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     September 11, 2017      #81-253 a2z

Kankakeean, lawyer returns with exceptional history of Pembroke Township

In the hot midsummer of 1999, the Kankakee Catholic Youth Group of St. Martin of Tours, St. Teresa and St. Patrick parishes made its first week-long "Project Hearts of Hope" service trip to Pembroke Township.

The 40 young people, mostly white and middle class, slept in the basement of Sacred Heart Catholic Church — one of the many beating hearts of Pembroke Township — and one of the largest rural black communities north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

These privileged teenagers did service work at the church and in the homes of residents of one of the poorest townships in the United States.

They also were blessed by the examples of the Sacred Heart parishioners and community leaders, such as Gertrude Higginbottom and long-term township supervisor Robert "Bobby" Hayes —descendants of Joseph "Pap" and Mary Eliza Tetter, Pembroke's first black residents.

Pap Tetter and his wife, a freed slave, arrived in 1862 along with their 18 children after a long and arduous wagon trip from North Carolina.

They settled near the state line, about a mile east of the original village of Hopkins Park, where Sacred Heart stands. The township was two-thirds swamp and seven of the children died within a short time in that miasmic environment. Four more didn't live to have children of their own.

Among that 1999 Catholic youth group was 15-year-old Kankakeean David Baron, 32, whose excellent profile of the history and culture he encountered during that Sacred Heart week — "Pembroke: A Rural, Black Community on the Illinois Dunes" has just been published by Southern Illinois University Press.

Baron launches his fine book with a description of Gertrude Higginbottom leading the congregation in a contagious evangelical style not often heard in Catholic churches. Baron's enthusiastic account can't help but engage the reader.

"That week my paradigm shifted, and I came upon a new understanding of myself," Baron wrote."I clapped and sang with the rest of the congregation at Sacred Heart, and at the week's final Mass, this white kid from downstate Illinois was even offering his own "Thank you, Jesus" during the middle of a sermon. I later wrote an article for my school newspaper: "The teens realize their lives had been changed. No one thought he or she could go back to the old lives of television, gossip and $160 shoes. ... For the short time we were there, they were content with what they had."

Three years later the son of Dennis and Debra Baron graduated from Bishop McNamara Catholic High School. In four more years he completed a degree in political science and economics at the University of Notre Dame. His last year was spent as student body president.

In 2009, he completed law school at Harvard University. He is now a constitutional litigator for the City of Chicago and is involved in a number of organizations dedicated to improving race relations and combating poverty.

Pembroke had remained on his mind through the years "but it really wasn't until my last year of law school that I thought about writing a book," he wrote. "I had just turned in a couple papers for courses on 19th-Century U.S. law and the Civil Rights Movement through the courts, and each referenced Pembroke for a different reason. So I thought about weaving them together and writing a few more 'papers' that would turn into chapters."

With guidance from Harvard Professor Randall Kennedy about the book-writing process — and a delay in his starting date with the law firm, "it made sense to use the time to launch the research and interviews," he wrote.

He estimated that the process took "over a thousand hours" plus "a few 'staycations'" after that from the law firm.

Given the thoroughness of the research and the quality of the writing, that seems a modest estimate.

Each chapter begins with reflections on the days of that week he spent in Pembroke at 15, then continues in well-researched topics from slavery in Illinois, to the Great Migration, when rural black families fled the south for opportunity in Chicago, then many fled back to the country in Pembroke. They bought small parcels of cheap sandy and woodsy land from Pembroke native Merlin Karlock and his partner, Chicago real estate broker Frank Moscickis, whose "For Sale" signs still dot the township.

With families raising crops and livestock in the country, many men kept working in Chicago and coming home on weekends, stopping by the Piekarczyk family building supply in Momence, sometimes, buying no more than 10 concrete blocks at a time. "The families then built during the day and camped on their property at night," former county engineer Jim Piekarczyk recalled. Some of those slow-growing dreams were realized, some left to collapse.

In the chapter "A Rip-Roaring Time," Baron writes of the days of prohibition, when Pembroke was the home of one of the largest bootleg booze distilleries in the country, operated by Al Capone's gang, and the community became famed for other ill-famed activities.

In the chapter "In the Eyes of the Angels," he writes of the importance of the church in the township, focusing on the establishing of the Sacred Heart Mission as a outreach of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Momence in days when nuns would travel over ruinous roads by borrowed horse and buggy to recruit a congregation.

In "Lunch Tables" he focuses on the school conflicts of the 1970s and '80s between Pembroke and the St. Anne high school district.

In "Nature Preserved" the issue is the "discovery" of the world-class black oak savannas of the Pembroke area by state and national naturalists and the recent conflict over preservation and development.

In "Pembroke Today and Tomorrow" Baron returns to a hell and heaven observation of the book's beginning.

"Pembroke and its people adapted to changing times and conditions. The community faced down and recovered from drought conditions, catastrophic fires, encounters with the mob, prejudice and bigotry, the assassination of one of its leaders, school shutdowns, government shutdowns and plenty of economic recession. Scars from these experiences remind others why Pembroke might be deemed hell on earth. But for the sizable number of people — young and old — who affirm that they would rather live no place else, there is little left to disturb their view that they have found their version of paradise in Pembroke."

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