by Pete Rosenbery
CARBONDALE, Ill. — As the first African American male student at what would become Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Alexander Lane was definitely a trailblazer and a change agent.
Lane rose from meager beginnings in pre-Civil War Mississippi to become a school principal, physician, and an Illinois state legislator, in addition to attending Southern Illinois Normal University.
To honor Lane’s legacy, the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute today (Nov. 16) announced the Alexander Lane Internship Program. The paid internship will allow at least one student each spring to work with a minority member of the Illinois General Assembly toward a goal of carrying on Lane’s legacy of high achievement and public service.
“Not only is Alexander Lane an important, and overlooked, part of SIU history, but he serves as a role model for our students today,” said David Yepsen, Institute director. “To come from his humble beginnings in the post-Civil War south to then graduate college and become a medical and political leader in Illinois is an impressive story that needs to be told. An internship in his honor will be a living legacy for him that can inspire and help our students — and provide a service to the community and policy makers today.”
The Institute is more than halfway to raising the $150,000 for the endowed internship. The first internship award will likely be in spring 2013, said Matt Baughman, Institute associate director.
Baughman directed the Institute’s research into Lane’s life earlier this year after he visited a presentation during Black History Month at Morris Library and learned there was still much to discover about Lane.
“I was immediately drawn to the Alexander Lane story and moved by the idea our University could have such an impressive and compelling account of its first black male student that was just waiting to be widely shared,” Baughman said.
The celebration of the history of diversity at SIU Carbondale included information on Lane, who lived in Tamaroa when he enrolled in the teachers college in 1876, just two years after instruction at Southern Illinois Normal University began. Historian Pamela A. Smoot, a clinical assistant professor at SIU Carbondale, along with students Michara T. Canty, and Andrew S. Barbero as research assistants, spent several months looking into Lane’s life and legacy. The Institute will release Smoot’s paper on Lane’s life in the coming weeks.
During her research, Smoot found varying dates for when Lane was born. Lane died Nov. 11, 1911, in Chicago. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Carbondale with his wife, Isabelle Holland, whom Lane met while a University student.
“He is one of SIU’s success stories whose story has not been told,” Smoot said. “He deserves his rightful place in SIU’s history, the history of the state of Illinois, and the medical profession.”
Lane’s history also is important for the University, she said.
“It speaks to the fact that Southern Illinois Normal University engaged in diversity almost at its inception. From the mid-19th century through today, diversity is still a part of SIU Carbondale.”
Lane was the third African American student to enroll at the University; two females enrolled earlier, although their names are unknown.
Smoot’s research included Morris Library’s Special Collections Research Center, in addition to trips to Lane’s hometown in Durant, Miss., and Chicago, where Lane’s granddaughter and great-grandson now live. They also went to Springfield and worked with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Illinois State Library, and the Legislative Research Unit, in addition to the Chicago Public Library’s Woodson Regional Library, and historical societies in Chicago and Perry County.
Records indicate there were only 10 free blacks in Holmes County, Miss., while Lane was a child, and Smoot believes Lane was born into slavery. As a youngster, Lane spent time around a nearby Union Army camp, where he befriended a Union Army colonel, she said. The colonel, whose last name is Lyons, stayed in Mississippi during the early years of Reconstruction and asked Lane’s mother if he could take her young son when he returned to Illinois. Lane’s mother agreed to the proposal on the promise her son would receive an education, Smoot said.
The mother’s decision to allow her child to leave is poignant, Smoot said. Lane’s mother didn’t know whether she would see or hear from her son again, or whether the colonel would keep his promise of providing her son an education. During that time many former slaves would apprentice their children to others, and included education as part of the agreement, Smoot said.
“In her heart she really believed it would be better for him than being in Mississippi,” Smoot said.
The colonel returned to Southern Illinois, and met Joseph B. Curlee, a “substantial landowner” in Tamaroa, Smoot said. The colonel allowed Curlee and his wife, Margaret, to raise Lane as part of their own family, and Lane worked as a servant and farm laborer. Lane’s obituary notes he had two brothers, and Smoot believes that was a reference to the Curlees’ two sons. Curlee was also a Civil War veteran.
“In one document I have it clearly says they were raised as brothers,” she said.
After attending Southern Illinois Normal University, Lane became the first principal of the black Carbondale primary school, later known as Attucks School. He moved to Chicago and graduated in 1895 from Rush Medical College, and then established his medical practice, becoming a prominent physician on the city’s south side, Smoot said. In 1906, Lane became the ninth African American elected to the Illinois General Assembly, and was re-elected in 1908.
A preference is that internship recipients are minority students. Internship recipients can major in any discipline. According to the Institute, interns will work with a member of the General Assembly’s black caucus on a variety of topics and assignments, which include reviewing and analyzing legislation, researching issues for proposed legislation, attending policy briefings and committee hearings, and establishing contacts with state agencies and other legislative offices “to develop a full understanding of how state government works to meet the needs of the public.”
The internship will provide students opportunities that embody Lane’s legacy, said Smoot, who speaks of Lane as a “change agent.”
“The internship program will be a wonderful tribute to Alexander Lane,” she said. “I’m hoping students will appreciate having such an opportunity to represent this icon that at some point, they will be interested enough to pursue a political career.”
Baughman said it was particularly fitting, given Paul Simon’s dedication to civil rights and diversity issues, that the Simon Institute hosts the Alexander Lane Internship.
“Paul Simon would have loved the Alexander Lane story,” Baughman said. “A major factor of his decision to create the institute at SIU Carbondale was to work with students who were first generation, disadvantaged or minorities.”
Donors can join the Alexander Lane Internship Founding Members Club by making a major gift or pledge by Dec. 31, 2011. Contributions of any amount are welcome and those making gifts by the end of the year will be considered a special part of the Alexander Lane Internship Endowment. More information on the internship endowment drive and the program is available at paulsimoninstitute.org.