I grew up 30 miles away from the DuSable Museum of African American History but didn’t even know it existed until I was 28 years old. I don’t remember it being mentioned during any of the 12 years I attended elementary, middle or high school. Nor was it brought up in either my American history class, or political science class, at the College of DuPage.
I learned about it watching the music video for Kanye West’s Homecoming in 2018.
That probably sounds kind of funny, especially since that song was over ten years old at the time. Let me explain…
I was using the Homecoming lyrics to create an English lesson on metaphors and decided to watch the video. When the song was released in 2007, I didn’t have cable, and the internet wasn’t as accessible, so I’d never seen the video before.
Now that we’ve gotten that cleared up, isn’t it sad that I found out about this museum for the first time in a ten year old music video?
Why wasn’t it brought up in school? Why didn’t we go there on a field trip? At the very least, why didn’t I hear about it during Black History month? Why didn’t I think to inquire about the possibility of an African American history museum in Chicago?
I assume it has to do with colorblind rhetoric, unawareness of minority experiences, and apathy towards race relations in white suburban America… but I’m not entirely sure?
I figured visiting the museum might help me sort it all out…
Before I begin, I must admit, this post does not do American history, Black history, Chicago history or the museum itself justice. My hope is that highlighting historical facts and perspectives that I did not learn explicitly in school, through socialization, or in the media, will inspire you to ask questions, dig deeper, and maybe even visit the DuSable Museum the next time you are in Chicago!
Margaret T. Burroughs
“What shall I tell my children who are black?… I must find the truth of heritage for myself and pass it on to them. In years to come, I believe because I have armed them with the truth, my children and their children’s children will venerate me. For it is truth that will make us free!” -Margaret T. Burroughs
“The whole motivation of my work… is for the liberation of my people in particular, and broadly, for the end of imperialist oppression of all underprivileged people of the earth- regardless of race, creed, or color.” -Margaret T. Burroughs
Artist, educator, and activist, Margaret Taylor, was born in St. Rose, Louisiana in 1917. As a child, she moved to Chicago with her family during the Great Migration. Already a gifted artist, she attended the School of the Art Institute in her teens. South Side culture, the black experience, and international travel influenced her art and propelled her education and activism.
In 1961, Margaret T. Burroughs founded the DuSable Museum of African American History.
In the words of Margaret T. Burroughs, what will your legacy be?
Transatlantic Slave Trade
Did you know that the first Africans to reach what would later become the United States arrived in 1619?
Ida B. Wells
When I returned to Chicago in early 2019, after 10 months abroad, I discovered the name of the iconic Congress Parkway had recently been changed to Ida B. Wells Drive.
Did you know that this is the first major thoroughfare in Chicago named after a black woman?
The Great Migration
“They traveled deep into far-flung regions of their own country and in some cases clear across the continent. Thus the Great Migration had more in common with the vast movements of refugees from famine, war, and genocide in other parts of the world, where oppressed people, whether fleeing twenty-first-century Darfur or nineteenth-century Ireland, go great distances, journey across rivers, desserts, and oceans or as far as it takes to reach safety with the hope that life will be better wherever they land.”
The Great Migration was a mass exodus of black people from the Jim Crow South to freedom in Northern and Western cities. This influx of black migrants in the first half of the twentieth century shaped Chicago as we know it (or think we know it) today.
Did you know that for the first half of the twentieth century black people were restricted, by law, to live in a small section of the South Side that came to be known as the “Black Belt?”
(Read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson for an in-depth and beautifully written history of the Great Migration!)
When I think of Jim Crow segregation, I think of the South. Growing up white, in Chicago (the North), subliminal messaging told me that we were the good guys. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t ever remember a history teacher saying these words, but this is the story I pieced together in the absence of truth. Slavery and segregation were sins of the South, I thought.
Had I taken the time to dig a little deeper, it would have been obvious that while segregation wasn’t as overt as “Whites Only” signs in the North and West, segregation not only existed in Chicago, but it was extreme and ugly, and its legacy lives on here today.
Did you know that present day Chicago is roughly equal percentages Black, White and Latinx? That it is currently one of the most diverse, yet most segregated, cities in the USA?
(Read The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein for an extensive history on how the US government legally segregated US cities and how these policies still effect us today.)
The Red Summer
On July 27th 1919, Eugene Williams, a 17 year old African American, was murdered when he swam across the invisible color line separating blacks from whites at Lake Michigan’s 29th Street beach. This tragic event ignited nationwide race riots throughout the summer and early fall of 1919.
Did you know that one of the most racially violent summers in the history of the country was ignited in Chicago by the senseless murder of an innocent African American teenager ?
A hundred years later, the essence of this photo is eerily similar to #blacklivesmatter and #sayhername.
Reading about Emmett Till I couldn’t help but think about Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and all the unarmed, black, youths killed at the hands of white men in present day America.
I only remember Malcolm X and the Black Panthers being briefly discussed in school. The little bit I did hear was negative. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King Jr.’s pacifism was idolized. Lacking context, I subconsciously made comparisons and associated both Malcolm X and the Black Panthers with extremism and criminality.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I started to deliberately study the Civil Rights Movement, that I realized how whitewashed this interpretation was.
Did you know that after Martin Luther King visited Chicago, he called it “the Northern most racist city in America?”
