Despite qualifications of two consulting firms and a National Park Service grant to tell the African-American history of Rock Island, a heated and emotional fight over the process has resulted in a re-start.
During Black History Month, the Rock Island Coalition of African-American Stakeholders on Thursday applauded aldermen for voting at Monday night’s council meeting to return the $33,500 civil rights grant.
The group said “to win a battle that we should never have had to fight, has provided a good opportunity for us to regroup and invite the city to ‘come to our table’ to develop a plan that gives new vision and imagination to the struggles, culture, history, and achievements of many generations of African-Americans from Rock Island,” said leaders Shellie Moore Guy and Gaye Shannon Burnett.
“Now with a path forward, there is an opportunity to create the right partnerships with qualified, credentialed historians, historical consultants, and other professionals for the important work of analyzing, interpreting, and documenting the history of generations of African-American citizens from Rock Island,” they said Thursday. “Equally, it is necessary that we, the African-American community, are the architects and storytellers of our own experiences.”
The city in its NPS application, named the sub-recipients of this award to Pearson Consulting and Rock Island-based QC PastPort. With the award, Pearson Consulting (of Waterloo, Iowa), and QC PastPort planned to develop 10 historical markers in Rock Island focused on the Civil Rights movement from 1900 to 1970.
The 2021 grant was among just two in Illinois, of the National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Grant Program, giving $15 million to 53 projects in 20 states — to help preserve sites and history related to the African-American struggle for equality.
“Our focus is to communicate and educate anyone interested in learning the Quad Cities African-American story,” Pearson said before the Feb. 14 vote. “This is a terrific opportunity for the younger generation to connect to unique and impactful landmarks through outdoor recreational resources. This includes being a part of the Mississippi River Trail, the American Discovery Trail and The Great River Rails Trail.”
The objective of the federal grant is to provide historic preservation resources to underserved communities through public education and volunteers who help document, interpret and preserve historic sites and stories associated with the full history of QC African-Americans.
One of the many reasons this group was awarded the competitive national grant was due to the qualifications of members of the team, according to the two firms.
Natalie Linville-Mass – owner of Media Link, and president of the two-year-old QC PastPort – was bitterly disappointed with the council’s rejection of the grant (only Ald. Judith Gilbert supported it).
“One message to the community – you turned away an opportunity that was going to lift up the west end of Rock Island,” she said this week. “You did it because we didn’t live in the neighborhood. How is this community going to grow if we don’t accept help from other places? Are we going to grow if we don’t embrace each other?”
Ald. Moses Robinson, 1st Ward, who is Black and represents the west end, said at the contentious Feb. 14 meeting: “We’re tired of individuals from afar making decisions about our community without including them.”
He said there was a profound failure of communication in this grant process, with local African-Americans being ignored.
“We’re chasing dollars — $33,000. We can do that work ourselves,” Robinson said, noting the Monday presentation by Pearson was different than what was in the grant application.
Ald. Mark Poulos said Black residents in his ward didn’t know about this grant.
“We continue to make decisions without including people of color,” Robinson said. “There’s a cloud over this whole project, which makes it that much easier to turn it back and start from scratch. It’s not that we don’t want the work being done. We want it, clearly.”
Grant went to the city
Miles Brainard, Rock Island’s community and economic development director, said the city submitted the application to the National Park Service, which awarded the grant to the city.
The city still needed to approve an agreement for the sub-recipients, Pearson and Media Link, to carry out the work, he said. The city could go out to bid and choose other sub-recipients, but couldn’t deviate from the scope of work in the application, Brainard told aldermen.
“It was not for us to award or us to choose. It’s the National Park Service grant. They vetted it, they awarded it,” Ald. Jenni Swanson said. “It is their money they sent to the city.”
The Park Service said as long as the work is exactly the same, the city could change who the consultant is, Brainard said.
Ald. Dylan Parker didn’t want the project to stop.
“All of us in this room want to do the good work of telling the story of Black Rock Islanders and Black Americans,” he said. Parker has always wanted to use $100,000 in hotel tax revenue for a city heritage tourism plan, he said.
