Monday, July 12, 2004

'Uncle Bob' News
The Daily Herald of suburban Chicago has a story today titled, An ugly era in Illinois. The article focuses on Robert "Uncle Bob" Wilson, the man who claimed he was a stud slave at the Old Slave House.

I'm quoted as well as Bill Furry, the new acting director of the Illinois State Historical Society, and Maynard Crossland, the director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

There are numerous minor mistakes in Tom O'Konwitz's article, which isn't surprising considering he walked into the story completely blind to the history. Every other reporter that has covered the house and interviewed me has also found something to get wrong. There's just too many details that are new.

Overall, the story flows well and gives readers a glimpse into the state's past. If it reads awkward in places, it's due in part because this story has been nearly three months in the making, an incredibly long time in the life of a daily newspaper reporter. It started with the picture of me at Uncle Bob's grave in Elgin taken in late April when I was up there at the annual meeting of the state historical society.

Uncle Bob has always been the hardest part of the Old Slave House story for people to believe. It's been hyped, oversold and intensively criticized, but the fact remains that the stories weren't made up for tourist consumption by the Sisk family that used to own the house, but were told by Wilson himself.

Over the last few months I have had the chance to talk with former state welfare investigator who had known Uncle Bob in Elgin during the last year or so of his life. I've also finally got around to transcribing an interview with another elderly gentleman who had met Bob repeatedly as a boy in Shawneetown now nearly three-quarters of a century ago.

The picture of Bob that's emerging is not one of a man bragging of his conquests, but of a solitary individual haunted by his actions. As a slave in his late teens and early twenties, he had the choice of doing what he did or living the harsh life of a field hand. He chose the one less physically demanding, but the one with the greater emotional toll.

From the interviews it's clear that the women, many probably just in their teens, didn't have any choice in the matter at all. In other words it was rape.

The issue of slave breeding remains the most controversial and probably the least-studied aspect of slavery. I've only found one thesis or dissertation that focused on it, yet you can search the slave narratives recorded by the Writers Project Administration during the Great Depression and find similar references to breeding efforts that went beyond simply encouraging slaves to form family units.

As to another quote by Crossland, IHPA's head honcho, sheds doubts on all the stories of the Old Slave House because they are still "unproven" by the agency's research. The agency did hire a historian to study the site's history. In 2000, the agency contracted with myself, Ron Nelson and Gary DeNeal, to work with their new historian and provide him access to our research, which we did. While the new historian's report in 2002 report added a few new pieces to the puzzle he made little effort to put the pieces in order. In other words, they still don't know what to think.

Meanwhile, another four years of research has been going on down here in Southern Illinois. In addition to the new interviews with individuals who had met Uncle Bob, Crenshaw family letters, correspondence and comments have been made available to us that shows specific evidence of the kidnapping operations taking place in the house. That hasn't been shared with IHPA yet because they've never asked to see it. For the most part I haven't published much of it on this site or in other publications in the mean time because I've been focusing on wrapping up a book to tell the whole story, rather than just piece-meal it out one bit at a time like we did when we first started our research.

The evidence is there. The stories are real (and the ones that aren't are just really historic).