Harry L. Hamilton inducted into The Randolph Society

Harry L. Hamilton

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Harry L. Hamilton, a talented novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, will be inducted into the 2019 class of honorees.

Harry Lacy Hamilton was born in Chester in 1896. His father, Harry Hamilton Sr., was a second-generation commercial fisherman who worked on the Mississippi, and his mother, Margaret Greenwalt, was descended from several established Chester families. The eldest of six children, Harry briefly moved with his family to Arkansas as a teenager, where his grandparents purchased a farm near the Missouri border. However, his father’s job working on the river ultimately kept the family in Randolph County, where Harry graduated from Chester High School in 1916. The same year, he was recognized by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission for the bravery he demonstrated when he helped save a friend from drowning in the Mississippi.

After serving in the army in World War I, Harry used his Carnegie prize money to enroll at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. A natural born storyteller, Harry studied drama in the College of Fine Arts, writing more than a dozen plays that were performed by his fellow students, including his roommate, the future film star and director Norman Foster. When Harry graduated in 1924, one local newspaper heralded him as the most “outstanding student-playwright produced by the institute during its history.”

Degree in hand, Harry moved south to Alabama, where he took a teaching job. He also became the director of the Little Theater in Montgomery, a role that allowed him to continue to write and produce his own plays. A collaboration with Norman Foster soon vaunted him to a new level of creative success. Their original play, Savage Rhythm, premiered on Broadway in 1932. Harry left Montgomery, establishing himself first in New York and then in California, where he continued to write plays and short stories. In 1936, he published his first novel, Banjo on My Knee, which was inspired by his childhood living along the Mississippi. Twentieth Century Fox soon purchased the film rights to the novel, adapting it as a movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, and Walter Brennan.

While working as a screenwriter for Paramount, MGM, and Republic Pictures, Harry also continued to write novels. He produced four more books during the course of his career: All Their Children Were Acrobats (1936), the story of a circus family; Watch Us Grow (1940), the tale of an Arkansas town along the Mississippi; River Song (1945), a sequel to Banjo on My Knee; and Thunder in the Wilderness (1949), a historical romance set in eighteenth-century Kaskaskia. Harry traveled the world during his writing career, but his success selling short stories and serials also enabled him to put down roots in the seaside city of Long Beach, where numerous members of his family eventually joined him. Following a Thanksgiving meal with friends and family at the home of a niece in 1975, he passed away at his home at the age of 79.

Just before his death, Harry was planning a trip to return to Chester to celebrate the bicentennial. He considered his childhood in Randolph County to have been one of the most formative experiences of his life: “I’ve always been glad I grew up in a small town like Chester. Kids in big cities miss many of the basics and associations which form your character.” Chester hasn’t forgotten Harry, either, celebrating his life in tributes and keeping a collection of all of his novels in the town’s public library so that local citizens can be inspired by the writer who dreamed his way from the Mississippi to Broadway and Hollywood.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Harry L. Hamilton.

Nance Legins Costley inducted into The Randolph Society

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Nance Legins Costley, whose bravery and persistence in securing her freedom set precedent in Illinois law, will be inducted into the 2019 class of honorees.

Nance Legins, the daughter of African-American indentured servants who had been brought to Illinois from Louisiana, was born in Kaskaskia in late 1813. Nance’s parents were indentured to Thomas Cox, an ambitious local businessman and politician whose home in Kaskaskia also served as the headquarters of Illinois’s territorial government. Although she was born in a territory where slavery was nominally illegal, Nance was subject to Illinois’s complicated system of indentured servitude. Because her parents were bound to serve Thomas Cox, Nance was also legally considered his property.

When she was still a baby, Cox sold Nance, her parents, and her elder brother, Reuben, to another prominent Kaskaskian, William Morrison, who ran a mercantile empire that shipped goods up and down the Mississippi Valley. Shortly afterward, though, the Legins family was returned to the ownership of Cox, who ran a hotel in Kaskaskia. When Illinois became a state in 1818, Kaskaskia was its first capital, and Cox was elected to serve in the state legislature. When the capital moved to Vandalia the following year, Nance and her sister, Dice, moved with the Cox family to settle there. Because Cox was involved in politics, Nance was surrounded by conversations about legal matters of the day, including the question of slavery in the state.

The Cox family, along with Nance and Dice, settled in Springfield in the 1820s, where Cox secured a prominent position in the local land registry office. But Cox, who was an alcoholic, mishandled the office’s funds, as well as his personal finances, and to satisfy his creditors, his property was auctioned. That property included both Nance and Dice. In the only known public slave auction ever held in the state of Illinois, Nance and Dice were sold in Springfield in July 1827. When her new owner, Nathan Cromwell, asked if she would go live in his household, Nance, still in chains from the auction, defiantly told him that she would not.