“We have been totally disregarded, from the city as well,” Moore Guy told the council. “We were told by Randy Tweet he didn’t know who to contact, and that was insulting.”
People and property in the west end of Rock Island have been marginalized for decades, she said.
“It is a direct historical assault on the Black community – silencing the Black community’s voices,” Guy said. “There has been an intentional disregard for the west end of Rock Island. Many of us have worked to rectify that and remedy that, but still we’re a blighted community – vacant buildings, empty lots.”
“What we continue to experience is the lack of engagement, and that is the marginalization,” she said, noting the grant again silenced them. “You silence us when you don’t include us and we need to be directly involved in anything that happens with the African-American community.”
The African-American Coalition wants to create something to reflect the rich Black history of Rock Island.
On Thursday, the Coalition said it “considers our next steps should be starting an awareness campaign to gather information on how the African-American community envisions proceeding with the vital work to document and tell the history of Rock Island’s African American community.”
Brooks promised retribution for unsupportive aldermen
Resident Thurgood Brooks (a 2021 mayoral candidate and current family advocate for the city) told the council he spoke to hundreds of people in the community and “not one person of color is in agreement for you to vote yes today.”
“This is probably the easiest no vote you can make,” he said. “Mayor Thoms, I would not come to your home and tell you the story of the Thoms family, ‘cause I don’t know the story of the Thoms family.”
“A yes vote by any of you individuals would be an arrogant vote,” Brooks said. “Whoever votes yes, I will make it my duty to make sure everyone knows you voted yes, and I’ll make it my duty to do everything possible to assure you do not be re-elected. I say that because we’re coming to you very reasonably, hoping you hear us out.”
Parker proposed to develop a steering committee for a heritage resource plan, to represent the different populations of Rock Island, not only Black history.
Ald. Judith Gilbert said the city agreed to submit the grant that Pearson and Linville-Mass put together.
Former city manager Randy Tweet entered into a “verbal and moral agreement,” and the two consultants “had every expectation that if by some chance the National Park Service awarded the grant to the city, that Pearson Consulting and Media Link would be the sub-recipients of the grant,” she said.
They would identify 10 city-owned properties to be submitted for the National Register of Historic Places, with a wayfinding, tourism package for those sites.
“In my opinion, when the National Park Service awarded the grant, we had a moral and legal obligation to enter that sub-recipient contract,” Gilbert said, noting no one from the Coalition came to the city to apply for the grant.
“Unfortunately, council I don’t think was fully aware of some of the inputs we would receive following that initial agreement,” Ald. Poulos said.
Ald. Robinson said a call that he was on with Pearson and Linville-Mass was condescending to the Black community.
“It was never the intention to bring this to us until they needed the stories for the narrative,” he said. “We were never part of the discussion.”
The grant application said that Blacks in Rock Island would take ownership of the process, Robinson said. “I didn’t find out until I heard from Shellie Moore Guy that the grant was awarded to the city of Rock Island.”
City in a “no-win” situation
Swanson was frustrated over the city being put in a “no-win situation.”
“The African-American history needs to be told; it needs to be not hidden,” she said. “I don’t think Rock Islanders want to be known as the community that does not celebrate their African-American community, that does not want the history to be told.”
“As Rock Islanders, we are inclusive of everybody,” Swanson said. “If we go ahead and award the funds, then I feel there is not going to be cooperation and it will not come to fruition. It’s gonna be a mess.”
If the city returned the funds, it will give Rock Island a black mark, she said, adding she has nonprofit experience of over 20 years. “I 100-percent understand grants.”
“It’s a great project and something that really has to happen,” Swanson said. “But in its present form, I really feel it’s not gonna happen.”
Robinson said they would start over and come back together on the project.
“We continue to hear information from our community first before we hear it in council chambers,” he said. “This is a perfect example of the outcome of that and this is why we have to change this course of action. We have to stop making decisions by not having the communication channel open.”
