Route History in Springfield, IL reopens after the pandemic on July 9
Gina Lathan and Stacy Grundy, two of the owners of Route History at 737 E. Cook St. in Springfield, joked recently that in the past few months they have become painters, construction workers and furniture movers.
That’s all been in an effort to get the museum and visitors center, which was shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic, open by July 9.
It wasn’t simply a matter of flinging the doors open again.
Visitors to Route History, which in part highlights stories around the Black experience on historic Route 66, will be greeted by a new mural on the building’s east wall, updated exhibits and more outdoor amenities.
Included is a tribute to four important Black entrepreneurs in Springfield, two of whom were killed in the 1908 Springfield Race Riot.
Like in the past, Route History is hoping to get foot traffic from other nearby attractions, including the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the Elijah Iles Home and the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum. Route History is also positioning itself with the centennial of Route 66 being marked in 2026.
“(The reopening) means a new way of doing the work that we do,” Lathan said.
Last summer, Route History received an $80,000 Minority-Owned Business Capital and Infrastructure Grant through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity that in part let Lathan, Grundy and Kenneth Lockhart become owners of the building, a former gas station at 737 E. Cook St., which is near the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth street alignments of historic Route 66.
The grant will also help the owners fashion a “Road to History” in an unused plot of land outside the building. More outdoor seating, a sound system with piped in music and vendors are also envisioned for the area.
Lathan and Grundy said a permanent exhibit will honor Scott Burton, William Donnegan, Thomas Jefferson Houston and Jameson Jenkins. Burton and Donnegan were lynched during the Race Riot, which has been a central part of Route History’s storytelling, along with the Great Migration and the Civil Rights movement.
“They were leaders in the community and heads of their households, and they made a difference,” Lathan said of the quartet.
Donnegan and Jenkins, she added, were active in the Underground Railroad, which helped fugitive slaves escape from the South to the North.
A shoemaker, Donnegan wrote in his memoir, first published in 1898, about how he “secreted scores” of runaway slaves at his house on the north side of Jefferson Street, between Eighth and Ninth streets.
Jenkins lived a block south of the Lincoln family, and the lot where his house once stood is included in the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, according to SangamonLink, the online site of the Sangamon County Historical Society.
Thomas Jefferson Houston and his brother, Joseph Houston, were slaves from Kentucky who came to Springfield via the Underground Railroad. Thomas Houston helped establish Zion Missionary Baptist Church, which was also a station for the Underground Railroad.
Korbin King’s mural shows Route 66 juxtaposed against the Underground Railroad, showing how “both were roads to opportunity for individuals,” Grundy said.
The mural includes a number of decorative symbols used on the Underground Railroad. They would be put on quilts, barns and trees, “a source of navigation” when there weren’t traditional maps, Lathan said, or a designation that the place was a safe house.
Among others, the mural pays homage to the Ambidexter Institute, a Tuskegee model school in the early 1900s that trained Black children in math, science and trades; Eva Carroll Monroe, a founder of child welfare services here; and Lt. Col. Otis B. Duncan, the highest-ranking Black officer to serve in the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War I.
“This is a great way,” Lathan said, “for us to pique the interests of many of our visitors and our city residents and encourage them to begin to explore how many Black people have made contributions in the city and around the world and how we can learn from the examples they’ve set forward.”
Route History piloted and implemented a curriculum around Black history tied to economic development for the Springfield Urban League, Lathan said.
It included role playing, Grundy added, so children had to come up with business ideas that people would need as they were traveling on Route 66.
“They came up with some really unique ideas, but it was getting them to think about businesses and travel,” Grundy said.
Route History has a partnership, Grundy added, with Landmarks Illinois to document and survey sites throughout the state that were featured in The Negro Motorist Green-Book. The guide, published annually by Victor H. Green, a New York postal carrier, from 1936 to 1966, pointed out places accommodating for Black travelers.
The museum has a display about The Green Book, which an Oscar-nominated movie was based upon.
“We know a lot of them have been lost due to community disinvestment or people might have passed away or through urban renewal, but for the sites still there, it’s very important to document that history and tell those stories of those business owners and collect those oral histories,” Grundy said.
Both Lathan and Grundy said the recent commemoration of the centennial Tulsa Race Massacre should give people in Springfield pause to look at its own history.
Before the riots occurred, Black communities had their own businesses, an impetus to single out Burton, Donnegan, Houston and Jenkins in the new Route History exhibit, Lathan added.
“These are great opportunities,” Lathan said, “to say we were at our best as a community because if we were not at our best, others would not have felt so threatened to destroy, to destroy in such a way that they stopped generational wealth. They destroyed in such a way that there was a complete breakdown of your emotional and mental health in many ways.
“There’s historical and generational trauma behind what happened across the country, and in many ways, that history was erased, but unfortunately, the trauma was never erased, and so this is a great opportunity to have more of a understanding in hopes that there will be more healing.”
“If you look at the different race riots and race massacres across the country, there is that common theme of these thriving Black communities, these upwardly mobile communities. You saw that hatred, that violence that attacked those communities.
“Learning from the past and realizing what happened to those communities, it’s so important to understand that history because it’s tied into where we are presently.”
Ribbon cuttings will be held at Route History, 737 E. Cook St., at noon and at 5:30 p.m. on July 9. For more information, visit Route History’s website.
Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, [email protected], twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.