SJR Column: Sangamon Experience, March 2020

Since its founding nearly 50 years ago, the University of Illinois Springfield has appreciated its unique location in the state capital of Illinois and the home of Abraham Lincoln — a location that provides incomparable opportunities for students to gain knowledge and develop skills that lead to leadership roles in a variety of professions, particularly in public service.

But the university’s location in the Sangamon River Country — named for the 246-mile waterway that stretches across the middle of Illinois — is so much more.

It’s the Pottawatomie, Kickapoo and other Native Americans who made their homes along the Sangamon River before the arrival of Europeans. It’s the first white settlers to the region like Elijah Iles, who in 1821 built a log-framed store — the first commercial building in Springfield.

It’s Eva Caroll Monroe, who in 1904 established the Lincoln Colored Home, a safe haven for orphaned black children who were not welcome at the “whites only” facility at the time. It’s the Sangamo Electric Company, which led the country’s development of anti-submarine shipboard sonar for the U.S. Navy during World War II and employed more than 3,000 Sangamon-area residents in its production facilities.

Because the Sangamon region is home to an untold number of stories of imagination, innovation, persistence, courage, survival and service, UIS recently launched the “Sangamon Experience.”

Located on the first floor of the UIS Public Affairs Center, the project includes a 5,300-square-foot interpretive exhibition space open to the public – a space that is already telling previously untold stories of great interest and importance. The Sangamon Experience will also serve as the catalyst for ongoing collaborations with local and regional community partners and as a student-centered laboratory for innovative public history programs.

Just as important as its physical space will be its virtual space — featuring digitized documents, digital humanities projects and research findings that will be accessible across the region and around the world.

The Sangamon Experience is funded by an extraordinary $3.8 million gift. Devin Hunter, a UIS professor who specializes in public history, has worked closely with the donor, along with Provost Dennis Papini, other faculty and a community advisory board to create the vision for the project. Sangamon Valley Collection staff from Lincoln Library, the public library in Springfield, served as part of the research and design team for the first exhibit unveiled at the grand opening on Jan. 30.

“Having real stories about a place – stories from local residents and their descendants – is valuable to grow understanding of the history and culture of the region,” Hunter says.

“By creating a place where Sangamon stories can be unearthed and exhibited, and where faculty and students can do research and build around those stories, we hope more and more stories will come to the surface and be shared.”

Katherine Harris, retired director of library services at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, who is widely known for her portrayals of Harriet Tubman and other historical figures, is a member of the advisory board for the Sangamon Experience.

“I think the university and the community already have a good symbiotic relationship to grow off one another,” Harris says. “The Sangamon Experience will expand that relationship and serve as a bridge across cultures to help us better understand and appreciate contributions of the many different ethnic communities in the region whose stories have not been told.”

Nancy Chapin, a longtime supporter of the university who also serves on the Sangamon Experience advisory board, is a fifth-generation Sangamon resident.

“The Sangamon area has preserved an unusual amount of its past because of Abraham Lincoln, yet many stories have been little publicized because of the emphasis on Lincoln himself and not on the community from which he came,” she says. “Perhaps bringing those and other stories to the public will help us all better understand and appreciate our history.”

William Furry, UIS alum and executive director of the Illinois State History Society, spoke at the recent ribbon-cutting for the Sangamon Experience.

“Shared stories are the glue that holds a community together,” Furry says. “It is my hope the Sangamon Experience will be much more than an exhibit space. I hope it will be a gathering space where stories, dreams and memories are shared – a place that provides a lens for exploring the world we live in now and for seeing what it might be in the future.”

A new director/curator for the Sangamon Experience will soon be on board, and we continue to seek input from local historical, cultural and community organizations to help supply materials, ideas and research for upcoming programs and exhibitions. The project also welcomes inquiries about community digitization projects and other collaborations.

We are deeply grateful for the generous gift that has made the vision for the Sangamon Experience a reality. I invite you to stop by the PAC (just one floor down from Sangamon Auditorium) to enjoy the current and growing exhibition. I hope you’ll also explore uis.edu/sangamonexperience for more information about this exciting project that is sure to provide both students and our community incomparable opportunities for years to come.

Susan J. Koch is Chancellor at the University of Illinois Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch