'Old Slave House' Still Standing - But For How Long?

May 15, 2019

The Crenshaw House, also known as the Old Slave House
Credit Courtesy of Byron Hetzler/Southern Illinoisan

One of the oldest buildings remaining in southern Illinois is home to a lot of history.  It’s called the Crenshaw House, because it was owned by John Crenshaw, who made his money running salt mines. 

But it’s probably better known as the Old Slave House.  For decades, the house - in Gallatin County ironically near a community called Equality - was privately owned and open for public tours.  Stories that slaves had been held captive inside were passed along. 

That all ended after the State of Illinois bought the property nearly two decades ago. Some of those stories have since been called into question. 

But still, many see the house as significant and want it re-opened as an interpretive center to talk about early Illinois’ ties to slavery.   

Reporter Molly Parker is with the Southern Illinoisan newspaper and recently wrote about the Old Slave House. 

“It is up in the air as to what actually happened at that specific property,” she said. 

SIU researchers did work at the site and looked into the tales of slaves being held in cells on the 3rd floor.

“Stories that I’ve heard that have the most merit is…(Crenshaw)  probably did play a role in trafficking free black people across state lines.”

That would involve what has been referred to as the “reverse underground railroad.” 

Records show Crenshaw also kept indentured servants, where a person entered into a legal contract to work in exchange for food and shelter.  Parker writes how historians found Crenshaw in 1842 sold the contract of a black woman, Maria Adams, to slave runners.  She and her children were then shipped to another state.  It was illegal to transfer a contract outside of Illinois.  Crenshaw was tried, but acquitted on a kidnapping charge.

As for keeping slaves in cages, experts doubt it.  Researchers think the cells might have actually been sleeping quarters for traveling workers. 

Crenshaw was a slave owner in the period when it was legal, during the first 7 years after Illinois became a state in 1818.  But he built the house later, in 1837. 

“The property absolutely has merit in historical value,” Parker said. “No one is arguing it’s not historically significant or that it’s not linked to slavery.   (Researchers) believe it is.  They’re just not sure the way it was portrayed for the tours…was accurate.”

The state bought the property in 2001.  Only minor upkeep has been done since that time.  However, other needs include electrical work, a new road and more. 

Parker spoke with Mark Wagner, director for the Center for Archaeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.  He’s concerned about dry wood in the structure that poses a fire hazard.  All of that makes for more urgency in getting the state to invest in the property.  

“I’ve never heard from the state that they have a plan whatsoever,” Parker said. “There’s a really important story here to be told.  There’s never been any answer as to who is going to pay for it and how it is going to happen.”