Thursday, October 09, 2003

Letter Defends House
A new letter to the editor in today's Southern Illinoisan does an excellent job of answering last week's letter from a retired professor who wanted to whitewash the history of the Old Slave House. I've called and received permission from the writer to post it here, so here it is.

Lessons to be learned at Old Slave House

To the Editor:

With due respect to David Conrad regarding the Old Slave House in Gallatin County, he misses the point of preservation. What he cites as its weakness, the “incompatible mixture of rural gentility and sheer racism,” is, in fact, its strength.

That this house existed in a free state — our state — however illegally, demonstrates the pervasiveness of the institution of slavery at that time in our history. That it could exist where people of good conscience lived, shows the strength of its evil. It may also point to a certain amount of indifference among persons of that time who often felt more allegiance with their neighbors to the south than to the ideals of the north.

Regardless, it is a touchstone of the history of our region and the nation that allows us to measure how far American society has come and how far is left to go.

Every person, not just African-American, who visits such a location should feel the weight of its sins and be disturbed by the extent to which human cruelty can manifest itself. Sanitizing the presentation of such a site to make it less offensive to modern sensibilities destroys the lesson that it must teach.

As not all concentration camps in Germany were preserved, those that have been do not lighten things up with a fresh coat of paint and closing off areas because they are too painful to view. Auschwitz-Birkenau would be meaningless were it to be presented as less than it was.

So must preservation of a house wherein the history of slavery is depicted. No one is proposing historical reenactments at the museum. That would be too much and reach the threshold of gratuitousness that Mr. Conrad opposes. Slavery wasn't inoffensive. It wasn't somewhere else. It was a horror that must not be made palatable, less people again be indifferent to its lesson — the same lesson that the human race has had such a hard time grasping throughout its history.

To borrow a phrase, we — all of us — must never forget. And, in being honest with ourselves about our history, maybe someday we'll get it right.

Marc Liberta

[Source: Marc Liberta. Thursday, October 9, 2003. “Letters to the Editor: Lessons to be learned at Old Slave House.” (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan. 110:282. 4A.]
Is It Unique?
Why is the Old Slave House special? It's the only Reverse Underground Railroad station known to still exist in the entire country. I know we've said John Crenshaw's manor house atop Hickory Hill was one of two such sites, but it turns out the second structure isn't what it claims to be.

The Johnston Tavern in Reliance, Delaware on the Delmarva peninsula has long been tied to the Patty Cannon Gang of the 1820s. Patty's son-in-law Joe Johnston ran the tavern then in the area known as Johnson's Corners because it sat at the corner of two Delaware counties and the Maryland state line. There's even a historical marker outside the house.

However in April, researchers from the PBS series "History Detectives" took a look at the house and the stories. Although the history is well-documented. It turns out that the house wasn't. There had been a fire and later rebuilt. Thus, while the site is well-documented for its kidnapping history, the present structure wasn't the one. You can read's account of the filming, Cannon legend lives. The story aired this summer. I missed it but someone else told me about it.

Also, Charlotte Patterson, another documentarian focusing on the Old Slave House visited the site out east this summer as well. She too learned that it wasn't the original structure.

Like the slave house, the Patty Cannon House has its share of ghost stories, according to Troy Taylor, ghost hunter and writer from Alton.

So where does that leave the Old Slave House? It's back to being unique.
New Link
I've just added a new link on the People page. It's to Darrel Dexter's research on "Eleven Families of Color" in antebellum Southern Illinois, including some of the founding settlers of the Lakeview Settlement near Carrier Mills in Saline County.