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Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 12:10 am

African-American heritage explored

Detail of Springfield police portrait, 1892.


“You, as individuals, are very significant to the success of a project like this,” said Floyd Mansberger of Fever River Research, addressing a group at Union Baptist Church Sept. 18. The project being discussed was an architectural survey to create a record of the African-American experience in the Springfield area beginning with the city’s initial settlement. Mansberger explained to the assembled group that the personal knowledge of community members would help identify significant people, places and events worthy of inclusion in the study.

Mansberger and Fever River, working in partnership with the Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum, have been tasked by the city to take a close look at a large area on the greater east side of Springfield ranging from Clear Lake Avenue to South Grand and from Tenth Street to Wirth Avenue. Although they have conducted a wide range of cultural resource management, architectural history and historical archaeology projects for the city since opening their offices in 1985 – including surveys of the west side capital area, Enos Park and Aristocracy Hill – the current project, encompassing approximately 43 acres and containing 1,369 buildings, is their largest yet, according to Mansberger.

Due to the daunting size of the area, Mansberger said that the project will be in the form of what he called a “windshield survey.” “We’re not going to inventory every building out there, we’re going to do a drive-through looking for the more significant buildings, the buildings that we feel have both historical significance and architectural integrity.”

Lincoln Colored Home founder Eva Monroe (second from right) and her sisters, date unknown.

According to Mansberger, the National Park Service and the National Register system recognize significance of historic properties based on four different criteria: social history (events that contribute to our collective past); notable people; the architecture itself (specific architectural style or type of construction method) and archaeology. “Even if there’s a building that doesn’t just stand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m significant!’ there is often material under the ground that can contribute to our understanding of that event or that person or place,” Mansberger explained.

The process involves finding a building associated with a particular event or person. There is a wide range of historical resources which come into play, including atlases, public records, contemporary newspapers, published histories, historic photograph collections, building surveys of the landscapes and oral histories. Mansberger said that federal census records can be extremely helpful, as can city directories. “The Springfield city directory from 1876 has a seven-page inventory of the African-American community in the city,” he said. “Another one wasn’t published until 1926, but it went into great detail over the length of 50 or 60 pages.”

“The people of Springfield are justly proud of their colored fire department,” according to a 1920-era Directory of Sangamon County’s Colored Citizens.
Some of the treasures that have come to light so far include the Negro Motorist Tourist Book which was published between1936 and 1964 and provided vital safety and lodging information for black families traveling across the United States during the era of Jim Crow, including a recommendation for Springfield’s Dudley Hotel. “Some of these places that are still standing may not look like much but they may have integrity or significance to our collective history,” said Mansberger, mentioning establishments like the Boston Richie moving company and the Lincoln Colored Home, established by Eva Carroll Monroe, who also established the Springfield Colored Women’s Club. During the presentation, several of the community members at the meeting provided insight and context for some of the slides Mansberger projected. One woman even pointed out her aunt in a group photo of several youths taken in the 1920s.

The National Register of Historic Places, a federal program, along with the National Parks Service and the former Historic Preservation Agency (now part of the state Department of Natural Resources) are all providing support for the project, which has long-term ambitions beyond the east side of town. (The city is providing $9,240 worth of funding in addition to a $20,560 heritage grant from IDNR.)  “We’re going to look at African-American settlement in all of Springfield, develop that history and context and specifically look at buildings in particular neighborhoods,” said Mansberger. “That way, it can be built upon over the years so the project can include buildings in other parts of the city.”

If you would like to share information with the project regarding events, people and places significant to the African-American community in Springfield, Floyd Mansberger can be reached via email at fmansberger@comcast.net or by telephone at 217-341-8138.

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.


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