African American Monument In Downtown Park Remains Without Any Identification Years After It Was Dedicated
Can you tell me the name of the monument that stands in Water Street Plaza in downtown Decatur? Have you ever heard the name “Water Street Plaza” before? Do you know the name of the sculptor of the monument? Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the answer to all those questions -- and, if you are someone who visits Decatur, you will not find any of that information at the monument -- even though it has been nearly six years since it was dedicated. The actual name of the monument is “From The Cottonfield To The Battlefield” and is the work of Decatur native, and well-known artist, Preston Jackson. It’s location in Water Street Plaza is in the 300 block of North Water Street. Last week, I complained about the faded condition of some of the storyboards that explain Decatur’s connection to Abraham Lincoln. This week, I’m calling attention to the Preston Jackson Civil War Soldier’s Memorial, because it is somewhat insulting the way it and the artist have been neglected. This project, along with the storyboard project, were two of the “Looking For Lincoln” initiatives authorized by the city council when I served as mayor -- although both were completed after I left office in 2008. The city council commissioned Preston Jackson to create the monument, which recognizes the efforts of African Americans in the Civil War, after he presented line drawings of how it would appear.
Dedication Held August 1, 2009
The City of Decatur held an official dedication ceremony for the memorial on August 1, 2009, with a crowd of dignitaries attending. It was a nice ceremony and there was a feeling that it was a significant monument in the heart of our community. Three years later, in 2012, I received an email from a former resident of Decatur who returned to visit from her home in California. I won’t identify the woman, but here’s part of the email she sent me as editor of the Tribune. “When I was in Decatur recently, I was pleased to read in the 'Decatur/Forsyth Visitor Guide' about the African American Civil War Soldiers Monument; and I was excited to find it. I was very disappointed and disgusted not to find any identification or information about the sculpture or the artist on or around the sculpture. I certainly hope that these are in progress and not how the sculpture will be left. “First, African American soldiers in the Civil War are an important part of American history that is not well known or appreciated, and should be. Decatur is to be congratulated for recognizing their acts of courage. “Although the sculpture stands in the middle of an open half block, it is not easy to find because it gets lost in the open space. Then, there is no identification on it so you know what it is or what it depicts. “Second, the artist is not identified on the sculpture, so there is no recognition of Preston Jackson or that he is a native of Decatur. I certainly hope this will be corrected! “These omissions are an insult to the proud intent of the sculpture and to the artist. “I am a native of Decatur and a graduate of Decatur High School. I was in Decatur for my 55th High School Reunion. I have pride in Decatur and cheer as the city and Decaturites continue to strive to strengthen their community.” I wrote about the woman’s letter and, the following week, I received an email from Joy Kessler, assistant to Preston Jackson. Kessler wrote: “As Preston's assistant, and also a Decatur native, I can say that Preston and I both agree that ‘From the Cottonfield to the Battlefield’ should have some signage explaining the piece to the public. As the person who negotiated the terms of the creation of the sculpture, I can tell you that it was always contemplated that the City would create a plaque to accompany the sculpture. I believe you are correct that when Preston presented the project to the City Council, there was no discussion of signage. But in numerous conversations and emails with Kim Bauer, the City's representative, we definitely discussed what the City would do to identify the piece. “Originally, there was to be a bronze plaque, identifying the artist and detailing the history represented by the sculpture. When the time to install the piece neared, and no plaque had been ordered, Preston and the installer suggested that the title, name of the sculptor, date, and the commissioning entity or major sponsors be engraved on the small rectangle of granite that is visible on the side of the piece. Because the City was contracting with the installer, we understood that the language would be provided by Kim Bauer. We also understood that there would be a storyboard with information about the content of the sculpture added at some time in the future. Unfortunately, neither of those things occurred. We appreciate your airing this issue, and hope the situation will be corrected soon.” I received that email in 2012. The following year, Kessler wrote me again: “We communicated a while back about the lack of signage at Preston's sculpture, ‘From the Cottonfield to the Battlefield’. We have been hearing that there is still no sign--do you have any advice as to who I should contact about this issue? Thanks for any assistance you can render.” On Oct. 22, 2013, I forwarded Kessler’s email to then City Manager Ryan McCrady and he responded that he would look into the details of the signage. He later told me that he had contacted Kessler and he explained to me some of the reasons why the sculpture lacked identification at that point -- including a shortage of funding in the budget. Last week’s column on the faded storyboards brought the “no-identification of sculpture” issue back to my mind -- and I realized that nearly two years after my last conversation about it, nothing has happened.
