The 2019 edition of Civil War Days at Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda, Ill., might be the last one hosted by the Lake County Forest Preserves after the district’s board debated the appropriateness of the annual commemoration Tuesday.
In fact, the event’s cancellation was announced on Monday via the forest preserves’ website, a move that ended up being walked back following Tuesday’s debate.
Wauconda is in the northeast corner of Illinois.
Discussion at the forest preserves board meeting began after Wayne Carle, who helps coordinate the re-enactors who participate in the event, asked for an explanation for the posted cancellation. Many board members expressed that they did not hear about the cancellation until an hour before the meeting.
Board President Angelo Kyle said he cancelled the event in part because he wanted the district to look at other issues like global warming and climate change.
Many board members were stunned, with former president of the forest preserves Ann Maine questioning Kyle’s authority to make the decision.
“I’m deeply disappointed in the process and lack of transparency,” she said. “I’m deeply troubled by this and concerned about the precedent it sets. Can events and programs be cancelled without input?”
While Kyle said he followed proper procedure, Executive Director Ty Kovach said in answer to a question by a commissioner that it was not clear in policy if the president could cancel an event or create one on his own.
Kyle said he had been to the event before with former board member and fellow African American Audrey Nixon and, “Some of the things I experienced I cannot talk about here,” while referencing the sight of Confederate battle flags.
“There were a considerable number of Confederate flags and a number of other things I took into consideration,” Kyle said.
In 2015, the district staged Civil War Days shortly after South Carolina removed the battle flag from its state Capitol. At the time, forest preserves officials said Confederate flags were not being displayed inappropriately at the Lake County event and were used in a historical context.
Kyle said on Tuesday that history is written by the victors, and he believes there is only one side to the story being told at re-enactment events.
“Our ancestors told us what really happened. Did you know that black soldiers were put on the front line in the North and Southern front lines so they would be killed first?” he asked fellow board members.
“There should be some consideration taken for that,” Kyle said, adding that he also feels some people are tired of the event.
“I think after 27 years, it has run its course,” he said.
Commissioner Michael Danforth also questioned the cancellation procedure, and why it wasn’t discussed by the full board. He pointed out that African Americans made up 10% of the Union forces, and the event was to help us “never forget” the history of slavery in the United States.
A number of commissioners acknowledged Kyle’s feeling and said maybe he would convince them to get rid of it or alter it in some way, but the manner in which the cancellation was being handled was not transparent.
Commissioner Steve Carlson said, “We could have had a tremendous discussion on that. I’m not pro or con, but I certainly think a discussion with the full board was warranted.”
“Who knows? I might have come to the same conclusion,” Carlson said.
Danforth also said that if Kyle continued pushing the issue, it would come off as strong-arming members or bullying. If Kyle could open a discussion, Danforth added, “We can have a robust debate and even bring in a historian.”
In the end, Kyle said that because of contracts and obligations for the event just five weeks away, maybe the district could host the 2019 event as a farewell.
“We’ll go forward with this one, because of the legal obligations we have. It’s definitely the last one,” Kyle said.
Because Carle and forest preserves staff were scheduled to meet with the re-enactors committee Tuesday night, Kyle said if the group was still open to staging the event after being informed of the cancellation, then he would relent, but he hoped it was the last one.
With the fate of the 2019 event in the hands of the people who participate, Carle felt somewhat confident that people could reverse course. Staff was given the discretion to take down the cancellation notice on the forest preserves website if that was the case Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.
There were some commissioners who agreed that maybe the event could be made more inclusive, and Commissioner John Wasik spoke out in support of canceling the event.
“The process notwithstanding, I’m happy it’s over. It’s incredibly offensive to a large population of residents. It just adds salt to the wounds,” he said.
Activist and North Chicago resident Ralph Peterson Jr. also addressed the commissioners, telling them that he feels the Civil War Days event is racist.
“This has nothing we want, nor should celebrate, nor re-enact,” Peterson said. “When southern states are being made to tear down every statute representing this racist, murdering chapter of our history, I can’t believe here in Lake County our own forest preserve is preserving and celebrating it every year, and with our tax dollars.”