Presbyterians in Illinois

I have served two presbyteries in the state of Illinois as Executive Presbyter. Illinois is my home state; I grew up in the 1960s in the city of Peoria in which redlining had created a culture in which I knew very few African American people. I did not attend the same schools or the same church as African American Peorians did. I watched my parents interact with people of color as they interacted with anyone else in their lives, but we did not share a table or a schoolroom or a pew in the way our lives were lived.

I also did not know the history of the intersection of races even within the two presbyteries I served. I was in a neighborhood just east of downtown Springfield at a very small church of European Americans that was about to close. I learned that it was in this neighborhood that the events that led to the founding of the NAACP occurred.

As it says on the website of the NAACP: “In 1908, a deadly race riot rocked the city of Springfield, eruptions of anti-black violence—particularly lynching—were horrifically commonplace, but the Springfield riot was the final tipping point that led to the creation of the NAACP.” You read that correctly: Springfield, Illinois, the home of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. Springfield, Illinois, a city that was never below the Mason-Dixon line, whose children went off to war to fight for the North in the 1860s; a city in which slavery was never legal. But is it also a city in which the Presbyterians formed two churches located close by each other? In one the worshipers were sympathetic to the planters’ “need” for slaves in the south. In the other, abolitionists held sway on session and in every other position of power. I knew none of that before I heard a few conversations and began to ask questions. And then there is Chicago.

I did not know about the race riot of July 27, 1919 and following days. From the book “1919: Poems” by Chicago poet Eve L. Ewing: On July 27, 1919, a race riot erupted in Chicago. (This followed the drowning of a young Black man on a beach and its aftermath.) “Twenty-three Black people were killed, fifteen White people were killed, 537 people were injured, 1,000 were made homeless by attacks and arson, and between 5,000 and 6,000 members of the Illinois National Guard were deployed. . .Much of the violence was blamed on “athletic clubs,” organized street gangs of White youth that had powerful political sponsors.” One of those youth would grow up to be the first Mayor Daley.

Did you know that history? Perhaps, like me, you are also a native Illinoisan and did not know either of these stories, having never heard them mentioned in your study of the history of Illinois.

When we study the New Testament, we can take a passage of scripture and study it on its plain meaning. But think how much deeper our understanding is when we set it in the context not only of the setting into which the writers of the gospel or letter have set it but also as we know its context in relationship to the Old Testament. Then we begin to see how it is connected to the history of our ancestors in the faith and understand its richer and fuller meaning.

Just so, it is important to look at the way we interact across the created lines of race in the current day in the light of our shared history.

The history of Chicago Presbytery can be told in buildings and pastors and ecumenical statements and trials and tribulations. It needs to be set in the wider history of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois as well as the history of the United States itself regarding the issues of race. Until we acknowledge the past and strive to repent of the way the trauma that still cries out from the ground, we walk on influences the decisions of today, we can never fully carry out our call to bring hope in the name of Jesus.
Rev. Sue Krummel
Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Chicago