Commemorating the 175th “Trail of Death”
Can you imagine walking more than 600 miles at gunpoint?
Between September 4 and November 4 in 1838, around 850 members of the Potawatomi nation from Indiana were forced to walk more than 650 miles though Illinois and Missouri when they were forced to relocate to Kansas by the government. More than 40 people died during the journey, most of them were children. This hour on Focus, host Jim Meadows talks with Sister Virginia Pearl, whose great-grandmother was one of the few children to survive what Virginia’s mother described to her as “the long walk” when she was a girl. Pearl is one of a group of people who recently returned from a pilgrimage from Indiana to Kansas, traveling along the same route her ancestors did. The caravan came through East Central Illinois stopping to observe historical markers near Danville, Monticello and Decatur.
(Sister Virgina Pearl is pictured right in the dress she wears on the Potwatomi Trail of Death Caravan to remember her great-grandmother.)
Meadows also talks with Shirley Willard, co-founder of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association, the group that has organized the trip every five years since the late 1980’s and John Bowes, an expert in the Potawatomi. He’s an Associate Professor at Eastern Kentucky University and will talk with us about why the Potawatomi were forced to leave their home in Indiana.
This hour on Focus, we’ll take a look back at East Central Illinois’ connections to the first all-black group of United States fighter pilots with Jim Eldridge, former education director at the Octave Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul. Brad Lang, a professional pilot who volunteers with the Commemorative Air Force’s Red Tail Squadron also joins us. His dad, Donald, served with the Tuskegee airmen in WWII.
In 1963 when he made the trip from Champaign to Washington D.C., Bill Smith was 21. As an active member of the NAACP chapter at the University of Illinois, he says he remembers feeling awed and inspired by the sheer number of other people who were gathered at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Even as a high school student at Champaign Central, he says he was involved with bringing the blacks and whites together. But it was when he returned from the march that he says he was motivated to really become an agent for change.
This hour on Focus, host Jim Meadows talks with Smith about his experience at 1963 March on Washington; his relationship with his long-time mentor Erma Bridgewater, and about the racial climate during the 1960’s in east central Illinois.
We’re also joined by Sundiata Cha-Jua, an Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign about the significance of the march in the context of the larger movement and about Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Did you know someone who marched in a protest during the 1960’s? Did you? What was it like to be a part of one? We want to hear from you this hour on Focus!