The Settlement gets its day, 152 years later
By Dave Gathman email@example.com January 26, 2014 8:14PM
One of the few photos surviving from the Settlement neighborhood in Elgin, taken in the late 1800s or early 1900s, shows Jacob Downs wearing a Masons vest while posing with other early African-Americans. Downs lived at 410 Hickory St. His great-grandson, Benjamin Davis, is an artist who still lives in Elgin. | Photo courtesy Downs family and Elgin History Museum
Other events coming up to celebrate African-American History Month include:
A visit by World War II Tuskegee Airmen, screening of the movie “For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots” and Black History Family Festival, all at Gail Borden Public Library, from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1.
“The History of African Americans in the Military,” at Elgin Community College, at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5.
“Good Hair,” Chris Rock’s documentary about the race’s relationship with its hair, at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, at O La La Ijorere in Elgin Art Space, 51 S. Grove Ave.; RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“A Hair Story,” exploring African-Americans’ hair through touch, artwork and a variety of live hairstyling techniques. From 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23, at Elgin Artspace Gallery, 51 S. Spring St.
Sankofa Wax Museum of African-American History: Children and teens from Second Baptist Church portray African-Americans who have made significant contributions to America. From 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15, at Gail Borden Public Library.
Updated: February 28, 2014 6:11AM
A historical monument describing the arrival of freed slaves in Elgin.
A school renamed after the city’s first black school principal.
Soon, a series of signs describing the achievements of notable black Elginites.
And maybe soon, a street named after a black city councilman.
Mark Billings thinks the Watch City’s one-time African-American neighborhood, known as “the Settlement,” is finally getting the attention its deserves — and with it the whole history of Elgin’s black population.
“I think somebody must have been praying for racial reconciliation for Elgin, because so many things are happening all at once now,” Billings said.
Billings, president of the Summit Park Neighbors Association, was part of a panel discussion at Gail Borden Public Library last week that reviewed the history of the Settlement. Billings, some descendants of the original settlers and members of the Elgin Area Historical Society noted that this little neighborhood on the city’s northeast side was settled during the Civil War by illiterate just-freed slaves. But it would go on to produce a master scientist, military heroes, an NBA player — and a memorable fried-chicken joint.
“I’m so personally inspired by the African-American history in this area,” said Billings, a white man who says he bought a house a few blocks from The Settlement eight years ago because he liked its old-time vibes and look. “It’s a nugget of gold waiting to be discovered.”
Trainload of slaves
Located just south and east of what are now the Summit Street McDonald’s restaurant and the Dundee Avenue KFC restaurant, the Settlement included parts of Fremont Street, Hickory Place, Franklin Street and Ann Street.
The first blacks to arrive in Elgin were called “the Contrabands” because they had been seized from slave owners in the renegade, rebellious Confederate states of Alabama and Mississippi. Taken under the wing of Elgin-bred Army chaplain Benjamin Thomas as he traveled with a regiment of Kane County troops, the first set of 110 freed slaves arrived in the city by train on Oct. 15, 1862. All but five were women or children. Their male relatives had stayed on with the Army down South to work as wagon drivers or laborers.
Many Elginites were outraged by the intrusion. But in a letter to First Baptist Church Pastor Adoniram Joslyn, Thomas wrote, “Now is the time to prove our faith by our works has come in regard to the Negro.” Pastor Joslyn and his brother, City Attorney Edward Joslyn, would find themselves bitter enemies over whether to accept the blacks.
Local historian Raleigh Sutton said churches back in Elgin recruited their members to adopt the homeless ex-slaves. Some moved into white homes to work as cooks or maids. Others were sheltered by sympathetic whites until homes for them could be built in the Settlement. The location was picked, according to Sutton, because ground there was swampy and formerly had been used as a garbage dump.
New signs, new names
Billings said several recent developments suggest that Elgin’s African-American history is coming to the front of people’s minds:
In 2011, the neighbors association arranged to place a commemorative sign at the corner of Fremont and Hickory, telling about the arrival of the freed slaves in 1862.
The School District U46 Board of Education voted two weeks ago to change the name of the neighborhood’s school from Sheridan Elementary, named in honor of a white Civil War general from Ohio, to “Ronald D. O’Neal Elementary School,” in honor of the late U46 employee who became U46’s first black school administrator. The name change goes into effect July 1.
In May, the Summit Park Neighbors and Elgin Heritage Commission hope to put up what Billings called “interpretive signage” telling about the achievements of some prominent Elgin black people. He said the backers still need to raise $2,000 of the sign’s $5,000 cost.
The sign will be erected not in the Settlement but in Newsome Park, at the busy corner of Dundee Avenue and Kimball Street. Newsome Park itself was named after Arthur Newsome, part of that ex-slave group who became the unofficial leader of Elgin’s black community in the late 1800s. The park occupies the site where the predominantly black Second Baptist Church, founded by the Contrabands with help from the whites at First Baptist Church, stood before that congregation moved to Elgin’s far-east fringes.
