Thursday, January 13, 2011

This Day in Illinois History - Jan. 13

'Uncle Bob' Wilson born in 1836

His parents are unknown and despite having fathered supposedly hundreds of children, he died without family at the age of 112.

On this day in Illinois, Jan. 13, in 1836, a slave child named Robert Wilson was born on a plantation near Richmond, Virginia. He would be known in his old age, and remembered long after his death as "Uncle Bob."

For at least the last 25 years of his life he repeated stories that he had been used as a stud slave on seven different plantations, the last of which was the house on top of the hill outside of Equality, Illinois.

Residents knew it then as John Crenshaw's Hickory Hill Plantation. Today it's known as the Old Slave House.

His role of a stud slave probably took place in the 1850s as he was back in Virginia when John Brown was hung on Dec. 2, 1859.

He entered the Civil War on the Confederate side with the 16th Virginia Infantry. An Associated Press article about him from his 111th birthday in 1947 described him as a "batman," which wasn't a Gotham crime-fighter but a term for an orderly or servant to an officer. A United Press wire story after his death the next year described his duties as having "to shine boots for a Confederate officer."

After the war he was a Baptist minister at times. He made it back to Gallatin Co., Illinois by the late 1920s or 1930s. He lived in Equality briefly following the 1937 flood that devastated Shawneetown and moved to Chicago sometime later in the decade.

He eventually made it to Chicago and was transferred to the Elgin State Hospital in 1942 suffering some illness. At the time he was not surprisingly, the oldest inmate in the veterans colony there.

He's smiling in almost all of the photographs I've seen of him. The stories from his time in Elgin show him quick of wit. Once when Gov. Dwight Green visited the institution Wilson hit the politician up for a donation to his tobacco fund. With a posse of reporters and photographers trailing his tour, Green couldn't refuse and gave him a 50-cent piece which he long treasured as his lucky coin. When he lost it, Green sent him another one for his 111th birthday.

Wilson also told the secret to his long life to the staff at Elgin, "I never drank, chewed, or stayed out late until I was 11 years old." Good advice for us all.

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