Tales of Coles County – Why Hidden History?

Referring to events like the Charleston Riot of 1864 and two lynchings, William Henry Perrin, author of The History of Coles County (1879), wrote “Such incidents are better forgotten than perpetuated upon the pages of history.” Do you agree?

My book Tales of Coles County, Illinois, to be released in October 2020, tells the story of the “hidden side” of Coles County history, a side some people feel is better left buried. We might not always be proud of our history, but it’s important to learn about it, and to learn from it. I chose to write about these particular events and places because they’re so little mentioned in history books. It’s that history that needs the most sunlight.

I’m no longer accepting pre-orders because the book has officially been released! Order it today on Amazon.com, Walmart.com, and GooglePlay.

Reflections from Washington, DC on the Occasion of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Passing

It’s strange how you can get caught up in historic events on an otherwise normal evening. Last night, my wife an I just happened to go down to Washington, DC for dinner and a tour. We ate at Hawk ‘n’ Dove pub on Pennsylvania Ave SE, then we walked down to Starbucks where we waited for the tour guide to show up. Signs of the times were everywhere: people wearing face masks and sitting outside bars on hastily erected tables on the sidewalks. Black Lives Matter signs and professions of support hung in the Starbucks’ window.

We were still waiting around 8pm; Kayla was on the phone with her cousin when I saw an article from NPR on Facebook reporting Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020) had died. I didn’t believe it at first because every year there are fake articles about Ginsburg’s death or impending death. It fit too well–the kind of fake news story designed to sew outrage and divide people in an already contentious election year. But it was true.

U.S. Capitol Building the Night of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Death in Washington, DC
Flag flies at half-staff outside the U.S. Supreme Court building, with a view toward the capitol.

When the tour guide showed up, he mentioned the news. He was visibly upset, more so by the political implications of Ginsburg’s death. The tour took us past the Supreme Court building, where a crowd was quickly gathering as news spread. Flags were already half-staff at the Supreme Court and capitol building. The vigil was quiet at first, with people paying their respects by laying flowers and lighting candles.

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More Stories from the Illinois Exodus

Friends share their reason for leaving (or planning to leave) the Prairie State.

Last week, I posted stories from what I call the “Illinois Exodus,” an outward migration of Illinoisans to other states. As someone who left Illinois to pursue better career opportunities, I’ve been interested in why so many of my friends and acquaintances have left Illinois for greener pastures. As of December 2019, Illinois as a whole saw six straight years of population loss. This decline has real consequences for the state’s political clout on the national stage, something its elected leaders seem not to have taken into consideration while steering it off a cliff.

As I noted before, Illinois currently has 18 U.S. representatives in Congress. In 1980, it had 24. As a result of the 2020 census, Illinois will likely see that number decline even further. The number of a state’s presidential electors in the Electoral College is also determined by population (technically it’s tied to the number of congressmen). In the 2000 presidential election, Illinois had 22 electors, while Florida (for example) had 25. In 2016, Illinois had 20 and Florida had 29.

Because Florida has seen a massive surge in growth and development over the past few decades, it will have a huge impact on the 2020 election and future presidential elections. Illinois? Not so much.

The trend is clear: the number of people moving out of Illinois is growing while the number of people moving to Illinois is declining. According to population estimates and the Illinois Policy Institute, Illinois lost the equivalent of a large city (223,308 people) between 2014 and 2019. That’s like more than the entire population of Aurora, Joliet, Naperville, or Rockford just up and leaving.

But these are only statistics. To understand why people are leaving Illinois, you have to talk to individuals and families about what is motivating their exodus. One of my friends, Tracey, now a realtor in Florida, told me taxes were a big factor for why her wife and she moved from Illinois to the Sunshine State. “I left because I was tired of the winters and tired of the taxes,” she said. “It was uber expensive and it felt like everything was taxed. Our personal property taxes were a killer… Our taxes are less here for a more expensive house. In 2014 they were $12k. When we moved here in 2015, we paid about $4500.” However, she noted the cost of insurance is nearly double in Florida.

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Stories from the Illinois Exodus

High taxes, crime rates, and lack of opportunity cause residents to flee Illinois and post-industrial cities like Rockford.

I was born in Chicago and raised in the northwest suburbs. I moved to Rockford, Illinois after graduate school in 2008, where I hoped to make a life for myself. As my longtime readers know, I got involved in local politics and worked hard to promote the local community and address its social ills. Even as a student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, I promoted Midwestern culture and urged my friends to stay in Illinois and fight to make it better. I honestly didn’t think I would ever leave.

Years went by and more and more of my friends and acquaintances moved away for greener pastures. Finally, I did too, enlisting in the Army and seeking to make a difference somewhere else. It became painfully clear I would have to uproot if I wanted to dramatically change my circumstances. The 2020 census will show just how many people joined this mass exodus. According to the latest estimates, Illinois is among the fastest shrinking states in terms of population, and Rockford is 15th in the country for highest percentage of population loss.

Since 2010, Rockford’s population has decreased by 5 percent. It was once the largest city in Illinois outside Chicago… it’s now the sixth. In December 2019, numerous websites reported Illinois as a whole saw six straight years of population loss. Anecdotally, I can name at least a dozen or more friends who have moved to other states over the past ten years, many with their families. I think when the final census data for 2020 is released, it’s going to be bad.

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Police Departments do not Have a 400-Year History of Anti-Black Racism

  • Modern police and police departments didn’t exist in the American colonies or the United States from 1619 to (at the earliest) 1838, a span of approximately 219 years.
  • Modern uniformed police departments were first established in Northern cities in free states and were based on British policing models, not Southern slave patrols.
  • Modern policing has nothing in common with slave patrols; their purpose, methods, and the legal rights and protections for the people involved are completely different.

