Opening of the Museum of African American History in Jacksonville, Illinois
Learning about black history while growing up in Jacksonville, Illinois in the 1960s seemed impossible for Art Wilson.
It was not taught in schools or reflected locally, so to learn the roots of his identity he had to educate himself.
But what Wilson discovered behind a wall in his mother’s basement sparked even more curiosity. It was a diploma from the city’s first “official” high school dated 1877, owned by a black man.
“I wondered how a black person graduated from a predominantly white high school in an area surrounded by the Klu Klux Klan in 1877?” said Wilson. “Turns out the guy was the first black graduate of that school, and then when I spoke to my mom, she told me there were rumors of Underground Railroad houses in town, that who started my research.”
Wilson’s research led to the discovery of seven of the nine local Underground Railroad houses and he began showing them to the public in 1993. In January he purchased one of the sites, the Asa Talcott House, and turned him into the city’s first African. American History Museum. The museum, at 859 Grove St., officially opened in June.
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Wilson bought the building with the goal of exposing younger generations to black history he never learned about or saw in town growing up.
“There are 11 murals painted on the walls downtown, but they never included anyone who was black and famous from here,” he said.
It wasn’t until the museum’s opening day that the city unveiled a mural originally suggested by Wilson, of Dr. Alonzo Kinnebrew, the nation’s first black doctor to build and operate a hospital located in Jacksonville. .
The opening of the museum at the Asa Talcott House was significant for Wilson because the site was once a haven for slaves. According to the Jacksonville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Talcott aided fleeing slaves from the South by hiding them in his barn. He was also named by Benjamin Henderson, a free black and prominent Underground Railroad conductor, as someone to rely on when he needed supplies.
The museum is organized as a timeline of historical events, beginning with the kitchen that reflects the lives of African Americans who had just emerged from the Civil War. Other rooms include facts about the Civil Rights era, the Underground Railroad, Juneteenth, Black Lives Matter, and churches. Then there’s Wilson’s favorite, the Jacksonville Hall of Honor.
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“The Hall of Honor reflects local black people who continued to do great things after they left Jacksonville because in Jacksonville they didn’t have the chance to do that. There have been several generations of black people who have done very well here in education and sports, but when they tried to get jobs they were turned down compared to their white counterparts,” said he declared. “Some of the history can be found in books and on websites, but you can’t find information about people who continued to do something, even if they came from a place that was not theirs. never allowed to do so. This story needs to come out because kids are affected by what they see locally, but they can come here and challenge it.
Most of the museum’s information came from its director, Ruth Linear. Linear collected historical facts and footage of events that happened in Jacksonville overtime and educated children in local schools.
“I carried this information in binders and taught through pictures, and a lot of students didn’t realize this stuff was happening here. Some teachers didn’t know either because they were so young, but now that the museum is here, they will know.
In addition to Linear’s information, the local fire department and other organizations have donated materials to the museum to help tell its story. Wilson said the museum has received a lot of local support since it opened.
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“It was welcoming and people even cried because of the things they saw during their visit. The city supported us in many ways before the opening by donating frames, books and money, which helped a lot,” he said. “It’s important that we have this here, but more important that we get the message out. Since we cannot go to schools and educate like a teacher, we want to give education here.
Although the museum has not received state funding, organizers hope donations will continue to complete the renovation of the buildings.
In the future, the museum hopes to add teaching technology for students and host talks featuring some of the people featured on the museum walls.
Tours are available from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. For more information visit www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100082873765839