Who Pays for Public History?

25 Apr

by Melissa Burns-

As a child, my Mom and Grandma frequently took me on trips to Shawnee National Forest. My Grandma had grown up in the area, so it was important for her that her grandkids experience the world that she had known as a child. We took hiking trips to Garden of the Gods, went swimming at Pound’s Hollow, and picnicked at Cave in Rock, all wonderfully natured-inspired day trips.  What stands out most in my mind, though, are the trips we took to a small museum outside the town of Equality.  Sadly, the future of this museum has recently been in doubt.

Known by several different names, most people, including my Grandma, called the museum the Old Slave House. The museum was really a former estate, built by John Crenshaw in the early part of the nineteenth-century.

Crenshaw House

The Crenshaw House

The Crenshaw family had built their wealth upon the nearby salt mines, and the big house was an outward manifestation of that prosperity. However, the Crenshaw house was not transformed into a museum as an example of historic architecture or even in remembrance of an important local figure. Because salt mining was deemed too laborious for regular workers, Crenshaw was able to secure the only legal permit in the free state of Illinois to own slaves. The Crenshaw House, or the Old Slave House, was therefore a reminder of a little known part of Illinois’ history, a part which many would probably just as rather forget about.

The Old Slave House sits atop an imposing hill and is visible for quite a distance.  Besides the main house, the grounds include a barn and vignettes with the tools used in gathering and processing the salt. The house itself is three stories, the first and second of which were the main living quarters for the family.  Having been authentically restored and housing a collection of the family’s belongings, they serve as the majority of the museum. And, in the fine tradition of deifying all things Lincoln, there is even a bedroom on the first floor that he reportedly slept in one night. The third floor of the main house is unfinished except for the cells and chains. While Crenshaw legally owned several hundred slaves who lived away from the main house, he was also active in the reverse Underground Railroad, kidnapping free blacks and runaway slaves and sending them back to the South. These poor men and women were snuck into the house at night through a hidden doorway and held on the third floor until they could be sent south.

While I was always a little disturbed by the museum’s collection of slave photographs, and definitely freaked out by the main house’s third floor, I enjoyed visiting the museum. Textbooks tell a very cut-and-dry story about slavery in the U.S.; there were slave states and free states. The Old Slave House, however, tells a more complicated tale, one I believe is important to know and understand. Recently, though, the museum has been closed to the public while its future remains undecided.

Closed sign at Crenshaw House

Sign at Entrance to Crenshaw House Property

The house was owned by a private family, and they kept the museum running for several years. In the 1990s, it was sold to the state of Illinois and, for budget reasons, the museum was closed. It was even rumored that the house was scheduled to be torn down. Thankfully, local opinion and outrage saved the Old Slave House. The current state of the museum brings up questions about who should pay to keep historic sites in operation. Should the state foot the bill or should private donations be the sole source of funding? There is not an easy answer to this question, but I do hope that, for the Old Slave House and similar sites, a resolution can be found.


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