Did you know that the Black Panthers created many social programs including a Free Breakfast Program that fed thousands of school children in the late 1960s and early 1970s?
Mayor Harold Washington
Harold Washington was the 51st, and first black, Mayor of Chicago. In 1983 he independently defeated the official Democratic candidate, taking down Chicago’s corrupt powerhouse known as the “Democratic Machine.” He was elected for a second term in 1987 but sadly died later that same year.
Did you know that Harold Washington increased the number of underrepresented groups in the city government?… Guided the establishment of a central library in the South Loop (my favorite library)?… or was the first to make Martin Luther King Day a state holiday?
Barack Obama moved to the South Side in his early twenties. An African American History Museum in Chicago, in America, wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the 44th, and first black, President of the United States.
Did you know that Barack Obama and his family currently have a home on the South Side?
Black Fine Art Month
This inaugural Black Fine Art Month exhibition features works by the artists of the Pigment International(TM) collective and invited guest artists in recognition of PL115-102 (400 Years of African-American History Commission Act). It is an artistic narrative of the African-American experience beginning with the landing, 1619, of the first enslaved Africans at Ft. Monroe, Virginia until today. Themes of racism, isolation, protest, and liberation are addressed through both a historical and a contemporary lens. Black women are portrayed as iconic figures with infinite transformational knowledge and spiritual energy that continue to elevate and redefine a tortured people. It is through the window of this storied narrative that we appreciate how far we have come, and how we continue to grow into the fullness of our humanity.
These are photos of the artwork towards the end of the Fine Art gallery, reflecting the recent past and today.
Did you know that in 2018 a law was passed (PL115-102- 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act) to ensure the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to what is now the United States was commemorated?
Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable
According to the plaque on the DuSable Bridge in River North, DuSable was African-Caribbean, born in St. Marc, Haiti. In the 1770’s he opened the first trading post beside the Chicago River, establishing the settlement that became Chicago.
Did you know that a black man founded Chicago?
After visiting the museum I asked myself again, why didn’t I visit, let along know about, this museum sooner? While I stand behind my original assumptions- colorblind rhetoric, unawareness of minority experiences, and apathy towards race relations in white suburban America- I must add two other similar, yet more specific, realities…
Implicit Fear of the South Side
Another reason the museum may not have been mentioned is white suburbia’s implicit fear of the South Side. Decades of biased media coverage, blindly accepted negative stereotypes, and lack of personal connection, morphed the South Side into a monolith of black, criminal activity in white imaginations.
Don’t get me wrong, I know crime wreaks havoc on certain South Side communities. But there are also wonderful, diverse and successful people, cultures, businesses and communities on the South Side that white suburbanites never hear about.
Recognizing the impact of this implicit bias, I have made a point to familiarize myself with the South Side. I have killed several days sipping lattes and writing at Sip and Savor, the one on 47th in Bronzeville and the one in Hyde Park. B’Gabs Goodies on 57th and Original Soul Vegetarian on 75th are now two of my favorite spots for plant-based goodness. My best friend and her sister invited me to an open mic night at a South Shore church that inspired me to write, create and speak in ways I’ve never been inspired to before. On a warm November day, I stumbled upon the picturesque fall leaves and skyline view at Burnham Park.
As an outsider, I will never truly understand the complexity of South Side culture. As a white woman, I will never know what it’s like to be black in a segregated and racist city (or country). But I will continue to use my privileges to learn and to seek truth by acknowledging and debunking internalized racial bias wherever I find it.
After eating lunch at B’Gabs one day, I wandered into the familiar Powell Books across the street. (The original location in Portland, Oregon is one of my favorite bookstores). Instantly I was attracted to a book with the words SOUTH SIDE printed in bold block letters on the front cover. South Side by Natalie Y. Moore brilliantly portrays the historical context and present day reality of segregation in Chicago.
Black History is American History
Another subliminal message I have received throughout my life, and a probable reason for not visiting the museum sooner, is the belief that black history is not my history, because I’m white.
My black history education in school was superficial. Black American heroes were discussed in isolation. Black narratives were never linked to the broader scope of American history. There seemed to be a lack of investment in, and connection to, black history in my white suburban school.
Genuinely curious, I selected books for independent reading projects at school about black history and culture. I was able to learn a little on my own but it was not fostered or reinforced within the curriculum.
Did black students at my school get the same disconnected black history education that I did? Or were they pushed to learn more because it was viewed as their history? I honestly don’t know. But if the white administration and white teachers, in my white suburban school, were not invested in or connected to black history, how could they possibly connect anyone else to it? I assume the black students were taught history in the same, choppy, contradictory, and whitewashed way that I was, at least in school.
The belief that black history is not my history, because I am white, is false.
Black history is American history.
Acknowledging black history as American history, and integrating black narratives into our general history education, socialization and media, is important for everyone. If we all knew the truth about our collective history, we would better understand the depths of racism and oppression built into the fabric of this nation. We would better understand why we are so divided today, be able to reconcile, connect, heal and move on, together.
Acknowledging black history as American history, as our history, is uncomfortable for white people because it forces us to look at ourselves racially, something we are not used to doing. It means we have to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be white? In America? Around the world? Historically? Today?
All other conversations about Kanye aside, I have to thank him for leading me here.