Simeon’s Osby’s name, on the other hand, brought up a wealth of intriguing information from the genealogical site. He was born on May 15 1909. In the 1920 census, he is listed as the oldest of four children, living at 1501 S. 17th Street; in the census ten years later, he is still living at home with both parents and three more siblings.
Apart from a hiatus in 1926 when Simeon seems to have left school and worked as a porter, he continues to be listed in the City Directory as a student living at home through 1928 when he graduated from Springfield High with my father.
In 1929 he is shown living at home, but working in some unspecified capacity for a local company.
In 1931, he is still listed in the Directory as living with his parents, but is also a student at the University of Illinois Champaign.
According to the City Directory, Simeon remains a student at Champaign through 1934, the height of the depression. He does not appear to have graduated when he returns to live in Springfield, working as a case aid worker in the Surviving Bureau of Transients from then until he is enlisted into the Army as a Private at the end of December 1943. There are no details in the genealogical site about where and how he served during the War: he is discharged in October 1946, around the same time that my father was discharged from the Navy.
In the 1940 census, Simeon Osby is still living in Springfield, and married to Annabel, a teacher whose birthplace is Tennessee. No maiden name is given for her. No children are listed, and no address is provided in the City Directory.
But in the 1950 census his 58 year-old mother Virgie is living with them.
In 1948, Simeon is editor of the Capitol City News, and his wife is a stenographer at the University of Illinois Division of Services for Crippled Children. By 1951 when Simeon is again in the army at the outbreak of the Korean War, Annabel has been promoted to secretary and by 1955 she is the chief clerk in the same Division, and Simeon is working at the Chicago Defender. His mother Virgie is still living with them, and works as a maid.
I could find no census information for 1960 or 1970, but Simeon Buckner Osby is still working at the Defender in 1976, when he is among fifty journalist, the only one mentioned by the Edwardsville Intelligencer paper specifically as black, and present at a meeting to discuss some proposed cuts to benefit. He stands to speak against the proposal.
Simeon died on July 14, 1993, eight years after my father. He is buried in Camp Butler, Springfield’s military cemetery. His wife had died five years earlier, and she too is buried at Camp Butler.
His father is also buried at Camp Butler. But Simeon’s mother Virgie, who had lived with her son and daughter-in-law for so many years, who in 1955 was still alive and working as a maid, is not buried with her husband, and I was unable to trace a date of death or burial site for her.
The final intriguing information garnered in the genealogical site was that Simeon is listed as Simeon Buckner Osby Jr. in the Ninth Edition of Who’s Who among African Americans (1996/97).
That tidbit launched me into deeper research.
I knew nothing about The Chicago Defender: I had not ever even heard the name before the genealogical site revealed that Simeon worked at the paper. When I saw it, I first wondered whether it was or was not strange that an African American man in mid-century American would find employment as a journalist on a paper. How did a black person then write for any newspaper? Weren’t newspapers written by and for the white middle class and the white intelligentsia?
Was there such a strong policy of non-discrimination in the newspaper world after the war, that he could be employed? Or was it a muck-racking rag that ‘even’ a black person could write for?
I wondered whether he had to commute to Chicago regularly. I wondered what kind of things he wrote about: from the only snippet of information the genealogical site showed, in 1976 he seemed to have been involved in some kind of political journalism. Is that how he started his journalistic career? Was that the kind of writing he would have done for the Capitol City News where he was working in 1948? From the sound of it, the Capitol City News must have been the paper that reported on the goings on in Illinois State legislation.
I remembered that Simeon Osby’s father worked at the State Capitol Building and
I returned to the genealogy, saw in the records how Osby Senior had been born in Springfield in 1880 from parents who had migrated from Virginia and Georgia after the Civil War; in all probability freed slaves.
I saw how Osby Senior had been honorably discharged from the army in 1906, after serving in either the Philippine-American War of 1899 or the Boxer Rebellion of 1902.
How in 1907 Osby Senior first appeared in the City Directory as an unmarried watchman living on Elliott Avenue in Springfield, and in 1912 he was first listed as married to Virgie, born in Kentucky in 1882.
