Rail project shows history, future of race relations in Springfield and U.S.

Posted by: Gordon on 3/31/2015

Irma Wallace testifies with state Sen. Andy Manar
Irma Wallace, Rail Task Force member and board member of Faith Coalition for the Common Good and co-chair of Gamaliel's national jobs campaign, testified with state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Springfield, in support of a legislative resolution calling on the Federal Contract Compliance Programs office to update its data on access to federal project jobs for women and people of color. March was packed with action for Faith Coalition.

Train tracks have always divided Springfield’s neighborhoods. Now that history is influencing whether African Americans will be among those working to modernize rail crossings in Illinois’ capital.

It’s also influencing the national debate on modernizing regulations that govern access for women and people of color to transit infrastructure jobs across the country.

In 2013, the city won a federal grant to begin to relocate Union Pacific freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains from Third Street to the Norfolk Southern line’s 10th Street tracks. The area is the heart of Springfield’s historic African-American community.

Faith Coalition for the Common Good drafted a community benefits agreement which was signed by the city, the county, IDOT, and several state legislators, to insure jobs on the project go to area residents who have seen few opportunities to access positions in construction. The group is also working to make sure families whose homes overlap the construction zone receive a fair price to relocate.

As Faith Coalition leaders quickly learned, signing the agreement was just a first step. In March, they stepped up efforts to hold local government accountable by asking Springfield state Senator Andy Manar to create a commission to oversee the construction project. At the same time, the group also asked Manar to introduce a resolution calling on the federal government to update its regulations governing the number of women and people of color working on federal infrastructure projects.

Both the commission and the resolution are working their way through the Illinois Legislature.

Meanwhile, as construction on the overpass got under way late last year, diggers unearthed homes that were burned during the Springfield race riot of 1908. This event was the impetus for the creation of the NAACP. The Federal Railroad Administration, which is funding the reconstruction project, is currently considering how to proceed, and has included Faith Coalition leaders in the decision-making process.

Much of this happened in the past month – as did the group’s first fundraiser of the year, a breakfast that raised some $10,000, their best ever.  Irma Wallace, a board member for the organization and national co-chair of Gamaliel’s jobs coalition said it was a busy month: “To me all of it was exciting but I think one of the high points and successes was for state Sen. Andy Manar to work with us on increasing minority hiring goals for the federal government.

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