Reopening of Slave House remains uncertain

By Gus Bode

Nonprofit organization proposed to manage historic landmark

The only hope of reopening the site of one of the darkest chapters in state history may be allowing a nonprofit organization to do what the cash-strapped state government cannot.

The Crenshaw House, better known as the Old Slave House, is again expected to receive no state funding to help maintain, operate or staff the site that many believe once housed kidnapped slaves. The house, located in Gallatin County, near Equality, has been closed to the public since 1996, after operating for nearly 70 years as a place where tourists and school students came to understand southern Illinois’ role in a period many would like to forget.

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The state purchased the home and surrounding property in December 2000 from George Sisk, whose family had owned the house since before World War I. At the time of the purchase, the state had planned to reopen the property to the public.

“We should be ashamed of it, but we should let people see what took place at that particular time,” Sisk said. “The only reason I sold it is I thought the state of Illinois would open it and show it to the general public, like we did for all these years.”

But more than two years after the state bought the house, it is still closed. According to David Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency, which controls the property, there is little chance it will be reopened any time in the immediate future because of budget constraints.

“We’ve asked for funds every year since the state purchased it,” Blanchette said.

“This year the chances are very slim, because it’s a budget-cutting year already,”

With little chance of the state reopening the site, a local man has proposed forming a nonprofit organization to operate the site as a tourist attraction and field-trip staple. Jon Musgrave, who has spent nearly a decade studying the history of the house, has been awaiting an official response from Springfield to his idea since first proposing it in the summer of 1999.

In his proposal, Musgrave suggested allowing a private organization to run the site while the state maintained ownership. He said that by charging admission, which the state cannot do, a private organization could make the site self-supporting.

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“The Slave House was operated successfully, by charging admission, for 70 years,” Musgrave said.

While the state has never allowed an outside group to manage one of its historical sites, Musgrave said that, because of the state’s budget problems it is time to start thinking outside the box.

Musgrave said that he feels it is hypocritical for the state to recognize Black History Month, while neglecting one of the state’s most important remnants of black history.

Musgrave’s proposal would set up a board, consisting of people from throughout southern Illinois, which would control the day-to-day operation of the site. A number of people who initially expressed interest in being on the board have moved out of the area since the idea was first proposed. Musgrave said, however, that he believes he could find people from SIU and local citizens looking to preserve this history to be a part of the board.

All of this would be fine with former owner George Sisk. All he wants is for the site to be reopened to the public, whoever runs it.

Sisk, whose family owned the house since the early 1910s, closed it to the public in 1996, after suffering a heart attack. He still lives in the house and serves as security against trespassers and vandals and performing light maintenance work.

Although the property is clearly marked as restricted, Sisk has had to have several people arrested for trespassing since the site was closed.

“I hate to do it,” Sisk said, “But people have no business being up here.”

Large numbers of tourists began visiting the house just after state Routes 1 and 13 were finished in the 1920s. Sisk’s family started charging admission in 1930.

“Grandfather only let us charge a nickel for children and a dime for adults,” Sisk said. “If we’d charged a dollar a person from 1926 on, we’d be millionaires.”

But money is not the reason Sisk wants the house reopened. History, and remembering one of the darkest periods in America, is the real reason he wants the public to again be allowed to tour the house.

If and when the site is reopened, Sisk will have to move out of the house that has been a part of his family for the better part of a century. He has mixed feelings about moving. According to Sisk, several million people visited the house between the time his grandfather bought it around 1913 and when it closed to the public in 1996.

“It’s bittersweet that I’m going to have to leave,” Sisk said. “I just hope that someone comes in and opens the house, because the history here doesn’t need to be forgotten.”

Reporter Jesse L. Nelson can be reached at [email protected]

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