Over the past few weeks, activists and pundits have made unbelievably inaccurate and outrageous historical claims about law enforcement in the United States. These assertions aren’t new, but they have entered the mainstream in a way we haven’t seen before. Fact-checking be damned. For instance, in an article not labeled as an opinion piece, USA Today writer Wenei Philimon claimed “Police departments have a 400-year history of racism”. This blanket assertion is supported with so little evidence or specificity, it wouldn’t receive a passing grade in a high school history class. 

“Dating back to the 1600s, the U.S., then a British colony, used a watchmen system, where citizens of towns and cities would patrol their communities to prevent burglaries, arson and maintain order. As the slave population increased in the U.S., slave patrols were formed in South Carolina and expanded to other Southern states, according to Sally Hadden, a history professor at Western Michigan University who researches slave patrols,” Philimon, a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism, writes.

Already, the inaccuracies are glaring. The colonies that would become the United States were not entirely British in the 1600s, but were originally formed by several European countries. France, Sweden, Netherlands, and Spain all made claims on this territory (New Netherland, including what would become New York City, didn’t fall completely under British control until 1674). Each colony was governed by its own laws and methods of maintaining order.

But even if we take this writer’s version of events at face value, what does preventing burglaries, arson and maintaining order have to do with racism, anyway? Never mind. Philimon glosses over the first 100 years of her 400-year timeline and goes directly to slave patrols.

“Slave patrols lay at the roots of the nation’s law enforcement excesses, historians say [Philimon only cites one historian who says this], helping launch centuries of violent and racist behavior toward black Americans,” she claims. This pernicious myth has been repeated in several academic books and articles and even at the National Law Enforcement Museum, although there is no direct link between slave patrols and modern police forces, especially (and most obviously) in the North.

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Community Policing Can Work

Problems with policing in the United States are real, but fantastic ideas like abolishing police will make everyone less safe.

In the wake of protests and unrest over the death of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality, activists, pundits, and politicians have floated various ideas to curb violent or potentially violent interactions with police, many of which are, for lack of a better term, unrealistic. De-funding police, abolishing police departments, and not arresting nonviolent offenders are among the most wild suggestions. The predictable consequences of these ideas would be much higher crime rates, unsafe neighborhoods, vigilante justice, or a proliferation of private security firms only accountable to their employers.

When I was running for mayor of Rockford, Illinois, I advocated a return to community-oriented policing, and I think that combined with better and more frequent training and demilitarization can solve a lot of the issues with police brutality. Rockford was a large Midwestern city struggling with a post-industrial environment. It had a high crime rate. Gang violence, robbery, and drug trafficking were common. Relations between police and the local community, particularly in poorer neighborhoods, were strained. An incident in 2009 in which a police officer shot and killed a young black man named Mark Anthony Barmore in the basement of a church further eroded relations.

I haven’t lived in Rockford for several years, so maybe things have changed, but back then the mayor would play lip service to community policing every once in a while and bicycle patrols would appear downtown for a few weeks. It was kind of like playing whack-a-mole. By focusing on one area, it was difficult to respond to crime in other areas. Rockford’s problem was not too many police, but too few. It was impossible for its centralized police force to effectively cover such a large area. Response times to a call could be as long as 40 minutes.

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Forbes Writer Gets a C- in American History

Seth Cohen half-remembers something he read online about the Civil War in order to bolster his argument that modern Americans are heading toward national conflict.

They say “C’s get degrees,” but what happens when an average student in American history grows up to write political columns for Forbes.com? Something like “Rush Limbaugh Predicts A ‘Veritable’ Civil War — Could He Be Right?” by Seth Cohen.

I’ve read hundreds of articles over the past few decades claiming another American Civil War is right around the corner every time we’re faced with a contentious issue. All of them, thankfully, have been wrong (so far…). But it’s not the premise of Cohen’s article I’m concerned with–it’s his distorted retelling of American history, particularly its Civil War history.

“There are some troubling parallels” Cohen claims, between America today and America 160 years ago.

“Back then, the fractious 1860 election was essentially a referendum on slavery and states’ rights, with the northern and southern states at deep odds over the future of the nation. Lincoln, the Republican candidate, claimed an electoral landslide over the three other candidates, yet only won 40% of the popular vote. The election results caused a national rupture, and before Lincoln could be inaugurated, 11 southern states had seceded from the Union. Within weeks, the confrontation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina sparked the Civil War, and the rest is history.”

Unfortunately, Cohen’s summery of these events is almost entirely wrong.

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Will 2020 be the ‘Darkest Winter in Modern History’?

The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a tsunami of dire predictions, conspiracy theories, and fake news, but the worst example of hyperbole and fearmongering I’ve seen so far comes from someone we’re supposed to take seriously as a health expert. 

Multiple news outlets have reported that Richard Bright, a senior adviser at the National Institutes of Health and former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, planned to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health today that “Without clear planning and implementation of the steps that I and other experts have outlined, 2020 will be darkest winter in modern history.”

Um… has he ever read a history book? I’ve written before about the pitfalls of using historical analogies. It makes you look foolish when you try to claim something in the present is “worse than” or analogous to something in the past when you have no idea what you’re talking about.

I guess it depends on what you define as “modern history.” Most historians define the modern period as 1500 to the present, with ‘late modern’ beginning in 1815. Most people probably define ‘modern’ as much more recent, so I’ll be generous and say 1918 to the present. A lot of horrible events have happened over the past century. The 1918 Influenza Pandemic, the Holocaust, the Ukrainian Famine, the Cambodian genocide, the Hutu massacre to just name a few. I’m sure there were a few horrible winters in there.

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