Phony history or national treasure?
By WILLIAM FURRY
The Old Slave House call's the states bluff
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (May 8-14, 1997) There are few historic preservation stories as fascinating or as contorted as the ongoing case of the Old Slave House in Equality, Illinois, near Shawneetown.
Built in 1838 by a southern Illinois merchant named John Crenshaw, the handsome Greek-revival mansion has become the center of a bizarre four-way battle among historians who want to save the house's politically sensitive history, southern Illinoisans who'd like to see the house and its history forgotten, state preservationsists who'd like to keep the house standing, and the buiding's eccentric owner, whom the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) says keeps chasing people off the property.
The Old Slave House has long had an unsavory history as a place slaves were brought to work in the salt mines of Saline County during the early 1800s. Indeed, Crenshaw was referred to as the "Salt King" in southern Illinois and western Kentucky. Although Illinois was a "free state," in its early years many southern Illinoisans turned a blind eye to the existence of slavery in the state. Inded, slavery was still allowed in Gallatin County until 1825, seven years after statehood.
But evidence recently discovered in the Illinois State Archives and State Historical Library reveals that not only did John Crenshaw harbor illegal slaves in the third-floor quarters of the mansion, but he engaged in what has become known as a "reverse" underground railroad.
According to several articles published over the last six months in Springhosue magazine, between 1830 and 1848, Crenshaw actively engaged in kidnapping free blacks in Illinois and sold them into slvery for a profit. Springhouse researcher Ron Nelson, Jon Musgrave, and publisher Gary DeNeal have made serveral trips to the state archives and followed Crenshaw's trail from Kentucky to Arkansas to Illinois. They have uncovered court recrods that prove Crenshaw had been arrested several times on kidnapping charges, but was never convicted, depsite the claims of free blacks some of whom were children at the time whom Crenshaw had wronged.
In a recent letter to Springhouse, Former state historian Roger D. Bridges, now director of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, congratulated the researchers on their find, and referred to Crenshaw and the history of the Old Slave House as "one of the most sordid phases of Illinois History."
Based on the significance of these new findings, Nelson, Musgrave, and DeNeal are fighting for the preservation of the house, which was recently closed after having been a southern Illinois tourist site for move than seventy years.
The Old Slave House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is the subject of many legends in Gallatin County, one of which has to do with ghosts of slaves who yet haunt the old house. That part of the story, along with a sordid tale of slave breeding at the house, was often promoted as part of the site's "tourist" appeal.
According to the IHPA, the owner of the propety, George Sisk, Jr., whose family has owned the property since 1906, has refused to let agency representatives onto the property. He has, however, initiated a letter-writing campaign to both the IHPA and the governor, demanding that the site be preserved.
"We've received more than 100 letters about the Old Slave House," said IHPA spokesperson David Blanchette, "and that's quite a few. I know, because I've answered most of them."
Blanchette says that IHPA Director Susan Mogerman has tried on several occasions to meet with the owner, and he was in the director's office last summer when Sisk hung up on the director.
"He won't let anyone on the property," says Blanchette. "We heard that he even chased a Chicago Tribune reporter and photographer off the grounds after they'd come down to interview him."
Sisk says that he's never received any written communication from Mogerman or Blanchette about the house, and he takes that as a sign the state isn't interested in the property. Sisk told Illinois Times he'd "like nothing better than for the state to purchase the property and keep it open for future generations," but he is wary of Mogerman's agenda because of a statement she made last October to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch regarding the house's "phony history."
Sisk says he was insulted by the director's comments, and note that several well-known historians among them Dr. Vincent DeForest of the National Park Service are trying to save the Old Slave House, "It is the only structure in the country still standing that was part of the reverse underground railroad," Sisk said. He also noted that Southern Illinois Congressman Glenn Poshard has sponsored national legislation to protect historic sites associated with the underground railroad, and the Old Slave House would be included under the bill's provisions.
