Post office, not courthouse, may honor former State's Attorney

Published 04/08 2013 10:37PM

Updated 04/09 2013 04:18PM

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA -- For more than three years, Steve Burgess has been fighting to get a federal courthouse named after his father, James Burgess. His father was the first African-American elected to office in Champaign County, becoming State's Attorney in 1972.

He went on to become a U.S. Attorney five years later. Burgess felt the perfect place to honor his father was the federal courthouse in the county he worked in. The idea fell apart last month, but the battle for his name to be recognized wages on.

"This has been a really, really long process for me. And I started this totally on my own," Burgess said.

After more than three years of hard work, he remained confident the courthouse would be named after his father, James. The Champaign County Board and Urbana City Council gave him their blessings.

"I really felt a courthouse was a wonderful memorial to him," said council member, Eric Jakobsson.

But the decision wasn't up to them. Congress denied the idea.

"It was a missed opportunity to tell a story that's really important and tell it in the right context," said Jakobsson.

"There's been times I've been frustrated, I've been angry, I've been wanting to give up," said Burgess. "But I kept kind of thinking, 'you know, my dad, members of his generation, what they call the greatest generation, I mean they never gave up.'"

Neither did Congressman Rodney Davis. He recently sent a letter to his colleagues, asking them to name a local post office after James. Burgess' father never worked there, but it is a federal building, and it's also on the UI campus, where James earned his law degree.

"He, himself, was important. But, it was about what his life epitomized," said Jakobsson.

"They're going to put his name on it perhaps, eventually. But I think the bigger thing is really the story of what he accomplished, what he came through," said Burgess.

Congressman Davis' letter is circulating in Washington D.C. but his office doesn't have a timetable of when the bill could get passed.

Before his law career, Burgess' father was already making history in the army. James Burgess served in the 761st Tank Battalion in World War II. It was the first all-African-American armored unit to see combat.

Their story was told in the book Brothers in Arms. Burgess says it's in the early stages of being turned into a movie.

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