Slave to Soldier to Student

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Davenport school museum volunteers find registration records for two freed men

It’s Black History Month, and you may be surprised to find out there’s some deep roots here in the QC.

The Davenport School District has records two freedmen registering for what is now Madison School.

“The part that really got me when I saw this, ‘owns himself,'” said Schebler.

Retired Rock Island History Teacher, Jim Schebler, volunteers at the Davenport School Museum.

He found the registration records for two former slaves, Moses Bush and Silas Hopkins.

They signed up for class just three years after the end of the Civil War.

“Why did people go to first grade at age 20? They went there to gain skills that they could use to better themselves and better the community. The community is a lot better off for what these people did,” said Schebler.

Rock Island Alderman Virgil Mayberry says he’s done a lot of research on black history in the QCA, especially concerning black military units.

He says the Davenport School documents speak volumes about education at the time.

“It was against the law to teach them how read and write. There was a reason for that. If you get educated, you can learn, and you can elevate yourself,” said Mayberry.

Bush and Hopkins spent the rest of their lives in Davenport, and they were laid to rest right here in Oakdale Memorial Gardens.

“When this cemetery was started in 1856, that was it’s non-profit designation that everyone could be buried here no matter of race, creed, religion,” said Deborah Williams.

Oakdale Memorial Gardens Office Manager Deborah Williams says that’s why the two former slaves are buried here.

She knows of about 37 former slaves buried at the cemetery, 11 of them were escaped slaves, including Bush and Hopkins.

In fact, the cemetery is considered part of the National Underground Railroad Network.

“If you’re looking for your county history or your city history, you need to go to cemeteries because that’s where it lies. And with this cemetery we were able to get on the National Register of Historic Places,” said Williams.

Williams says Bush was probably more successful because he has a family plot, while Hopkins was buried in the free area with a small stone, barely visible.

Williams and Schebler say they believe Hopkins was a cook in the union army, and became a firefighter, but they don’t know a whole lot more about them.

“I love my job, and it’s so neat because you find something new every day, and we’re continually working on things and we still operate a cemetery,” said Williams.

Mayberry believes there should be more black historic sites listed in the Quad Cities Area.           

He says despite our rich history, people don’t know where to go.

“I go and ask the convention center or whatever, if you say it’s here, but where is it? If you don’t know, where it’s at, you never find it because there’s no real pamphlet,” said Mayberry.

Mayberry and Schebler both believe people can learn a lot from Bush and Hopkins’ story.

“As we know today, and even then, education is the key to life,” said Mayberry.  

“We can motivate ourselves sometimes to do a better job, to fit into the community an make progress for ourselves and the community,” said Schebler.

Schebler is still trying to piece everything together, and he’s asking for your help.

If you know anyone related to Moses Bush or Silas Hopkins contact the Davenport School Museum at (563) 336-5000.

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