“I think this got put in our lap and we’re in a no-win situation here. It’s obvious the two sides aren’t getting along, for whatever reason,” Ald. Randy Hurt said.
“I didn’t like the tone of the threatening nature of some of the public comments,” he said. “I think the process has been totally flawed in my opinion, and I’m ready just to give it back and start fresh.”
“We have a real opportunity here to take something that’s been really controversial and contentious, and say, we are going to commit ourselves to Black history, to historic preservation,” Parker said. “We’re gonna move forward; we’re not just giving the money back.”
Gaye Shannon Burnett said she’s worked with the Putnam Museum, which is interested in working on this project. She also asked Monica Smith of Augustana College for help.
“How are we overlooking people with Ph.Ds in history who are Black and going with Mr. Pearson?” Shannon-Burnett said. (Pearson is Black.) She said they’re not willing to work with Pearson and Linville-Mass.
Pearson Consulting has been awarded a sub-contract to develop the Dubuque Black Heritage Survey Project in coordination with the City of Dubuque and Wapsi Valley Archeology, Inc. Pearson has also led summits, workshops, presentations and training on cultural heritage tourism and education.
In 2018, Pearson earned the Historic Preservation Award from the City of Waterloo for creating the inventory for that city’s African-American historic resources.
Pearson Consulting’s first project was in fall 2013 to consult with St. Ambrose University in Davenport. SAU wanted to develop a plan to research and document the school’s African-American and civil rights resources. In the spring of 2014, Pearson Consulting created a series of five presentations showcasing vast ethnic and cultural history in Davenport.
A hit to a Rock Island business
“This has been a really hard road personally,” Linville-Mass told the council. “This has taken its toll – a tremendous toll – on me professionally, personally, as well as my company and staff.”
“QC PastPort is founded on making sure we can tell everyone’s story – from every background and every culture,” she said. “Mr. Pearson has a long history with what he’s been doing in tourism and trails. There’s a very long list of qualifications that make him the best person to do this – because of what he’s done, to be able to propel Black history throughout the Midwest.”
They went through all the hoops and requirements for the NPS grant and “now I feel like we’re being penalized because there were some hidden rules that we weren’t aware of,” Linville-Mass said. “It doesn’t do us any good to penalize us for something that wasn’t there at the time we applied for it.”
She said she’s been very straightforward and open with the African-American community, willing to work with everyone.
“All we said was, we hadn’t received the signatures for the sub-recipient agreement, so our work can’t start until that point,” Linville-Mass said. “We’ve talked at length about how inclusive this was going to be going forward, with everybody that’s involved.”
She has partnered with 27 area organizations for the grant. “All I’ve done my entire life is collaboration,” Linville-Mass said. “We’re all on the same team and we really do wants to make sure the city starts to embrace everyone.”
She agreed the process should be improved, including an advisory committee and a better public-private partnership. An African-American also should serve on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, she added.
“There should be an African-American, Quad-City museum, and it should be in Rock Island,” Linville-Mass said. “There’s a lot we can do together, but we’ve got to be given the chance to work together.”
QC PastPort has a focus on bringing the rich history of the QC to life. “It provides a platform which allows organizations to take advantage of a system which creates a coherent net of sites to be linked to each other digitally and physical,” according to the company.
QC PastPort does this by offering self-guided, interactive, physical and digital tours throughout the QC. Stops along this tour bring the area’s history to life by highlighting the architecture, businesses, institutions and fascinating sites through the stories of the people who were there at the time.
The African-American coalition said Thursday that when buildings have been torn down, “the story is more about culture and what happened at sites rather than the building itself. That means oral histories will be an intricate part of documenting the stories of the buildings where African Americans once lived, worked, and worshipped.”
Before the council voted, the coalition offered its own ideas of who they would pick to lead the project.
“We trust qualified and credentialed African-American professionals that can be found in Rock Island, the Quad Cities, and the University of Iowa, which is a rich resource of highly trained and skilled Black professionals that can help respectfully document the stories of the Rock Island African-American community,” they said.