Monuments and historic markers reflect our values as a community and are tangible and visual markers of the stories we value. They also remind us that history is not exclusively confined to the walls of a museum but exists all around us. History happens everywhere, all the time.
Public historian Edward Linenthal writes, "Our choices about who gets remembered, what gets remembered, where acts of remembrance take place, and how we express the significance of remembrance is as much – or more – about the future than the past."
That is why, as we continue to grapple with our institutional role in colonization and racism, the McLean County Museum of History has remained steadfast in our mission to preserve, educate, and collaborate in sharing the diverse stories of McLean County -- uplifting those that may otherwise be forgotten.
As a part of our 2022 Historic Marker Matching Initiative, the Museum carefully researched sites in McLean County with markers needing refurbishment, replacement, or creation. Identifying markers of overlooked stories was paramount as part of our mission to educate.
After many months of coordination and over $74,000 raised in support from the community, the Museum is proud to have completed seven of the 11 initially identified projects and is in the final stages of completing the remaining four.
On June 22, 2022, more than 50 people gathered in West Park to celebrate the installation and creation of the new Illinois State Historical Society marker, the preservation and relocation of the Kickapoo Grand Village Memorial Boulder, and the county's refurbishment of the pavilion at West Park. Collaboration with Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, the Illinois State Historical Society, and McLean County made it possible to share the story of the Kickapoo in McLean County in a tangible, accessible, and impactful way.
Located north of what we now know as LeRoy, the Grand Village of the Kickapoo was approximately 600 acres (about the area of Central Park in New York City) of gathering space established by the Kickapoo in 1725.
"The Grand Village site speaks to the vital role the Kickapoo people played in Central Illinois history," says Museum Librarian Bill Kemp. "For much of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Kickapoo were the dominant power in this stretch of Illinois, and the Grand Village was a vital base for the tribe."
The U.S. Army burned the village in the early part of the 19th century, and by 1832, white colonizers removed the entirety of the Kickapoo Nation from Illinois.
In 1998, Bill and Doris Emmett welcomed the Kickapoo Nation back to their ancestral land near LeRoy for the first time since 1832. As recently as 2019, inter-tribal Pow Wows were hosted at the site, bringing together thousands of Native peoples to celebrate their history and culture.
When the Emmetts could no longer care for the land, they sold it to the Vermaats, who continued to host the Pow Wows until 2019. Unfortunately, the Vermaats sold the property in 2021 (despite the Kansas Kickapoo Tribe's best efforts to negotiate and purchase their ancestral land) to an LLC that intended to clear the land and threatened to dispose of the memorial boulder.
The Museum retrieved the boulder before the land was cleared and relocated it to historic West Park -- a fitting home for the marker, given Simeon H. West's advocacy for native preservation.
Simeon H. West came to Illinois in 1851 and became an influential figure of his time, establishing West Township alongside his father. In 1908, West donated 20 acres (about the area of Chicago's Millennium Park) of virgin timber to McLean County to establish West Park.
During his speech at the park's dedication in 1908, West said, "So many only see dollars and cents when they cut down the trees to get in a corn crop. In setting apart this stretch of twenty acres of timber to preserve as a forest reserve, I feel that I am doing good for future generations." He continued, "People will come and go, but this pile of granite will stand forever."
West also co-commissioned a marker denoting the location of the Kickapoo Stockade Fort with George P. Davis (son of David Davis) and the McLean County Historical Society in 1906, just a mile northeast of West Park. That marker now sits in the same farmer's cornfield.
In 2022, the McLean County Historical Society co-deeded the land under the Kickapoo Stockade Marker to the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas. Sharing this 1,225 square-foot plot of land with the Kickapoo is more symbolic than practical but is yet another small step towards beginning to reckon with the institution's role as a part of a larger colonial project.
At the dedication, esteemed historian and Illinois State Historical Society board member Michael Wiant reflected on the importance of historical markers in conversation with WGLT's Lauren Warnecke. Wiant, speaking to the role institutions like the Museum and the state historical society can play in educating the public on our shared history, said: "I think we have opportunities here for the exchange of ideas and to begin to identify locations in Illinois that deserve markers that relate the remarkable cultural history of native people."
Wiant's wise words spoke to a broader, larger reframing of history across the country and the world – one that the Museum takes to heart. As we ask folks to ponder in our four "Challenges, Choices, and Change" permanent exhibits, we hope the installation of the new historic makers will prompt thought among their viewers and spark curiosity in our shared history.
On July 20, 2022, at 11:30 a.m., we will unveil another historical marker to do just that. All are welcome to join us for the dedication of the Simon Malone historical marker at the southeast corner of Kingsley St. and Hale St. to uplift the stories of Normal's first African American residents.
Simon Malone was one of the first African American residents in Normal, Illinois, and the first Black man to build a home in the area. He made his home at 405 Kingsley Ave. in 1865 -- the same year the township was founded.
The Malone home burnt down in a fire in 1981 and was memorialized by the Town of Normal Human Relations Committee the following year. Changes in Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) regulations led to the 1982 marker's removal.
The Museum identified the recreation of this marker as a priority in the 2022 Historic Marker Matching Gift Initiative and collaborated with the Illinois State Historical Society, the Town of Normal, and McLean County Unit 5 to bring it to life.
The Malone home originally stood immediately Southeast of the new marker's location. Project collaborators chose this location to circumvent current IDOT regulations, place the marker in an accessible area, and allow those viewing the marker to look directly toward the home's location.
"Through the marker, we are attempting to share his story as representative of what many went through and encourage additional research to learn more about others' stories," shares Museum Director of Development Norris Porter.
Malone was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1842. According to Greg Koos' "Freedom, Land & Community: A History of McLean County Illinois, 1730-1900", Malone escaped during the confusion of a Union Cavalry raid, and his brother-in-law helped him remove a chain affixed around his neck. Malone then went north and found his way to Illinois, joining the 13th U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. While stationed in Kentucky with his unit, Confederate irregulars captured him. Koos writes, "Such a capture often resulted in death. Malone escaped but injured one leg in the effort. He was discharged and made his way to Illinois and eventually to Normal."
Malone worked as a wagon driver and completed other odd jobs around town to make ends meet. The Town Council even appointed him to be the Pound Master in 1878.
Like many African American veterans of this time, Malone received a cash bounty of $100 (which would be a little over $2,000 today) in 1870 for his service, which helped him establish his new life. He used this money to build his home, which he lived in for 50-plus years. Simon died in his home in 1925 at the age of 82.
Koos details three other African American families who had settled in the area when Malone arrived: the Fields, