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Living history: Uncover African American stories in Illinois

The legacy of Illinois’ African American community emerges at these museums and historical sites throughout the state.

DuSable Museum of African American History
Credit: Illinois Office of Tourism

The son of former slaves helped found a Chicago organization devoted to collecting and promoting black history in 1915. The efforts of this scholar, Carter G. Woodson, eventually grew into Black History Month, now celebrated nationwide each February to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Throughout the state, immersive experiences note the lives of African Americans and their achievements, tightly woven into the nation’s fabric.

Here are five of the top sites to visit:

Labor leaders

Visit Pullman National Monument, the Chicago neighborhood that gave rise to the country’s black labor movement. The National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum honors the African American men hired to serve railroad passengers in Pullman sleeping cars. Citing poor labor conditions, some members formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union chartered in America and the first to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. company. A new exhibit highlights the porters’ notable descendants, including media mogul Tom Joyner and former First Lady Michelle Obama. While in this historic neighborhood, stroll among the row houses for a visit back to the 19th-century company town.

Wartime heroics

The story behind the only American infantry regiment commanded by a staff of African American officers comes to life as part of an upcoming exhibit (February 2020) at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. “Clearing a Path for Democracy: Citizen Soldiers of the Illinois Fighting 8th” examines the Chicago-based regiment’s decorated accomplishments in the face of discrimination.

National figures

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield dives deep into slavery and abolition, including a special-effects-laden corridor that examines the wide-ranging debate leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. (Think ghostly orators shouting advice to the president.)

Stirring stories

Less than 2 miles from the Illinois State Capitol and past Lincoln’s final resting place at Oak Ridge Cemetery sits the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum. Walk through The Door of No Return as part of the new Middle Passage interactive exhibit, which tells the story of trafficking Africans to parts of the world through compelling audio and visuals, such as a replica of a slave ship. The museum also honors President Barack Obama—whose political career began in the Illinois legislature—with an exhibit featuring speech excerpts, campaign paraphernalia and other memorabilia.

Art and artifacts

Carbondale’s African American Museum of Southern Illinois celebrates culture through hundreds of original art pieces, photographs, literary works and artifacts. See local artist DeSande R’s painting of Billie Holiday when Holiday was just starting to sing in clubs. It hangs on the wall alongside art by internationally known painter Najjar Abdul-Musawwir (a Southern Illinois University professor) and a print by Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, co-founder of what is now Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. Artifacts include slave shackles used on children and adults as well as books on African history by black authors. Rotating displays include traditional furniture and masks.