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Alton is rich in Black history. Soon, bus tours will explore it

The 110-foot tall monument to abolitionist Elijah O. Lovejoy will be one of several stops on a new tour of Black history sites in Alton.
Scott Evers/Scott Evers Photography
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Scott Evers Photography
The 110-foot-tall monument to abolitionist Elijah O. Lovejoy will be one of several stops on a new tour of Black history sites in Alton.

Alton is rich in African American history, from the days of the Underground Railroad to the birth of a 20th century jazz legend.

A temporary program will soon offer a chance to catch up on that history, in the form of a two-hour bus journey dubbed the Freedom to Equality Tour.

The Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau, which promotes tourism to several counties in western Illinois, is behind the tours. They will begin at the Alton Visitor Center, twice a day on May 13, June 17, July 15, Aug. 19, Sept. 16, Oct. 21 and Nov. 18.

Jared Hennings, coordinator of student activities at Lewis and Clark Community College and an occasional historical reenactor, will lead the tours.

“Everybody's history has some significance. I think African American history, people of color, their history should be just as recognizable, just as known, just as appreciated as anybody else,” Hennings said.

Tour participants will visit locations including Union Baptist Church, which is possibly the oldest Black church in Illinois. Ten formerly enslaved people established it in 1836, and worshippers still gather there. The tour will also stop at Rocky Fork Church, which sits near the location of a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Another attraction is Alton’s statue of Miles Davis, the only one of its kind in the country. The jazz great was born in Alton and grew up in East St. Louis.

Jared Hennings holds a photo of himself performing a historical reenactment as Charles Newton, the first Black graduate of Alton's high school.
Jared Hennings
Jared Hennings holds a photo of himself performing a historical reenactment as Charles Newton, the first Black graduate of Alton's high school.

Hennings has performed with historical reenactors Vintage Voices several times, and during tours he will speak in the character of a few notable Black Altonians. They include Charles Newton, the first Black graduate of Alton High School. Newton is buried in Alton Cemetery, another tour stop. Hennings will also perform three Black spirituals.

Leaders of the Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau have been marketing the Freedom to Equality Tour to operators of regional bus tours. The region’s history is a draw for tourists, said Cory Jobe, the bureau’s president and CEO.

“People travel to our area for history, not only African American history or Black history, but also historic Route 66 and the Great River Road. History, outdoor recreation and nature-based tourism are the three reasons people come and travel to our region,” Jobe said.

Tickets must be purchased online and in advance for $32.50. The bus is not ADA compliant.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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