Celebrate Black History Month
The DeKalb County History Center is sharing some interesting local history facts to celebrate Black History Month. Watch our social media posts for more details.
Did you know . . . .
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), the famous educator who founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (Now Tuskegee University), spoke at the Methodist Church in DeKalb on Sunday, January 29, 1899. The speech, taking place 33 years after the end of the Civil War, was attended by “one of the largest audiences” that the “church ever contained,” including “the Sycamore contingent braving the bitter cold and coming some thirty strong to hear” Washington speak. They paid 75 cents for a “round trip [on the interurban train that ran between Sycamore and DeKalb] including special railroad ticket and admission to the lecture.”
The Sycamore True Republican wrote, “Mr. Washington illustrated his story with many witty and humorous anecdotes, getting his audience into a receptive mood at once and holding it to the end spell-bound with his wonderful history of Tuskegee.”
Frederick Douglass (circa 1818-1895) spoke in Sycamore on February 16, 1870. In his Wednesday night lecture at Wilkins’ Hall, he delivered a talk called “Our Composite Nationality.” Admission for the event was fifty cents. At the time, Douglass, a former slave, was 58 years old. As reported in the Sycamore True Republican, Douglass talked about “What we are as a nation; What we are likely to be; What we ought to be.”
The Sycamore True Republican said, “His lecture was somewhat dry; his delivery very deliberate, and lacking in vivacity.” But the audience seemed more impressed and frequently applauded Douglass. Douglass favored allowing immigrants and women the right to vote and to hold political office. He said, “The more liberty, the better the government. The great mistake we have all along made was to confine liberty to one class—to limit the illimitable.”
Link to the Saturday, February 19, 1870 Sycamore True Republican article recounting the Douglass speech:
Henry Beard (1831-1924) was a slave in Kentucky. His date of birth is given as January 1, 1831 and, it was said at the time, “He was a big, strong, fine looking man, of good disposition and dependable, and was valued highly, although, like most colored men at the time, he could neither read nor write.” But he had an “ultra polite manner and deference to all of his acquaintances on the street.
He joined the 105th Illinois when they were in Kentucky. He worked as cook for Company A in Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and into Maryland. This was dangerous because the 105th was under Confederate gunfire virtually daily and the threat of Confederate atrocities on black troops increased after the Fort Pillow Massacre April 12, 1864.
Those who knew him remembered, “Everyone liked him, and he accompanied the Regiment back to Illinois” after the war. At Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1871, Beard met his wife Judy Jones and brought her back to live at the two-room house on the five acres he had purchase from Deacon David West in “the Big Woods” north of Sycamore. The Beards “were always highly respected and very well liked.”
After 10 years there, they moved to a larger home on another portion of the land, a mile west of Brickville Road. The Beards had 14 children. Henry Beard died at Glidden Hospital in DeKalb on December 11, 1924, hours after being clipped by a train at the age of 84. Judy Beard died in 1941.
Julia Beard (1852-1942) a Sycamore resident from the 1870s until her death in 1942, was born a slave in Texas. She recounted that “My mother was owned by the master of the place where I was and my father was owned by another master who was situated a few miles away.”
She said, “When I was but a little girl the only kind of work I could do is to pick cotton and I was put to this task when I was very young. When I turned ten years of age, I was brought to work in the house, waiting on members of the household in the master’s home.”
“When slaves were freed” as the Civil War ended, “our family had to go out and make a living,” she later recalled. “I was hired out to work for one man at $35.00 a year, and he put me to work plowing his fields when I was but 12 years old. I did not like this very well and I was happy when I later learned that our family was to leave for the North.”
However, this was not an easy journey as her family “walked all the way from Texas to Kansas in 1865.”She recounted her story in 1941. She had “walked barefoot alongside a wagon train traveling over the plains of Texas bound for Kansas.” She remembered “the caravan of eight wagons and 70 [or so] people were some of the first to come out of the south for a new land.” The group “would camp by the side of the road at night” until they reached Kansas City, Missouri. Later, at Ft. Scott, Kansas, she met Henry Beard, a civil war veteran who would become her husband. After their marriage, the couple settled in Sycamore.