NEXT MONTH, it will be six years since the sculpture was dedicated -- which means seven summers with visitors, such as the woman in California, without any identification. Considering all of the activities and events in downtown during the course of the summer months, including the upcoming Decatur Celebration, it is a shame that memorial, and its native Decatur sculptor Preston Jackson has not been shown more respect. What is even harder to understand is, six years after the monument was dedicated, at the very least couldn’t an engraver have inscribed the information on the granite rectangle that is already on the monument? You’re not talking much of an expense there -- an engraver putting some words on a piece of granite that’s already there. After six years, an engraver could probably take care of that in a matter of a few hours and the cost would be minimal. I love how downtown looks, but it is years late for the “monument identification issue” to be resolved.
SORRY TO learn of the death of former Decatur City Councilwoman Betsy Stockard-Odeneal at the age of 69 on Sunday. Betsy Stockard sat next to me (on my right) during the years I served as mayor and was certainly a community activist before she ever was elected to council. Ironically, I had written the major item for today’s column, the African American Monument, before she passed away. She was the major proponent of commissioning the monument and we, as mayor and council, supported it. My condolences to her family and friends.
Downtown’s ‘Looking For Lincoln’ Storyboards Are Mixture Of Clear, Faded
Storyboard on southeast corner of Franklin and Prairie streets.
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There’s no other place in the nation where significant Abraham Lincoln sites are located so close to each other -- as they are in downtown Decatur. On the four corners of Main and Main streets (later called Lincoln Square), Abraham Lincoln’s family stopped when they first came to Macon County (northwest corner), he gave his first political speech (northeast corner) and he practiced law in a log cabin courthouse (southwest corner) and later in the county’s second courthouse (southeast corner). Years after giving that first political speech, Lincoln was first nominated for president at a convention held only a block-and-a-half away from where he gave that first speech. The list of significant Abraham Lincoln sites in the downtown area contains even more and it should be enough to make any other community drool with envy about the Abraham Lincoln/Decatur connection. That’s why, during the years I served as mayor, the city council authorized using some of the “Looking for Lincoln” tax money that we received from a designated portion of the hotel/motel tax for storyboards to be placed at significant historical sites downtown that were connected to Lincoln. As we were looking to market our Lincoln connection and plans for a restored downtown area, the Lincoln storyboards were meant to play a role in explaining the Decatur/Lincoln connection and providing a walking tour where citizens and visitors could walk to each site. It would be one of the very few projects that came out of that portion of the hotel/motel tax. Several years ago, when the city faced serious economic distress, the Looking for Lincoln funds were “absorbed” into the General Fund and that ended such “Lincoln projects” for the community. Today, the storyboards are still in place but they are a mixture being in good and bad condition, even though it has been only a little less than six years since they were receive and installed. The one that marks where Abraham Lincoln gave his first political speech is like new because it is new since the old one had to be replaced due to its extremely faded condition after only a few years. The storyboard on the southeast corner of Prairie and North Franklin Street (photo at top of the page) is extremely faded and appears to have some kind of water damage. Another storyboard on the southwest corner of Lincoln Square, where Lincoln practiced law in a log cabin courthouse is also very faded, while a storyboard on the north side of Busey Bank is in very nice condition -- probably because of a lack of direct sunlight on it.
DECATUR’S 14 storyboards arrived in Decatur on July 22, 2009, along with 35 storyboards for other communities on the Looking for Lincoln Story Trail. The delivery was made to the civic center parking lot and I walked over to take a look at the collection and was impressed with what I saw. Hal Smith, director of the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Coalition, explained the significance of the storyboards to interested citizens when they arrived in the civic center’s parking lot that July day. Smith told the Decatur Tribune that day: “Once installed, Decatur will have the second largest concentration of exhibits, outside of Springfield, for visitors to enjoy. This will create a very compelling Lincoln visitor experience for Decatur and help underscore Decatur’s significant place in Lincoln history, with stories of friendships, legal work and politics. Decatur will represent a significant stop on the Looking for Lincoln Story Trail, joining the five communities in this collection of Illinois communities with wayside exhibits that detail solid Lincoln stories.” The storyboards were installed and, for a short time, special tours, especially for school children were conducted by volunteers. But interest began to fade along with most of the storyboards in a short time. With all of the downtown enhancement work some of the storyboards have become faded eyesores. I have contacted the City of Decatur for more information on what has happened to efforts to get the faded storyboards replaced and Assistant City Manager Billy Tyus indicated he would check into it and let me know -- and I know he will. When I consider that only six years have passed since they were installed in 2009, and some of them have been faded for a long time, there was someting wrong somewhere and something should be done about it.
WHY BOTHER? I realize that in the whole scheme of downtown improvements, faded storyboards seem kind of minor. However, besides the fact that we ought to get our money’s worth from what we purchased, it’s the little things that often make a community unattractive no matter how many BIG projects are created. To let faded storyboards dot our downtown area when so much has been done to make it more attractive -- is like building a brand new home and hanging an old dilapidated screen door for the front door. What do you think a visitor is going to notice (and remember) about the new house? It doesn’t make any difference how great a project looks, it’s the small things that stand out like a sore thumb -- like faded storyboards.
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