- Associated Press - Sunday, March 19, 2017

COLP, Ill. (AP) - John John’s BBQ restaurant is back in business, the unseasonably bright sunlight streaming in through the windows, creating a welcome space for guests.

Co-owner Alice Blanding emerges from behind the counter, sharing with a visitor about Colp, the town she adopted as her own when she, her husband and four boys moved to his hometown, this small Southern Illinois village - a sliver of space north of Carterville, west of Herrin.

Small, quiet, historic: This is home. Blanding and her son, Michael Vaughn, say, even as they note it has its challenges, progressive leadership could lead the area in triumphing over those.

“It has a lot of possibilities,” Vaughn said. He actually lives in the unincorporated area known as No. 9 - an area maybe six blocks away that begins somewhere across from where the old railroad tracks used to run.

He is among those who are committed to this area - Colp, No. 9 and Dewmaine - an enclave that more than 100 years ago came to be one of few areas in Southern Illinois where blacks could live.

But these days, though, its issues are more similar to other smaller areas in Southern Illinois, struggling to remain relevant.

That is how Williams “Bill” Perkins, a sort of self-appointed city manager of Colp and the adjacent No. 9 unincorporated part of the township, see it.

“Struggling,” Perkins said. “This area is struggling.”

Facing the restaurant, across the street, is a reminder of the area’s earlier history, a building with a sign that reads “Herrin Township High School,” the school that was once for the area’s black students.

That building was the high school for the area’s black residents until it was desegregated in the 1960s. In 1957, the Colp School District voted, 4-3, with a split along racial lines, to consolidate the two schools it had been operating, according to a June 12, 1959, article in The Southern Illinoisan.

The juxtaposition is the story of the greater Colp, a once-vibrant community known to the outside world for its clubs that lined the major strip and perhaps the best-known one, Johanna Hatchett, or “Ma Hatchett’s Tavern,” reportedly a house of ill repute, on the No. 9 border.

The town sprung up around the coal business initially started by John Colp and his Colp Coal Company, according to the Williamson County Illinois Historical Society.

The village was incorporated in 1915 and was one of the few places in Southern Illinois - with its many “sundown towns,” where signs were posted reminding non-whites they had to be out before sundown - where blacks were able to live. The village’s history is closely intertwined with the unincorporated areas of No. 9, an area just southwest of the village, “across the tracks” - a piece of land where a railroad once lay, Don Taylor explains, and the Dewmaine area just southeast of the village.

Blacks began to move into the area, Dewmaine primarily, when Samuel T. Bush started a coal-mining operation north of Carterville and decided to sidestep union activity by recruiting African Americans from the south, according to the Marion Illinois History Preservation.

When the blacks came into Carterville on one of the trains, union members fired at the train, killing the wife of one of the miners.

The imported workers made their home in Dewmaine, which was on the mine property, but the strife continued, leading the Governor to call out the National Guard to be stationed around Carterville.

On Sept. 11, 1899, the governor withdrew the troops, thinking the violence was over. But a few days later, on Sept. 17, a group of black miners were heading back to the train station after work for the day, when they were confronted by the union workers and a gunfight ensured. Several non-union workers were killed and several others wounded. Those believed to be accountable were arrested and jailed, but no one was ever convicted.

That historical account calls this the Brush Massacre, part of the deadly skirmishes in the coal industry that are chronicled in the book, “Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness.”

Aside from John John’s BBQ, there are few businesses in the village: the DR’s Drive-Thru liquor store at the main intersection off Herrin Street, is a major landmark. John John’s BBQ was a class project of Jonathon Vaughn, who was then a student at John A. Logan College; Jonathon died from complications from a blood clot in 2013.

There is a small post office, and across the street, the Colp Village Hall, now housed in what was an old black school.

According to U.S. Census data from 2015, the village of Colp had 253 residents, almost equally divided between men and women. A little more than 28 percent of the population identified as African-American; the vast majority, 68.4 percent, as white.

The bulk of the households - 26.1 percent - earned between $35,000 and $49,999; some 14.8 percent of the households reported earning between $100,000 and $149,999.

A few African-Americans spoken to said the area has little to no crime, which is another reason they choose to stay in the area.

A long-ago transplant from Carbondale, Perkins is very proud of the people that the greater Colp area produced: Dr. Andrew Springs, an African American who served not only the Colp area, but the surrounding communities as a medical doctor, started a black Boy Scouts Troop; the 1941 Herrin Township High School basketball team that won the Illinois High School Athletic Association state champions; and Sal Griffin Jr., Archibald Mosley, Earl Taylor Jr. and James Lee Kirby, who served with the Montford Point Marines in the 1940s, and were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their service.

He points out historical parts of No. 9 and Colp: the area’s oldest churches, Mount Olive MB Church, which celebrated 106 years in December, and Shaffer AME Church, established 100 years ago in 1917; where “Cowboy Town,” a strip of black taverns used to be on the strip of land between Colp and No. 9; the spot where Johanna “Ma” Hatchett’s infamous tavern, or “house of ill repute” once stood; the concrete slab that was once the foundation for her son’s nightclub, that was dynamited in the late 1950s, some think as a retaliation for his lead in helping to desegregate the Colp schools.

On Friday, a lazy day that felt like spring, one or two younger people could be seen periodically walking down the streets, largely deserted except for the occasional passing car or truck. Like a lot of rural Southern Illinois, the village has fallen victim to an aging population, younger people leaving the area for better opportunities and a shrinking local economy and job force.

Proponent though he is of the area, Perkins said he is concerned about its future. He’s pleased about a new playground the area is set to get. But he notes that the Colp area is not one many people would want to move into.

In an attempt to keep some of the empty lots from becoming a wasteland, he said he’s purchased five from the county which he maintains.

Right now, he’s preoccupying himself by trying to encourage Williamson County officials to apply for more grants to help the area, particularly the No. 9. Some of the homes benefited from a grant to help improve the structures, which like his, are close to 100 years old. Down the street from Perkins’ home, some men were working on one of the homes that benefited from the grant.

“What our goal is, like most black communities, is to give the best life for our people that live here and for our kids,” Perkins said. “Especially get them an education and hopefully they can move on to a larger place that has more opportunity than what they would have here in the community.”

“And that is the goal that most black communities have: to do the best that you can for your community and your young people who live there.”


Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://bit.ly/2kxWYWX


Information from: Southern Illinoisan, https://www.southernillinoisan.com

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