The Crenshaw House of Southern Illinois, better known as the “Old Slave House,” rests in Gallatin County and is the site of one of most atrocious crimes against the freedom of Black people in the state. Although Illinois was a free state, John Crenshaw, the owner of Crenshaw House, was permitted to own slaves via a legal loophole. He used that status to secretly hoard slaves for trade and kidnap free Black people to enslave them.
Crenshaw’s land numbered in the thousands of acres which included a pair of salt mines that was leased to the state. Salt was a far rarer commodity than it is today, and the state relied on Crenshaw’s production. Crenshaw became a wealthy man by way of this partnership, but the people he employed at the mines were slaves forced to perform the backbreaking work. Because the law allowed for slaves to do work when it was arduous and able-bodied men ‘couldn’t be found to do it’ he was allowed to employ slaves and the state looked the other way.
Possibly to keep his enterprise robust, Crenshaw was rumored to have a hidden slave jail at the mansion, and it was also a stop on the so-called “Reverse Underground Railroad” where Crenshaw captured fugitive slaves and traded illegally with southern slave owners. There were reports of cries coming from the mansion and other whispers of slaves being kept in attics, but nothing was done.
Despite two court cases for kidnapping free Blacks, Crenshaw was never imprisoned for his crimes. He continued to sell slaves across the south in states far south as Texas. Crenshaw died on December 4, 1871.
Locals say that the Old Slave House is haunted by the ghosts of slaves who suffered under Crenshaw’s capture. Eventually, Crenshaw House was sold to the state. In 2004, the National Park Service acknowledged that the Crenshaw House was part of the Reverse Underground Railroad. The house grounds are closed to the public as the state decides what to do with the site.
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