Ernie Broadnax and filmmaker Phil Broxham finally have been making progress on a project Broadnax has been pursuing for 10 years: to record the history of Elgin blacks in a documentary video. The effort is now called “Project 231” because the Contrabands arrived in two railroad boxcars and they settled in three blocks, but all the races form one city. Parts of that work in progress were screened for the audience at last week’s forum, including interviews with black former Deputy Police Chief Cecil Smith; black community volunteer Ina Dews; O’Neal’s daughter, lawyer Traci O’Neal Ellis; and white sports star/Settlement native Don Mapes. Broadnax said he and Broxham have raised about half of the $150,000 needed to make that film.
Billings also revealed that he and some other civic leaders soon will ask the city to rename at least part of Hill Avenue after Bob Gilliam, a now-retired black U46 school administrator who served on the Elgin City Council for decades.
Ernie Broadnax, whose great-great grandmother escaped from slavery and arrived even before the Contrabands, recalled who lived in each house when he and his 13 brothers and sisters were growing up in a crowded little home along Fremont Street in the 1930s and 1940s.
Unlike today, when many people don’t even know the people living next door, the Settlement was the kind of neighborhood where everyone knew everyone else for blocks around.
“The neighborhood was really tight. We walked into each other’s homes. You didn’t even have to knock. Nobody locked their doors,” Broadnax recalled.
And not everyone in those blocks was black, either, Broadnax said.
“The Settlement was a unique area of Elgin, the only one that had an integrated street — Fremont Street,” he said. Home-sellers and real estate agents wouldn’t let what was then politely referred to as a “colored” person buy a house practically anywhere else until the 1960s and 1970s. When one black family moved into a block along Ann Street, he said, within a year the whites living there had moved out and the block had turned all-black.
“Have you ever been homeless with a pocket full of money? I’ve been there,” Dews said in her “Project 231” interview.
But Broadnax said that along Fremont, a Jewish family, a German-American family and an Italian-American family all lived a few houses away from his black family.
Broadnax said these people pretty much had to look out for themselves. “The police didn’t like to come out to that neighborhood. The health department never came to that neighborhood.”
In an interview with The Courier-News, Broadnax recalled how when his older sister was a child in the early 1930s, she watched a parade of men ride on horses along Dundee Avenue dressed in white sheets. She was impressed by the spectacle. But his father, who ran a shoe-repair business, told her what the Ku Klux Klan really did.
“My sister said, ‘Somebody oughtta tell the police about them!’ ” Broadnax recalled. “But my father said, ‘I recognize their boots under those sheets because I repair them, and half of those Klansmen ARE the police.’ ”
One time, a young black man from the neighborhood was suspected of having been too friendly with a white girl. A posse of Klansmen took him out to some woods on the west side and covered him with tar and feathers.
But the blacks of the neighborhood also could create their own trouble, Broadnax admitted. After watching a crime movie downtown at the Crocker or Grove or Rialto theater, he said, boys could sneak into a certain bar, hide behind the jukebox and “wait for some live action. You had to come to Fremont Street to see the live action. A fight could break out. Someone could get cut.”
And when beer sales were forbidden on Sunday mornings, he said, one pop-vending machine at the place happened to be stocked with bottles containing something other than soda pop.
For young people, Broadnax said, the center of activity was the Fremont Recreation Center in a frame house along Fremont Street. After he grew up, Broadnax himself would be its director for two years before going on to a career in city government and the U46 schools. At the recreation center kids would hold Boy Scout and Girl Scout meetings, put on shows, learn to cook and do lots of the same sort of wholesome things that the Boys & Girls Club of Elgin does now.
Among the notable blacks of old Elgin whom Broadnax could recall were:
His great-great grandmother worked as a maid, cook and nurse in the Wing family mansion on the west side. Broadnax said she had become an expert on folk medicine during her slave days.
“A lot of Elgin doctors would take her to the woods that are now Wing Park, and she would gather roots and berries to cure their patients’ skin problems.”
Dr. Lloyd Augustus Hall developed patents for 105 inventions, including the Army’s World War II C-rations, Broadnax said. But his patents ended up in white bosses’ names.
Adelia Green started a chicken restaurant at Hickory Street and Dundee Avenue‚ perhaps a predecessor of today’s KFC in that same area — although Broadnax said the taste of Green’s chicken would “kick KFC’s to the curb.”
Flynn Robinson starred in Elgin High sports, then went on to play in the NBA.
Football star Mel Cole played in the Rose Bowl.
Steve Green, grandson of the chicken-restaurant owner, worked for NASA.
One mixed-race “mulatto family gave their children a choice of living as black or as white. One girl chose to “pass” as a white person. “I would pass her on the street and never speak to her. But that was her choice,” Broadnax said.
Twenty-eight men from that two blocks served in the armed forces, including Broadnax himself and Spanish-American War volunteer Sgt. John Amos Pride. Pride never returned from that 1898 war, but his family wasn’t able to find out what had happened to him until historian Sutton solved the mystery more than 100 years later. Pride, having been busted from sergeant to private by a racist officer while dying of disease in Cuba, was finally found to be interred in Arlington National Cemetery.