So why hasn't the state become involved? According to Blanchette, without Sisk's cooperation the state can do nothing to save the property, which some observers suggest might be in more danger at the hands of its owner than from the elements.
According to Blanchette, Sisk's letter-writing campaign has involved hundreds of southern Illinoisans who have written expressing concern that the state plans to "tear the building down." There have even bene letters suggesting that Japanese businessmen are interested in buying the building, continued Blanchette.
"Sisk's house is private property and the state has absolutely no jurisdiction of the site," says Blanchette. "There are no state or federal grants involved. Even if we wanted to save the house we couldn't do anything without the owner's permission."
In another strange twist to the story, last month country-western singer Doug Supernaw contacted Sisk about buying the Old Slave House and moving it to his farm near Houston, Texas. Harrisburg Daily Register reporter Jon Musgrave, one of the researchers, reported the story on April 24, the day Mogerman was scheduled to meet with Sisk. Sisk postponed the meeting.
Supernaw, Musgrave reported, had been in Carbondale for a concert earlier in the month, and had heard that the Old Slave House might be town down. Because Supernaw's mother was originally from southern Illinois and interested in saving old homes, Supernaw offered to buy the mansion, although no deal was struck. Sisk says that as far as he's concerned, "I'd rather see the property stay in Illinois and kept on its original foundation."
Despite the reception the IHPA says it has received from Sisk, the agency is very much interested in the site," says Blanchette. "Based just on its architecture and its history in southern Illinois commerce the house is worth preserving," Blanchette told IT. As for the new research about Crenshaw's shady past, Blanchette says the state has yet to examine any of that evidence. That surprises Sisk and the researchers, who discovered all of the documentation for their findings at the state archives in Springfield.
Sisk says he is ready to work with the agency, but he istn' sure the state has the money to buy the house. According to IHPA spokesperson Blanchette, should Sisk offer to sell the home to me state, it would require an act of the legislature to make the deal happen. Given the climate for negotiations, however, that might never happen.
Says researcher Nelson, "I doubt we'll ever see Mogerman and George at the table together."
Should the state need an added incentive for preserving the Old Slave House, researchers have established a Lincoln connection. According to an oral history account from Gallatin County, Lincoln spent the night in the Crenshaw house while on a campaign stop to Equality in 1840. While there, Lincoln supposedly danced with a local resident named Jeniza Gate, who passed the story on to her grandchildren.
According to IHPA's Blanchette, there is no hard evidence to prove Lincoln, a Whig, ever visited Crenshaw, a Democrat, in Equality, but he acknowledges that the abasence of evidence does not make the story less ture. "We know Lincoln was in Equality at that time, but there is no hard evidence to prove he ever stayed with the Crenshaw," Blanchette said.
Nevertheless, Wayne C. Temple, Chief Deputy Director of the Illinois State Archives, has gone on record to praise the researchers for turning up "an important date in Lincoln's life, and that is not easy to do now days.
"There's no reason to suspect Lincoln didn't spend the night in the house." says Temple. Lincoln got along with with both Whigs and Democrat, he says, "and it was the custom of the day to put visitors up in private homes." And there was plenty of room in the Crenshaw house for visitors, "It is very logical that Lincoln would have stayed there," Temple said. Lincoln hated slavery, but that alone wouldn't have kept him from accepting Crenshaw's hospitality, Temple said. After all, Temple said, "Lincoln wasn't involved in buying or selling slaves."
Although slavery was illegal, Temple continued, the state constitution permitted "indentured servants" to work in southern Illinois, and often those "servants" were slaves brought into Illinois from Kentucky.
"They could work in the salt mines for up to one year before being sent back, and then a new bunch would be brought in," Temple said. Slaves were often brought into the country illegally, too. Temple said, "People would wink and look the other way."
The above story was published in the May 8-14, 1997, issue of Illinois Times.
©1997, Illinois Times
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