Local man hopes to rename courthouse for veteran father

_Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect changes made to quotes, which were incorrectly attributed to council members during Urbana’s city council meeting._

The Urbana City Council is considering joining a movement to support the Champaign County Board in renaming the federal courthouse in Urbana after a former state’s attorney and decorated veteran.

Steve Burgess, a Champaign business owner, has been trying to garner the support from the community and the city council to name the courthouse after his father for about a year.

“He came from humble beginnings and was a quiet hero. He faced many challenges and discrimination and embodied the best aspects of the human spirit,” Burgess said.

James R. Burgess Jr. earned his law degree from the University, where he was the only African-American in his graduating class.

He served with distinction in World War II as a first lieutenant and later as commander of Charlie Company in the 761st Battalion, the first African-American armored unit to see combat in Europe during the war.

He was also the first locally elected African-American county official, serving as state’s attorney for four years.

He was later appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Illinois in 1977, where he served until his retirement in 1982.

“I learned a lot from him and I think this is very fitting,” said Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing. “He had a lot to overcome, and he deserves to be recognized.”

However, support for naming the courthouse after Burgess is not universal. A letter circulating among county and city leaders is calling Burgess’ legacy in to question with reasons why the courthouse should not be named after him.

During his time as state’s attorney, many community members believed Burgess was especially harsh with drug cases.

“Those rulings today would simply be viewed as a slap on the wrist,” said Charlie Smyth, D-Ward 1, in an interview prior to the council meeting. “Burgess was elected by the community, and it was his job to make difficult decisions.”

Eric Jakobsson, D-Ward 2, also spoke in favor of naming the courthouse after Burgess. He said no one is perfect but said he remembers Burgess as being friendly.

“He came from an environment where he suffered discrimination. It was hard for him, and I can hardly imagine what he must have gone through,” Jakobsson said. “He had a stature that was unusual, and I hope this movement earns support.”

Although it is not a requirement that the courthouse be named, many federal buildings are named after important community figures.

“It would be nice to have someone we know who had an impact on the community, not some obscure person,” Smyth said.

He added that naming the courthouse after Burgess fits with the theme of the courthouse because he said those times were turbulent and difficult to get through.

The final decision is not based on community support, but rather the result of federal legislation.

Burgess said, “My dad would have wanted this, but he was not the type of person to wave a flag. He was humbled by recognition.”