Illinois’ Teachable Moment: The True Cost of Coal, Slavery and Historical Markers – by Jeff Biggers (Huffington Post – October 28, 2013)

As another coal train derailed in southern Illinois last weekend, the Illinois State Historical Society teamed up with the Illinois Coal Association on Saturday for their own collision with history during the installation of a historical marker for the state’s “First Coal Mine.”

The real train wreck: Among numerous errors, the Illinois State Historical Society marker fails to mention that other coal mines abounded in southern Illinois, thanks to enslaved African American labor — including the so-called “first coal mine” — while the Illinois Coal Association took the occasion to erroneously bash “environmental regulations” for mining job losses, as the Prairie State plunges head-long into a new coal rush and a reckless environmental and health disaster.

What gives, Illinois State Historical Society? Doesn’t history matter — at least over the hackneyed phrases of the Big Coal lobby, even if they provided most of the funds for the historical marker?

While our nation now recognizes that “Black History Month” emerged from historian Carter Woodson’s “six-year apprenticeship” in the West Virginia coal mines, isn’t it time for the Illinois State History Society to stop finding excuses in the Land of Lincoln — and Obama — and finally come clean on the secret legacy of slavery in our coal mines and salt wells, if only to remind us of cautionary tales for our own times?

Two weeks ago, in fact, the state of Illinois pulled the plug on its coal education website for kids, due to public outrage over inaccuracies and an air-brushed version of the industry’s wreckage.

Here’s the teachable moment for the Illinois State Historical Society: It’s time to recognize that African American coal miners, enslaved and indentured, launched the Illinois coal industry — including the so-called “first coal mine” in 1810 — and when the state of Illinois ratified its constitution in 1818, a largely overlooked loophole allowed for legal slavery in the crucial tax-revenue-generating salt works, generated by coal mines, in the out-of-sight Shawnee Forests of southern Illinois.

In essence: Backroom compromises by legislators, due to needs for tax revenues, trumped the inalienable human rights of American citizens. Sound familiar?

Outrageously as it seems, the Illinois historical marker for the notorious salt wells even fails to mention the role of slaves or African Americans, as well.

Illinois, goddam.

When are we going to recognize our African American legacy, as well as the courageous efforts of anti-slavery activists, led by backwoods Baptists near the salt works and coal mines in southern Illinois, to wrest the emancipation-invoking hypocritical state leaders from their profitable connections to salt and coalfield slavery?

Such a connection became clear to me a decade ago, when my family’s 150-year-old homestead in the Eagle Creek area of southern Illinois, near the historic salt works and coal mines, was stripmined into oblivion. A fairly large slave cemetery on the edge of our historic property disappeared with it.

When a Chicago Tribune reporter appeared at the home of one of the last remaining residents in 2002, a new chapter in Illinois history was finally revealed. One of the last hold-outs in the area agreed to lease part of his ridge to a coal company, though he first issued a warning.

“All my life I’ve been told there’s a Negro cemetery out there,” the old timer told the Tribune reporter. “Them people’s got a soul, just like you and me.”

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