Civil War soldier John Briggs moved to Sycamore around 1877 and had served in Company F. of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry during the war, the only Black Regiment from Illinois.
He was born into slavery in Virginia about 1805 (though this would make him very old for a soldier). By his own account, he was sold to Mississippi, but escaped to Ohio in 1829.
Briggs enlisted on March 28, 1864 and served until he mustered out on June 26, 1865 in Washington, DC at the close of the war. His regiment took part in the disastrous Assault on the Crater at Petersburg, VA. He later recalled that he was on guard duty in Richmond, VA, a little more than 100 miles away, on the night when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, “And I remember it well, too.”
After the war, he returned to live with his wife Charity, also a former slave, and worked as a laborer in Racine, WI. After the couple moved to Sycamore, he worked as a wood sawyer. The Briggs had three children, John Salter, Mary Salter, and William Salter.
John Briggs died February 12, 1887. Charity Briggs lived until November 19, 1912. John Briggs’ name appears on Plaque B-45 on the National African American Civil War Soldiers’ Monument in Washington, DC.
“Dixie” Sims was a nationally known boxer who fought during the years 1900 to 1911. He was called the “middle-weight champion of the south.” He once fought a match for the welterweight championship of the world, but narrowly lost.
Eugen Spencer “Dixie” Sims was born April 14, 1882 in Humboldt, Tennessee. He came to Chicago when he was 17 years old and, in August 1899, came to Sycamore. After his boxing career, he built a restaurant in 1915 at 512 North California, “The Dixie Inn.” Soon he ran a boxing gym there and was said to have trained eight champions.
He married Arder Motley on August 21, 1904. Their son, Allen Sims, was the first male African American to graduate from Sycamore High School, Class of 1924. Dixie died November 13, 1959.
Little is remembered about George Garner (April 16, 1892-January 8, 1971), a noted tenor singer from Chicago.
But Garner and his singing group, made up of both men and women (including his wife Pauline, a graduate of Northwestern University), appeared at the Sycamore Chatauqua on August 23, 1925. Garner’s group had toured Illinois Chatuaquas that summer and their performance here was highly anticipated because the appearance of this company will undoubtably mean a capacity audience.”
Garner, the Sycamore True Republican wrote, had recently appeared in recital at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, one of the most prestigious performance venues in the country, “and one has but to hear his concert to realize that it is something of unusually high artistic caliber.”
Nine months after his appearance in Sycamore, George Garner became the first black singer to appear as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and, later, to sell out the 4000-seat Civic Opera House. Critics praised his solo performance “a matter of fine voice, extra good enunciation, and a thorough knowledge of the piece.”
He lived much of his later life in southern California.
John Salter, the son of former slaves, became known as an expert horseman. Most considered him a skilled professional in breaking and handling horses.
John Salter was born July 16, 1847 in Vandalia, IL. His family moved to Racine, WI. During the Civil War, “In 1864, he enlisted as a hostler in Company I, 43rd Regiment, Wisconsin Infantry, to serve until the close of the war.” A hostler is a person who cares for and who grooms horses. With nearly 3 million horses used in the Civil War armies, this was an important and necessary job and John became great at it.
After the war, he married Sina Waffel in 1877 and the couple moved to Sycamore that same year. A son, Roy Salter, was born in 1880. For most of his life in Sycamore, John Salter “was a groom caring for the horses of the late Dr. George Nesbitt and was coachman for the late C.D. Rogers, a former dry goods merchant of this city.” He also was a winning horse racer and trainer based at the Sycamore Driving Park, a racing track on Sycamore’s southwest side.
John Salter was the first African American ever elected to public office in Sycamore. He received 632 of the 695 votes cast and “won the office of constable in the spring election of 1886.” His party immediately approached him to run for town supervisor at the next election “since he made such a remarkable run for constable the other day,” but he likely did not run.
After living nearly 40 years in Sycamore, Salter died December 11, 1915. His mother Charity Briggs had died only three years before, at the age of nearly 100. Sina Salter passed away on November 29, 1935.
The Harlem Globetrotters played at the Sycamore Community Center against the Sycamore Legionnaires team on March 2, 1932. The Sycamore True Republican said of the forthcoming game, “Each of the visitors is a star in his own right and such a collection of five or six such stars will be enough to give the Legion a real workout.”
