historical Society’s annual walk through Oak Ridge Cemetery makes history come alive. We were on a plateau nearly devoid of gravestones except for the large white memorial stone marked “Home for the Friendless.” Here the Parker sisters — portrayed beautifully by Talor Lutz, Amanda Arnett, and Megan Hart — told their story of courage.

Their father went off to fight for the rebels in the Civil War and never came home. The sisters tried to help their mother through hard times, but then she died of disease. The orphan girls were taken in by the kind Rev. Francis Springer, a Springfield minister then serving as chaplain at Fort Smith, Ark., who had turned the fort into a refuge for widows and orphans. When the Army decided to discontinue that use for the fort, Springer wrote to his Springfield friends, asking them to take in about 100 widows and orphans still at Fort Smith. They readily agreed, setting up the Home for the Friendless at Seventh and South Grand.

“I was so afraid we’d be separated,” the oldest sister said. But together they rode the orphan train (“It was so cold, we thought we were going to die.”) and then got on a riverboat up the Mississippi to Cairo. “That boat was smelly,” the youngest said cutely. Then they rode another cold cattle car to Springfield, where finally, still together, they were greeted by warm people and warm food. That was the end of the drama, and our group at the cemetery walk applauded. I asked, “What happened to the girls?” Our host replied, “They all died of typhoid within a month after their arrival in Springfield.” “How old were you?” I asked the actors. “Six,” said one of the girls. “Nine,” said another. “Twelve,” said the third. They clung to each other lovingly.

Next stop was the grave of Jamieson Jenkins, marked by a white marble obelisk, now on its side and flush with the ground. There to portray him, and to sketch the story of Springfield’s role in the Underground Railroad, was Robert Davis. Jenkins, born in 1808 in North Carolina, was a mulatto freeman, but a freeman in North Carolina wasn’t much different from a slave. He escaped to Indiana with the Quakers, then in 1845 made his way to Springfield, where he lived in the block south of the Lincolns on Eighth Street. When 11 escaped slaves from St. Louis came through Springfield on their way to freedom, Jamieson, risking his own freedom, bought seven of them passage to Bloomington. “Anytime I can help a slave go free, I’m going to do it,” he proclaimed. Jenkins noted for us that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation has been called meaningless as a legal document but that for slaves it had huge symbolic meaning: “It put the sweet smell of freedom in the air.”

Finally we stopped off at the grave of James C. Conkling (1816-1899), boy mayor of Springfield, circuit-riding lawyer, orator, educator, and recipient/reader of Lincoln’s famous 1863 Letter to Conkling. Conkling — portrayed by actor Don Schneider, dressed in top hat and tails — explained to us that he had invited Lincoln to address a big pro-Union rally in Springfield but the president couldn’t leave Washington and sent a letter instead, with instructions for Conkling to “Read it slowly.” In the letter, Lincoln’s rhetoric soared: “Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have been proved that, among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost.”

Just as Springfield is undermined by hollow coal tunnels threatening to sink it, the town is undergirded by full graves offering to uplift it. The stories buried at Oak Ridge not only built our history, they inspire our future by reminding that life is short and courage is enduring.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.

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