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Thursday, April 6, 2017 12:11 am

Where history offers hope

The Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum

Visitors observe the exhibit of photographs by Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm.
PHOTO BY CAROL WEEMS

 

On Monument Avenue, next to the main entrance of Oak Ridge Cemetery, the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum sits in view of the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site. The museum opened on March 3, 2016, and recently celebrated its anniversary by signing a three-year lease with the City of Springfield, owners of the building. After moving through two other locations since its inception in 2012, a full year of exhibits and programs at its third home has the museum focused on central Illinois African-American history, while working toward maintaining the vision of what the organization is and can become.

According to Doug King, the current AAHM board president and interim director, the space is ideal. Over 200,000 tourists annually visit Oak Ridge Cemetery to see the Lincoln Tomb, as well as the Vietnam and Korean War memorials, almost all going right by the front door of the AAHM. The board is busy reaching out to tourism bureaus and businesses, spreading awareness about the location and services of the museum. King envisions buses stopping on a regular basis with the occupants touring the museum before continuing to historic sites within the cemetery, school students visiting on a regular basis for field trips and visitors stopping by just interested in the knowledge and information the museum offers. Not only does the new space allow for buses out front, there’s a good-sized parking lot in back for personal vehicles, along with a front lawn of grass, bushes and trees for a pleasing natural setting.

“We’re very happy to be here. Looking back, it is just the place we need to be,” King said. “Here we’re in a neighborhood with history that we supplement because of who we are.”

Upcoming events

April 8, 3 to 6 p.m.
A Second Chance Christmas
A festival of culture and cuisine
from around the world

April 22, 1 to 4 p.m.
Escape into a Book with Illinois Authors

May 20, 3 to 5 p.m.
Quilting Exhibit and Demonstration

June 23, 3 to 5 p.m.
Poetry Slam

Oct. 26, 6 to 8 p.m.
Annual Fundraising Gala


Like the old saying goes, you need a base camp before you can climb the mountain. With a secure place to call home, the museum can now concentrate on other portions of their officially stated mission and vision. Many of the goals set in the board’s strategic planning sessions are now being implemented with regularity. Current exhibits include photographs by Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm, capturing daily life of the black experience in Springfield during the 1940s and 50s, artwork by acclaimed sculptor Preston Jackson and paintings from local artist Olu-Jimi Adeniyi. Last fall the museum landed a visit from the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit, presenting the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, young black men learning to be pilots during the segregated time of World War II. The museum space also allows the group to try for other traveling exhibits, including ones from the Smithsonian.

Currently, a good deal of space is allotted to the fascinating tale of Free Frank and Lucy McWorter. In 1836 Free Frank founded Philadelphia (or New Philadelphia as it’s now known), the first town in America started by an African-American. It was located in Pike County near the village of Barry, not far from the Mississippi River and Hannibal, Missouri. The town was platted by Free Frank, who purchased himself and most of his family out of slavery. In a strange twist, his owner was also his father, who allowed Frank to work for wages, then pay for his own and his family’s freedom. The integrated town flourished for a time, but in 1869 when the railroad came through the area and didn’t come through New Philadelphia, the village gradually faded away. Records from an archaeological excavation of the grounds indicate people may have lived there into the early 20th century, but for all practical purposes the town was history by the late 1800s. King said McWorter is as much a part of the collective community history of central Illinois as Douglas, Lindsay, Lincoln or Iles, but before the AAHM was established there was no dedicated space to present the information on a regular basis.

Another display relates local origins of African-Americans with a telling tale about the first settlers in the area that became Springfield. When John Kelly came to the area in 1819 and built a shelter near what is now Second and Jefferson streets, he brought along his family and a boy known as “Negro Jack.” Three years later, when the young man was eight years old, Kelly sold him for $300. According to the display, in another instance of slavery in early central Illinois, around 1827 the Sangamon County Sheriff auctioned off two women slaves to pay the owner’s debts.

Jayna Flatt, a volunteer worker at the AAHM, with Nell Clay, a volunteer and board member, in the reception area of the museum.
PHOTO BY TOM IRWIN

 

Stories such as these, along with many more displayed in the exhibits, inform AAHM visitors of how generations of central Illinois African-Americans lived and died while contributing to the community. Providing this link from the past to the present is central to the mission of the museum and was a force originally bonding the group that eventually formed the AAHM. King begins the tale of how the organization came to be by saying, “It all began with a failure.”

About 18 years ago, King and a group of concerned citizens attempted to purchase a historic building at 427 South 12th Street known as “The Lincoln Colored Home” or “The Lincoln Colored Old Folks and Orphans Home” to return it to the residents of the area to use as they needed. As they began negotiations, the property owner raised the selling price beyond what the interested parties could afford. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, but is still unavailable to the public, though encouraging things occasionally happen to preserve the vacant property.

“We were unsuccessful, but it felt good and we decided to stay together,” King stated. “Then we wondered, what else could we do?”

Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 12 to 4 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m Closed Sunday and Monday.
PHOTO BY TOM IRWIN

 

From there the group decided to record oral histories of local, elder African-Americans for posterity. They contacted Cullom Davis, a nationally known oral historian and professor at University of Illinois Springfield, for help in achieving this goal. Davis trained the group in how to properly acquire oral histories, from questions to ask to the equipment needed for the work. The mission was successful -- the collection of over 700 recordings is now housed at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and is available to the public online through the ALPLM website.

By 2006 the group had incorporated into an official organization called the Springfield African American History Foundation, hosting regular meetings complete with a board and officers. According to King, a few years later, during a routine meeting, members were again wondering what else they could accomplish and hit upon creating an African-American museum focused on local history. With the many museums and historic sites already established in Springfield, they realized none were based on the history of black citizens from the area. After a period of organizing and planning, the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum officially opened in February of 2012.