Nance’s public refusal to accept her sale kicked off a series of legal challenges that eventually led to the Illinois State Supreme Court. In 1828, the court denied her claim, deciding that she was legally Cromwell’s property. After Cromwell sold her in Tazewell County in 1836, this time to an abolitionist, Nance resisted once more. Her new “owner,” David Bailey, refused to pay for her, arguing that she was a free person and could not be sold. When the case came before the state supreme court once more, Bailey’s friend, Abraham Lincoln, served as his attorney. Lincoln successfully argued that no one had been able to prove that Nance was legally owned by anyone. In July 1841, Judge Sidney Breese declared that Nance was free, stating decisively that “the sale of a free person is illegal.”

Nance married a free man of color, Benjamin Costley, in Pekin, and the couple had eight children, all of whom were free citizens. Near the end of her life, a Pekin city directory recognized Nance’s resilience: “She came here a chattel, with ‘no rights that a white man was bound to respect’ … and now, in her still vigorous old age, she sees her race disenthralled; the chains that bound them forever broken, their equality before the law everywhere recognized, and her children enjoying the elective franchise.” In her valiant struggle to realize her own freedom, Nance set important precedents that helped others become free, too – and helped inspire a future president as he developed his understanding of the need for emancipation for all.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Nance Legins Costley.

Roger Wolff inducted into The Randolph Society

Roger Wolff in uniform with the Philadelphia Athletics

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Roger Wolff, the major league baseball pitcher whose knuckleball carried him to a twenty-win season with the Washington Senators, will be inducted into the 2019 class of honorees.

Roger, the second son of Leo and Eleanor Wolff, was born in Evansville in 1911. The Wolff family moved in 1922 to Chester, where Leo established Wolff’s Market, selling meat and groceries to the community. Roger and his elder brother, Omer, worked for their father at the store, and on their breaks they played catch outside the market.

As a teenager, Roger’s love for baseball grew into a passion. He discovered a talent for pitching, and after he added a knuckleball to his arsenal, he decided to pursue baseball as a career. He began playing in Red Bud with the St. Moran League, but he was quickly noticed by Cardinals business manager Branch Rickey and given a minor league contract. From 1930 until 1941, he played for numerous minor league teams all over the country, including the Davenport Blue Sox, the Denver Grizzlies, the Dayton Ducks, the Oklahoma City Indians, and the Cedar Rapids Raiders.

Roger returned to Chester each winter to work at the family store. In November 1939, he married Mary Rose Montroy in their hometown. That December, he signed a contract with the Williamsport Grays, a minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Athletics. Mentorship by the Grays’ manager, Spencer Abbott, helped Roger develop his skills, and in September 1941, he finally got the call from the big leagues. He made his major league debut on September 20, 1941, starting for the Athletics in a game against the Washington Senators. A week later, he had a brush with history, when he nearly derailed Red Sox slugger Ted Williams in his quest to finish the season with a .400 batting average.

For the next two seasons, Roger was a reliable part of the Athletics rotation. In 1943, as many major leaguers went to war, Roger – who was classified 4-F by his local draft board – finished with a 10-15 record. He was traded in the off-season to the Washington Senators, who were building an entire rotation of knuckleballers in their quest to capture the American League pennant.

Injuries and illness took a toll on Roger during the 1944 season, but in 1945, he had the season of a lifetime. He finished with a 20-10 record and an incredible 2.12 ERA. He tossed a total of 250 innings during the season, including 21 complete games, and faced 1000 batters. His stellar season was recognized with a seventh place finish in the voting for the league’s Most Valuable Player. His performance was so good that nearly helped the Senators secure a trip to the World Series, though they fell just behind Detroit in the final league standings.

In 1946, Roger didn’t get the chance to repeat the success of the previous season. He was sidelined with a major injury to his back, suffered during a game against the Yankees on the Fourth of July. Doctors advised him not to pitch again, though he made a few more appearances with Washington. The following year he played for the Indians and the Pirates before leaving baseball to return to a quieter life in Chester, where he worked at Menard Penitentiary and served as manager to the prison’s baseball team, the Menard Cubs. He also served as vice-president of Chester’s very first Little League Program.

Roger died in Chester in 1994. Late in his life, Roger reflected on his time in baseball: “I really believe, everything considered, that I had a real successful career and life.” His perseverance through injury and disappointment, and the magnificent triumph he reached as a result, is an inspiration to baseball fans in Randolph County and across the nation.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Roger Wolff.