When they played in Sycamore, the Globetrotters had only been playing for five years. In that time, they had played 146 games and had won 136 of them.
On January 7, 1927, the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team had played their first game in Hinckley, Illinois, against the hometown team the Hinkley Merchants. The Globetrotters were called the Savoy Big Five or The American Big Five. Hinckley won that first game, 43 to 34. Afterward, the Globetrotters split the $75 proceeds and traveled, according to the Chicago Defender, to take part in a short but successful tour of Wisconsin. From 1926-1976, the Globetrotters were based in Chicago.
When the Globe Trotters played Sycamore again in October 1951, the game was played in the Sycamore High School gymnasium at the old high school.
Corporal Samuel Crosswell served in the 92nd Division in World War I. The 92nd Division, a segregated U.S. Army unit, fought in some of the most notable battles of the war: Argonne, St. Mihiel, Verdun, and the Vosges.
Crosswell was born in Danville, Tennessee on March 10, 1894, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Allen Crosswell. He moved to Sycamore and on October 30, 1917 he entered the service here. After training in the United States, he was promoted to Corporal on March 15,1918 and went overseas on June 10, 1918, leaving from New York Harbor.
The 92nd Division fought in France between October 8th and November 8th, 1918 and Crosswell’s part of the Division, the 365th Infantry Regiment, suffered more than 81% of all of the casualties, killed and wounded, experienced by the Division that month. And in the last three days of the war, they would lose nearly as many men as they had lost in the prior month.
He returned to the United States on Feb. 24, 1919 and was discharged March 18, 1919 from Camp Grant, Ill.
For many years, Samuel Crosswell lived in Sycamore. He married his wife Mattie October 16, 1926.
After Mattie died October 20, 1946, Samuel Crosswell virtually disappears from the historical record.
Mildred “Millie” Poole Stewart has a monument dedicated to her in Sycamore.
Mildred Pool, who was born and grew up in Sycamore, graduated from Sycamore High School in 1934. Her senior yearbook records that she participated in Glee Club all four years of school and, as a senior, she also took part in A Cappella and Operetta. The class wrote about her, “She sings like one immortal.”
In 1943, at the height of World War II, Mildred went to work at Turner Brass in Sycamore. Turner was a factory that made blow torches for the war, but also fire extinguishers, and—top secret at the time—the inflation gear designed to inflate life rafts. Mildred and her fellow employees won three prestigious Army-Navy “E” awards.
When she started at Turner, pay was 35 cents an hour and employees worked a 48-hour work week, but, she said, “it seemed like one big happy family.”
On August 9, 1952, Mildred married George Edward Stewart in Chicago. They made their home at 355 North Avenue in Sycamore.
Mildred worked at Turner for 37 years, retiring in 1980. George had died in 1965. Mildred was pianist and a treasurer for the Sunday school of her church. Her church, where she’d been a member for 77 years donated the property where her home stood “for the improvement and beautification of the community.” The City of Sycamore raised a plaque to honor her memory at the site where her home stood.
There are around 100 African Americans who came to Sycamore briefly that we will never know by name. But coming here may have helped save their lives.
The Underground Railroad was, of course, not a railroad at all. It was an informal network of people and places, called “stations.” In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Underground Railroad helped transport to the safety of Canada African Americans who had escaped from slavery.
The Underground Railroad was vast, but a length of it ran through Sycamore where “the West family was noted for not only feeling that slavery was wrong but also for doing something about it.”
A white family, the Wests—Deacon David West and his son Elias West— “used to drive at night in a small covered wagon [David West] built himself just for the purpose of hiding” people who had escaped slavery.
Deacon David West took the fleeing people “from his farm about a mile and a half east of Sycamore across the Great Western tracks to another station in St. Charles,” remembered David’s grandson, Herbert West, in 1968. “From St. Charles they were taken to Chicago where they moved on to Canada and freedom.”
David West conveyed approximately 100 people through his underground station who “seemed to come through in bunches, and then there wouldn’t be any for some time.” Because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, West was “was jeopardizing his life or a heavy fine and imprisonment.”
Herbert West said, “My grandfather was never caught, and he continued to do what he felt was right.”