WILMINGTON — A former official in a southern Will County township said she and others charged a fee at a township park to prevent “blacks and Mexicans” from coming.
Debbie Sorensen Tennant, a former Wesley Township trustee, wrote to a resident in a private Facebook conversation in July about the township’s fees for camping and using the pavilion at Rival’s Lookout Park, which is along the Kankakee River.
“I know the park is supposed to be free and for everyone,” Tennant wrote on July 4, “but our thoughts were by charging (a) small amount and no sign on (Illinois) 102 we could try to keep this park from being overrun by blacks and Mexicans because the Wilmington Islands are....we wanted it for us....the township.”
During a boisterous township board meeting Tuesday night, representatives of the Edgar County Watchdogs, a southern Illinois nonprofit group, presented an enlarged version of Tennant’s message on an easel. They denounced the message and argued against the fees.
They did not give Tennant’s name, only identifying her as a former trustee of the township, which is 20 miles northwest of Kankakee. The Watchdogs gave a copy of the message to the Daily Journal, which confirmed it was written by Tennant.
In an interview Wednesday, Tennant admitted to making the statement.
“It was never intended to be racist. I was referring to all those who come from outside the township,” Tennant said. “My concern was there were so many outsiders who come to (nearby) Wilmington Island Park. Taken out of context my message sounds very bad, but it was never intended that way.”
Asked about the reference to Mexicans, she said she meant Hispanics in general.
The fees were unavailable on the township’s website and the park bulletin board.
Tennant, who works at a Wilmington insurance company and runs a business providing horse carriage rides, said she believes her Facebook account might have been hacked.
“I don’t know how anyone got their hands on that message. It was not meant to be public,” said Tennant, who served as a trustee from 2009 to 2017. “I would never have said anything publicly like that.”
Later in the interview, she questioned whether she should have agreed to speak with the newspaper, saying her words might be twisted.
“I’m scared to death I’ll get smeared in all this. I’m a lifetime resident of this town. I have businesses here,” Tennant said. “If I get a ton of flak, I will have you to thank for putting it out there.”
At the township meeting, George Pearson, chairman of the Will County Republican Party, decried the trustee’s message. To applause, he called it “utterly ridiculous” and “despicable.”
Pearson, the first African American to hold the Will County GOP party position, urged the township board to remove the fees.
“If you do not act, I will personally file a federal writ, and I will make sure people will be running against you to remove you, so that the people in this area will be able to utilize public parks as they are supposed to be and not over some racist garbage like this,” he said.
Township supervisor JoAnn Quigley said she had not seen the message before.
“That’s not the feeling of this board. The board has nothing to do with this statement. If that’s someone’s opinion, that’s fine,” Quigley said.
Pearson said it wasn’t fine.
Quigley responded, “Everyone has the right to their opinion.”
Last month, the township closed the campground completely, citing vandalism. It was unclear who made the decision.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the township board voted 2-1 to allow camping again, but it needed three members to approve. Two were absent.
After the meeting, township Trustee Bill Strawson said he has known Tennant for most of his life and was surprised she wrote the racist message.
“It’s appalling,” he said.
In Wesley Township, only 4 percent of the population are minorities. That’s in sharp contrast to the American population as a whole, which is nearly 30 percent African American and Hispanic. In the city of Kankakee, the groups make up more than 55 percent.
On her Facebook page, nearly all of Tennant’s posts are retweets of conservative messages, mostly focusing on gays, Islam and immigration. This week, she retweeted the message, “No Sharia law. We have our own laws and it’s time Islam obeyed them.”
Another retweet, “It’s not racist to tell someone to go to their place of origin and fix it if they hate Americans. Lefties overplayed the racist card!”