“I have not a good thing to say about Stephen Douglas,” said Sherry Williams, sitting a few steps from his tomb in Bronzeville.
I’ve come to this memorial to the Illinois senator who ran for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1860, at the invitation of Williams, founder and president of the Bronzeville Historical Society. For the past four years the society has occupied the former keeper’s cottage at the Stephen A. Douglas Tomb and Memorial, just east of 35th and Cottage Grove. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency tripled their rent, so the group is forced to move their offices, and their collection of rolling pins and quilts, books and photographs and ledgers from defunct African American funeral homes.
Though with statues of Robert E. Lee being pulled down, our conversation first turned to Douglas, a slave holder, rendered larger than life — a 10-foot statue elevated on a 46-foot column. She is no fan.
“It’s hard to put Stephen A . Douglas on one peg,” she said. “But if I had to choose, I would say he was despicable. He did not take very good care of his plantation. Many of his slaves were ill-fed and died by conditions that could have been remedied.”
Could this edifice be swept away in the passions of the moment?
“It was a real concern,” she said. “I had spoken to several community members who thought, what a great opportunity to have an open conversation about just what that means, about Stephen Douglas being a slave owner. A conversation that’s been held here the entire time I’ve been here. Hence, I’m wearing an 1860s dress.”
A relief to hear that; I had noticed her outfit, her headscarf and calico dress. But “are you wearing a costume?” is not the question a gentleman wants to ask a lady if there is even the remotest possibility the answer could be “No.” I was glad she broached the subject.
“I portray my fifth grandmother, who was a washerwoman during the Civil War,” said Williams. “Her name was Millie Cooper, her husband, my fifth grandfather, Nero Cooper, served in the 12th regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops.”
Ironically, the Southerner who once owned Nero Cooper perished at Camp Douglas, the infamous Union prison camp a biscuit toss away. With the Civil War era hospital across the street, this area is an enclave of 1860s Chicago. The memorial is an intrinsic part.
“Here on the grounds we are able to have those kind of conversations about how complex and conflicted having this intersection here, it tells the story of those who lost their lives as Confederate soldiers and how Stephen A. Douglas was slave holder, and how, prior to that, you had the Indian removal, really long timeline of history here. One thing we use as a tool — we show visitors the names of the slaves that Stephen Douglas owned.”
She showed me a list of Douglas’s slaves, 129 names and prices — John ($500) Albert ($300) Lydia ($150) Nelson ($800) Harriett ($100) — rendered in a neat, Victorian hand.
Williams described history using under-utilized words, “complex and conflicted,” words we should bear in mind as some suggest history is instead simple and straightforward. Those Fox News shouters pretending there is a War on Statues, that Democrats are against 9/11 memorials because they understand the impulse to tear down images of Confederate heroes thrown up in the 1950s to put a thumb in the eye of the Civil Rights movement.
The cornerstone for the Douglas Memorial was laid in 1861, shortly after his death from typhus in Illinois. That puts it in a different category, in my mind, and in the mind of people like Williams, who founded the society in 1999 at the prodding of her daughters.
She showed me a bit of the group’s collection: files, VCR tapes from shows like “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.” The Smithsonian this is not; there was a haphazardness, marginal sparseness to the collection, heartbreaking to behold, and seemed to echo the undervalued lives she is trying to document and preserve. The Bronzeville Historical Society has to vacate by Friday.
“We’re anticipating moving everything out this weekend,” she said. “We don’t have a site to move our holdings to.”