The first location seemed ideal, housed in a building on the north side of the Old Capitol Plaza, in a second-story space along with the Illinois State Historical Society offices, directly above the National Museum of Surveying and only a block away from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Indeed, things were going well for the fledgling museum as it worked to expand exhibits and gain exposure, while sharing building space with the other organizations who were also hoping to draw visitors looking for something more than just information on Old Abe. But by 2013 the surveying museum had folded and with that the building owners decided to sell the property. When the ISHS moved into the recently restored Strawbridge-Shepherd House on the University of Illinois Springfield campus, the AAHM followed in 2014. The upstairs space in the 1850s home left little room for meetings and exhibits and was off the beaten path for visitors, but the museum was still viable with a working space and a desire to remain intact.

A young visitor inspects photos by “Doc” Helm, 1911-1994. During 50 years as the Secretary of State’s photographer, Helm captured on film momentous events, but also everyday events and common people and places, including sports figures,
PHOTO BY CAROL WEEMS

 

After about 15 months at that location the Oak Ridge Cemetery Association reached out to the museum board with information about the empty building owned by the City of Springfield on Monument Avenue. Originally built to house the Museum of Funeral Customs, which closed in 2009, the building appeared just right for a museum in search of a home. King explained that as soon as they walked into the building, board members immediately envisioned how the space could be utilized for their needs. King credits the Oak Ridge Cemetery Association for paving the way for negotiations with Mayor Jim Langfelder’s office that led to a signed lease in December of 2015. After a grand opening and ribbon cutting event on March 3, 2016, the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum officially had a new and viable home.

King gives credit for all the success to others, explaining as board president and interim director, he simply serves to guide and help implement programs as board members and volunteers come up with the ideas and do the work. The nonprofit museum organization continues to search for grants and accepts donations, counting on their annual gala as a major funding experience. The 2017 event is currently scheduled for Oct. 26 and includes a reception, silent auction, dinner and program.

As with any organization, but especially one so intertwined with history and the related topics of race relations and political choices, the continuing existence of the museum is vitally important to the founders. With that future in mind, during a recent planning session the board set a goal of hiring a full-time director. As King explained it, none of the board members or volunteers really know how to run a museum, even though they had the drive to establish one. Someone with neutral feelings about the place and with training in running a similar enterprise would be very beneficial at this point in expanding the reach of the facility. King, now in his second term as board president (former presidents include Rudy Davenport and Jerrie Blakely), would be freed to work on other museum projects with a full-time director running day-to-day operations

Board members Aaron Pearl-Cropp, Sue Massie and Edwin Lee, Jr., by the museum sign near the entrance to Oak Ridge Cemetery in front of the AAHM.
PHOTO BY TOM IRWIN

 

A constant objective of the group is to reach beyond the museum walls and into the community of central Illinois to share the knowledge of local African-American history. They’ve traveled with an outreach program to schools and state agencies and even to the Taylorville Correctional Center. Each month the museum offers a different program. In January of 2017 they commemorated the 30th anniversary of winning the landmark lawsuit that changed how Springfield elected government officials. February was all about Black History month and during that time they could barely keep up with the demand for presentations. They also hosted a program with a descendant of the Free Frank McWorter family and have plans to do another presentation in connection with a book signing later in the year. In March they covered National Women’s History and also produced the first edition of Sojourner, the AAHM’s newsletter, dedicated to all the happenings at the museum. On April 8, from 3 to 6 p.m., the museum hosts a Second Chance Christmas, where “costumed hosts will offer an array of ethnic foods for sampling” as a fun fundraising event.

“What we want people to realize is black history is all our history. You don’t have to wait until February,” King explained. “Every day, every week, every year is making history that we are a part of and we’re here to offer help in realizing that and to help us all learn from it.”

A vital part of the museum’s mission is to establish relations with the next generation who will hopefully continue the work of the founders. One of the ways they’ve reached out is by encouraging University of Illinois Springfield students to become interns at the AAHS. Aaron Pearl-Cropp, who went back to college in his 40s, began his involvement with the museum through a UIS requirement that all students do community involvement projects before graduating. He didn’t know much about the AAHM when he began his internship, but now Aaron sits on the 21-member board, a firm believer in the power of the museum to educate and inform the public on the history of African-Americans in central Illinois.

Entranceway to the exhibit room of the museum.
PHOTO BY TOM IRWIN

 

“This is a jewel right here. At the end of the day these are the stories and the lives of those who have helped to build Springfield,” he said. “This is history. There are thousands of people going right by the museum every day and we need to connect with them and expose them to this.”

Aaron praised the dedication and vision of Doug King and tries to emulate King’s commitment to the cause of the museum. During his childhood, Pearl-Cropp’s mother worked as a janitor at Sangamon State University, the predecessor of UIS. He graduated from the university in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. He was also involved in the early desegregation of District 186 schools, getting bused from Matheny to Jane Addams in third grade, living through that part of history in real time. He spends a good deal of his volunteer hours working with grade school-age kids, explaining how the education and knowledge the museum offers can teach them about their own history and thereby helping to better understand their own presence in the world.

As Doug King and other board members continue to push forward with the mission and vision of the museum, plans include fully participating in the Illinois Bicentennial in 2018, reaching out to other African-American museums around the state and the nation, boosting the presence of the AAHM in the local community and mostly, being thankful for helping others understand the rich and vibrant history of African-Americans in central Illinois and how our future can be bettered by studying our past.

“God has truly blessed us in the short time we’ve been here,” King said. “It’s been amazing.”

Tom Irwin, a lifelong central Illinois resident and musician, is a history buff who greatly appreciates the contributions of African-Americans to the world of music and beyond. Contact him at tirwin@illinoistimes.com.

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