The couple is living at 1501 S. 17th Street. This is the same address where the growing family lives in the 1920 and the 1930 census. It is the home Osby Senior buys for $1500 in 1930.
In the yearly Springfield City Directory from where these facts are detailed, next to the name, for the Osby family too there is the bracketed (c): colored. Branded.
From 1917 until his death in 1939, Simeon Osby Senior worked as an elevator operator and eventually as supervisor of elevator operations at the State Capitol, when elevator mechanisms were powered either by hand cranks or by hydraulic steam pistons.
Local history does not record when the three elevators were put in the State Capitol building, although space was allowed for them at the time of construction in the last years of the eighteen hundreds; but it does record a huge investment in their upgrade in 1939, the year Osby Senior died. It seems plausible but not definitive that the original elevators were put in around the time when he started working as their operator. It is not clear whether the first elevators were hand cranked or hydraulically operated.
It is most likely that all seven children at some time or other would have gone to the Capitol: how often did he take some of them to ride the elevators? Was the chance to ride the elevators a bargaining chip for this father? You work hard and do well in school, and I’ll take you to ride the elevators.
How often while they were in the elevators, did this or that legislator smile and pat any of the kids on the cheek? Which legislator remembered their name, and knew Mr. Osby’s? Who became his friends and who just addressed him as ‘boy’? With whom did the invisible man trade conversation and information?
How much did he see, and share with his son as he got older, and how much did his eldest son want to know?
Even though Simeon started his work as a reporter for the Capital News in 1948, almost ten years after his father, supervisor of elevator operations at the Capitol, died, and after the War, perhaps all he had to do was remind legislators of the man who had worked there for more than twenty years on an ancient system needing daily maintenance, and information on legislative activities easily came his way.
The moment the results came up after I typed the name The Chicago Defender in the search engine, I could begin to forgive myself for my ignorance, and for the time I had thought I had been wasting, researching and wondering about these three peers of my father’s.
The Chicago Defender was second biggest African American paper in the US,
“Founded in 1905 by Robert Sengstacke Abbott. Abbott published the first issue, a run of 300 copies, on May 6, 1905. The Defender began as a four-page weekly handbill filled with local news and reproductions of clippings from other newspapers. Abbott initially sold both subscriptions and advertising for the paper himself by going door-to-door throughout Chicago, Illinois.
Abbott used the Defender as a forum to attack racial injustice from the outset, and included a front-page heading on every issue that read, “American Race Justice Must Be Destroyed”. The Defender was a leading advocate in the fight against racial, economic, and social discrimination. It championed equal employment and fair housing for blacks, and boldly reported on lynchings, rapes, and black disfranchisement. What began as a four-page handbill had become by 1915 a popular local newspaper with a weekly circulation of 16,000.”
Once I was scanning through the on-line archives, I saw that the newspaper had sections dedicated to news from Illinois cities, including Springfield. I saw that long before Simeon started writing for the paper in 1953, he was the frequent subject: the local news more often than not consisted of social announcements. From the paper I learnt the exact date when Simeon left to attend the University of Illinois in Champaign (September 14, 1929). I learnt that in 1933, he and a friend were refused admittance at the Empire Theater and brought suit against the owner for violation of the civil rights bill, and were refused a warrant for fear of race riots. I learnt that between 1933 and the breakout of the War, Simeon was either secretary, Vice-President or President of the Springfield branch of the NAAC. I learnt that in 1939, Simeon filed a complaint with Adjutant General Carlos Black and the State’s Attorney, because only whites were being sold seats in some reserved sections of the Renaissance-Shamrock basketball game. I learnt that in 1939 he ran in the race for mayor of Springfield, sponsored by the Chicago Defender.
I knew I had to share my discoveries and I knew why: to give recognition to the hidden lives of Donald Hogan and Thelma Donnigan; to play some small role in honoring the career of Simeon Osby Jr., journalist and civil rights activist, who graduated high school with my father, Robert Fitzgerald, poet and translator.