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Bill looks to shed light on Illinois' Underground Railroad history

Senator Dave Koehler (middle) announces details from Senate Bill 1623 at the historic Springdale Cemetery in Peoria on Monday, Feb. 27.
Collin Schopp
Senator Dave Koehler, standing, announces details of Senate Bill 1623 at the historic Springdale Cemetery in Peoria on Monday, Feb. 27.

Under a new Senate bill, a state task force would be created to highlight forgotten stories of Illinoisans' contributions to the Underground Railroad.

Democratic Sen. Dave Koehler, a sponsor of Senate Bill 1623, said it would identify grave marker sites of people who helped others escape slavery and provide educational opportunities.

“This is a story of not only those slaves that came looking for their freedom, but of the families and the religious folks that helped them on that journey by having them, you know, stay at their houses, hiding them out from the bounty hunters,” Koehler said at a news conference Monday at Peoria's historic Springdale Cemetery. “You know, it's really a story of justice and of liberation.”

Koehler said the 10-member task force would include appointments from Illinois’ legislative bodies, the governor, the Department of Natural Resources, the Illinois State Archives, the Illinois State Historical Society, the NAACP and Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman.

Ackerman already completed his own project in Tazewell County, marking the gravesites of 26 individuals involved with the Underground Railroad.

“When I was raised and when I grew up, my history was that that out east is where the Underground Railroad was,” he said. “So to know that right here, central Illinois played such a vital part of the Underground Railroad, leading to the freedom of thousands, that means a lot and our students should know that they're touching the area where this journey took place.”

Ackerman pointed out that many of the grave sites and cemeteries where historical figures are buried are in disrepair. Koehler said it would require additional funding to repair headstones that could be given depending on the findings and recommendations of the task force.

“This becomes a kind of a two-fold process,” said Koehler. “One is a task force needs to do their work. Secondly, they make a recommendation to the legislature and then we do our work and put this together, but that would definitely be on the list.”

There is bipartisan support for the bill — for example, Republican Sen. Andrew Chesney is listed as a sponsor. The bipartisan nature of the legislation is exciting to Ackerman.

“Nobody's opposing this, everybody is supportive of it. And it's really a win-win for everybody,” he said. “And again, it's not just teaching history, but you've got the preservation of some of these abandoned cemeteries, being able to bring attention to them and hopefully drive some initiatives to maintain and clean them up has such a huge possibility for economic benefit with historical tourism.”

Peoria NAACP President Marvin Hightower said it’s an important opportunity for preserving stories.

“I would also say, because (of), you know, the effort of trying to erase history or rewrite history,” he said. “I think this is an important part of history that our students here in Peoria and across this state need to learn.”

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali said she’s proud of the city’s history and connections to the Underground Railroad.

“I just think about what those families and individuals went through when they were escaping slavery. I mean, they were fighting for their lives,” she said. “And there were people, good people who opened their doors to protect them. And that makes me very proud.”

If the bill passes, the task force would have a deadline of July 1, 2024 to present a final report and recommendations. You can find the full text of the bill here.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.