A resolution approved by the Champaign County Board is only the first step in an effort to name the federal courthouse in Urbana for the late James R. Burgess.
Burgess, who died in 1997, was the first African-American to be elected to a countywide office in Champaign County. He was elected state's attorney in 1972, and was appointed a U.S. attorney in 1977. Further, he was a commander of a U.S. Army tank battalion in World War II that was the first African-American armor unit to see combat in Europe.
The resolution approved by the county board Thursday night now goes to Illinois' congressional delegation, starting with U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, and U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana.
A spokeswoman for Durbin said Friday that the senator is "looking into the recommendation."
Ultimately, said spokeswoman Christina Mulka, Durbin will "consult with Senator Kirk before any legislation is introduced in the Senate to name the federal courthouse."
Any honorary designation legislation would have to go through the committee process in both the Senate and House, she said.
The county board approved the resolution, 18-9, at Thursday's meeting. Six of the nine votes against the resolution came from Democrats, even though Burgess was a Democrat. The nine board members opposed to the resolution were Democrats Astrid Berkson, Tom Betz, Lloyd Carter, Ralph Langenheim, Pattsi Petrie and Giraldo Rosales, and Republicans Ron Bensyl, Diane Michaels and Steve Moser.
Carter, one of three African-Americans on the board, said he thought the board should follow an established process before forwarding proposals for honorary designations.
"The process we're doing it in just is not right," he said. "I'm just surprised at the way this was presented to the board."
Betz agreed and said he'd prefer the courthouse not be named for anyone.
"I have slowly but surely reached the conclusion that it's such a divisive process that we would be wise to actually not name these things. Call it what it is. It's the United States District Courthouse for this district," Betz said.
But other board members spoke in favor of the honorary designation.
"This isn't intended to be a popularity contest. This isn't advanced as a way of saying that we think Mr. Burgess was a more worthy state's attorney or more worthy U.S. attorney or more worthy soldier than anyone else who held those positions," Urbana Democrat Christopher Alix said. "The reason I support this is because you look at this gentleman's body of work and the historical record tells a compelling story, an inspirational story."
Jon Schroeder, a rural Sadorus Republican, said naming the courthouse for Burgess would be a "proper recognition."
"Why not uphold an individual from this community? We have a voice in this and I think we should use it. I think we should stand up and say, as individuals in this county, that we think we should name this for an individual in this county who gave his all, who was a standout, who was a trailblazer. I don't see a problem with this."