A group of Black residents who live in a historic Illinois neighborhood are striving to bring more awareness about their community. The neighborhood, known as Mexico, is located in the Fourth Ward in the city of Alton. Although the region has been known as a prime Black business center for decades, the leaders of the community are still hoping to increase tourism and economic growth in the area.

Lee Barham, who serves as Madison County’s Democratic leader, is among those who are striving to grow the community. Barham said Downtown Alton in particular needs more Black businesses.

“There used to be over 50,000 people here, with the Duncan Foundry, the glass works, Pepsi Cola, Colonial Bakery, Laclede, but none of those companies had ownership in the city of Alton,” Barham said in an interview with The Telegraph. “It’s easier to up and leave because they had no real stake in Alton.”

He added, “Once you have a stake in the community, the view is different. RiverBend Growth Association people come visit in Mexico. Black pastors visit on Sunday and funerals, but the majority do not live in Alton.”

The community’s advocates are also concerned with the number of vacant lots in their neighborhood.

“On a lot off Highland a man fell into a sinkhole. I want the city to fix the lot and the city is hesitant about doing it,” Fourth Ward Alderwoman Rosetta “Rosie” Brown told The Telegraph.

Patricia Diane Ingram, who is a member of the Back To Mexico Committee, researched the city’s origins. Her research showed that Black families escaped Missouri during slavery and settled in Alton.

“During slavery, Missouri, whether a slave state or not, it responded like a slave state, and slaves would escape from Missouri and enter Alton when it was low tide on the river,” she said.

As Black families settled near the Alton Riverfront, an area known as Dogtown, they were protected by abolitionists.

“Abolitionists would signal with lanterns for the slaves coming over to show them it was a safe haven,” Ingram said. “The area flooded and those not free would hide out in the water in Dogtown.”

Alton was at one time populated by citizens from the country of Mexico. Many Mexican citizens came to Alton and worked in factories. However, large amounts of Mexicans left the area due to being mistreated in the factories.

“They were put in boxcars on Pearl Street where they could walk to work down to the factories. Many Mexicans migrated on north and left this area because they were treated badly,” Ingram said. “Blacks started buying property around that area and just called it Mexico. While Mexicans living in boxcars left Alton, Blacks moved to that area (away from flooding) and purchased property.”

Ingram and other Back To Mexico Committee members hold an annual event where the community comes together to celebrate the neighborhood’s history.

“Back To Mexico is about the community coming together and sharing our history with generations coming, so Mexico does not lose its story,” Ingram said.