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Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012 11:18 pm

African-American history museum opens with photo exhibit

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Among the photographs on display at the new museum is “Night Club Act at the Club Rio,” showing a 1940s performance at the club which was at 1151 N. MacArthur.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DOC HELM LEGACY

The Springfield Illinois African-American History Foundation’s museum opens its first exhibition tonight, Feb. 23, capping 14 years of work. The exhibition will feature photographs by Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helms, a well-known Springfield African-American who was a photographer for Illinois secretaries of state for 58 years.

In his spare time, Helms photographed local events, especially those involving African-Americans. He chronicled boxer Joe Louis’ 1950s visit to the Executive Mansion and singer Peg-Leg Bates’ 1940s performance at the Armory, among others. Helms died in 1994, but photos he took from the 1930s through the 1950s will be displayed at the museum, courtesy of his daughter, Beverly Helm-Renfro.

Tonight’s grand opening is the result of efforts that began in 1997. Back then, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began trying to save a building on Twelfth Street tied to local black history. “We were concerned about places that were important to African-Americans being torn down and demolished,” says Jerrie Blakely, president of the Foundation. The Lincoln Colored Home is a two-story brick building on Twelfth Street, between Capital and Jackson Streets. It opened in 1904 as a home for black orphans and seniors. According to Springfield’s Historic Sites Commission, the home was the first of its kind in the nation.

In 1998, the group succeeded in having the building added to the National Register of Historic Places. Next, “our idea was to raise money to purchase the building for a community service center and a museum of African-American history,” says Barbara Dickerman, who was involved with those efforts and is the secretary of the Foundation. After someone else bought the building, the group started a new project.

It began collecting the oral histories of older black Springfieldians, which are archived at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library; some are available online (www.alplm.org/oral_history/african_american/aa_history_main.html). “They started talking about the discrimination they had faced here in Springfield during their earlier years,” Blakely says. “The movie theaters were segregated, there was a section for colored in the theaters. They could not go into the stores here and try on clothing, you couldn’t try on shoes, or a blouse, you just couldn’t try on clothes, period.

“In doing the oral histories, so many people said, ‘Oh, I have this, that and the other thing in my basement or attic, or I have all these pictures from my grandfather,’ that they wanted to donate, so we realized a place had to be found to archive those things. That spurred us on even more to look for a museum,” Dickerman says.

They found an office on the second floor of Abraham Lincoln’s National Museum of Surveying, at 521 East Washington St. Here, the Foundation hopes to “document and chronicle the history and legacy of African-Americans in Springfield and central Illinois,” Blakely says. “We hope to be a place where people can come and do research. We have a lot of books that were donated to us, the first were from Lincoln Library when they were closing down their branches. There’s just unbelievable material there that can be used for research on African-American history and we’re getting some things now that have been written by Springfield African-Americans. We intend to have traveling exhibits and a permanent exhibit.”

The museum will also present lectures, according to Blakely. “We have people like Terry Ransom who will speak on the Underground Railroad, and Bob Davis who will speak on the Civil War.” No dates have been set yet for those lectures, she says.

The Foundation’s big plans will require bigger space, but Blakely says the group anticipates staying at its current location for at least “a couple more years.”

The Doc Helms exhibition opens tonight, Feb. 23, at 5 p.m. with a reception and lecture by Dr. Matthew Holden, Jr., the Wepner Distinguished Professor in Political Science at the University of Illinois Springfield. Tickets are $20 per person, $35 per couple, $10 for students, and $5 for children aged 12 and under. They are available from Foundation members or by calling the museum at 528-2725.

The exhibition will be on display until April 30. After the grand opening, the museum will only be open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and at other times by appointment, according to Blakely. Visitors will be charged “a nominal fee,” she says. To make an appointment, call the museum.

Its next exhibition will feature Springfield’s five oldest African-American churches, Dickerman says.

For more information, visit the Foundation’s Facebook page or website: www.spiaahf.org.

Contact Tara McAndrew at tmcand22@aol.com.

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