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Thursday, March 3, 2016 12:07 am

So we don’t forget

African-American History Museum opens new location

Douglas King, president of the board for the Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum.
PHOTO BY PAT YEAGLE

 

In a fitting spot above the water fountain at the Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum is a photo of a public restroom with three doors. One is marked “LADIES,” another is marked “MEN,” and the third is marked “COLORED.” It’s a reminder of the past, part of America’s history that the museum aims to keep from being forgotten.

The museum is opening the doors of its new location this week, next door to Abraham Lincoln’s resting place. Douglas King, president of the museum’s board, says it’s the start of pivotal time for the museum, which seeks to fill a crucial role in the national discussion of race.

King says he has always loved history, but while he was growing up reading historical biographies, he noticed a lack of focus on black figures. When King moved to central Illinois, he began to realize how much history is overlooked – history like Free Frank McWorter, a slave who bought his own freedom and founded New Philadelphia in western Illinois in 1836.

“It was only then that I began to really think and understand that there is so much local history in central Illinois – more than Lincoln,” King said. “Yeah, he’s the guy who draws people here – and rightly so – but there are so many other life experiences that have been lived by people of color.”

King’s grandparents were sharecroppers in northeast Arkansas, and his mother grew up during the Great Depression. He remembers being told the stories of their lives, and he says it’s important that the next generation understand that kind of history.

“Those folks worked really hard, and I wonder sometimes how they even survived,” he said. “Those are some of the stories we have to tell. What we’re not doing a really great job of right now is telling them to our children and grandchildren.”

That’s part of the focus of the Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum, which opened downtown in February 2012. The museum features exhibits of the lives of African-Americans in central Illinois before Lincoln, during his time here and after Lincoln.

“There’s so much rich history of that,” King said.

Among the exhibits are accounts of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a history of how America’s slaves eventually gained freedom, biographies of influential black lawmakers and photos by Springfield photographer Eddie Winfred “Doc” Helm.

“Nobody that I have seen captures living the way Doc captured it,” King said. “In those photos of those plain old folks, there are stories. There are people singing, golfing, dancing – all of those stories are there, and somebody lived those lives. Our job is to help educate all of our communities that, within their own families or communities, there are stories that should be shared, so that the rest of us know what life was like for them.”

 Two new exhibits contain paintings and sculpture by artists Preston Jackson and Olu Jimi Adeniyi.

King notes that history is often written in a way that relays only one perspective.

“There’s the danger of a single story,” he said. “If you’re only getting one side of history, you’re not getting history. If you’re excluding a segment of your neighbors who have lived a different kind of history than you have, you’re not telling the whole history.”

The museum’s grand opening at its new location is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. March 3 at 1440 Monument Avenue, near the entrance to Oak Ridge Cemetery. King says the board decided to charge an admission fee at the grand opening for one reason.

“If you want something, there’s a cost to it,” he said. “We want anyone who comes into this building to be invested in it – not just in the building, but in the work that we do. What you’re doing is investing in this educational entity that will help us all.”

King says that, as the nation struggles with issues of racial injustice, the museum can provide historical context to that discussion.

“I’m a great believer in God’s timing,” King said. “The timing is right for us to help educate people. This is how we all have to live life; we have to live it together.”

For more information on the Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum, visit www.spiaahfmuseum.org.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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