Civics in action: The Jacksonville Turner Walking Tour

For the last 19 years, every September, the 7th graders of the Turner School in Jacksonville, Illinois, go on the annual Historic Walking Tour. The students go to several locations across Jacksonville as part of a living history experience.

The tour includes visiting several historic locations on the Illinois College campus. One focus for both Illinois College and other places in Jacksonville is on following the Underground Railroad throughout the city. Students get to witness two period artisans in action, a cooper and a quilter. Students further get to visit several architecturally important buildings in the area, as well as several historical businesses including the first Ferris Wheel factory.

One of the stops on the tour is the Morgan County Courthouse. The seventh graders get to learn about the history of the Courthouse from local attorneys who practice in that courthouse. While standing in the main courtroom, the students are presented a slide show showing historical pictures of the courthouse through the ages. They are told historical and interesting facts related to those slides.

What they learn in part is that the first courthouse for Morgan County was built in 1826 and the current courthouse was built in 1868. They learn that several important politicians such as William Jennings Bryan, as well as several Illinois Governors, practiced in that courthouse. Further Stephen A. Douglas was State’s Attorney for Morgan County for many years.

The students watch as the building progresses, adding electricity, having improvements made to the exterior, and eventually changing the entire layout of the primary courtroom. With these changes, the students get to learn also about the politics, haggling and finagling that is required to get such changes approved and implemented.

Part of the experience is that the students are given quotes from period newspapers and from visitors to the Courthouse to get a flavor of life at the time. One of the more interesting articles is about the first resident lawyer in Morgan County. He was murdered by being struck in the head and the only suspect was acquitted such that the murder remains unsolved to this day.

After the historical section is completed, the attorney presenter then moves on to the modern civics lesson. He or she points out all of the important elements of the courtroom, such as the bench, jury box and the witness stand. The attorney then explains what each participant’s role in a trial is and how those participants interact with each other.

Certain other facts about trial procedure, such as the difference between a petit jury and a full jury, are explained to the students. The students are also shown the jury room, and told about the deliberations that happen therein. Finally the students are given the opportunity to ask questions both about the historical matters and about the modern courthouse and its workings.

The Jacksonville Historic Walking Tour has been in existence for 19 years now. Some practicing attorneys in Jacksonville still remember when they were students on the tour. As the tour continues in the future, more students will be inspired to learn more about civics and some will be inspired to become attorneys in their own right. ■

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The author is past president of the Morgan County Bar Association.

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March 2015Volume 1Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)