Fairbanks Flats commemorates history

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Members of the Fairbanks Flats Revitalization Group gathered Thursday with area officials and dignitaries to celebrate the unveiling of a marker that commemorates the historic housing complex. Pictured are President Francis Vance, Aaron Turner, Roselyne Ackley, Amy Sarno, Barbara Milsap-Morrow and Pauline Pipes.

Supporters of the Fairbanks Flats met Thursday to celebrate a new marker that commemorates the historical housing complex on Beloit’s West Side.

Francis Vance, president of the Fairbanks Flats/Shore Drive Neighborhood Revitalization Group, welcomed committee members, area dignitaries and people who had grown up in the flats during the apartments’ heyday. Due to rain, the program took place inside Wesley Christian Methodist Church on Shore Drive.

Many contributed to the Flats’ preservation and renewal, a process that took more than a decade, Vance said.

“The marker stands on the terrace in front of the Flats,” Vance said. “It honors the great historical significance for the city of Beloit and especially for the African-American community.”

Looking out over the Rock River on Shore Drive, the Flats have undergone major renovations that not only preserved the early 20th century apartment houses, but transformed them into comfortable housing for today’s generations.

Fairbanks Morse Engine company built the four cinderblock, 24-unit, two-story apartments in 1917 to house African-Americans arriving in Beloit from the South to work at the company. Before the Flats opened their doors in 1920, new Fairbanks workers lived in a temporary camp near the Rock River.

In 1910, Beloit’s black population numbered 94. By 1920 it had grown to 834 individuals.

At Thursday’s ceremony, John Bottorff of Fairbanks Morse presented a brief history from the company’s point of view. He recounted Fairbanks’ recruitment efforts of workers from Southern states eager to leave behind economic and social hardships for opportunities in the industrial North.

Fairbanks promised safer living conditions, good wages and plenty of work.

An African-American man working in the Fairbanks offices in the early 20th Century was born in Mississippi. He led recruitment drives in his home state. Soon, former tenant farmers were arriving en masse in Beloit. Many came from Mississippi locales such as Pontotoc, Jackson and Tupelo.

“The symbolism of the Flats helps current individuals know how important the workers were,” Bottorff said. “They helped make Beloit a diverse city where we strive and work together.”

He shared a company census from July 1, 1923 that listed Fairbanks’ 2,900 employees by ethnic background. The list included 229 Blacks, 185 Italians, 126 Scandinavians, 66 Germans, and 64 who hailed from England, Ireland and Scotland. The list named other nationalities such as Mexicans, Lithuanians, Austrians and Bohemians.

He commended all those involved in saving the Flats.

“I know this has been a long, long labor of love,” he said. “It is an amazing story about overcoming obstacles.”

Other speakers included City Manager Larry Arft and Al Honor, who grew up in the Flats. Committee members Barb Milsap-Morrow, Aaron Turner and Pauline Pipes also spoke as did State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton.

Amy Sarno, a committee member and theater professor at Beloit College, said a fundraising drive for the memorial marker is kicking off. Fairbanks Morse has already donated the initial funds for the monument.

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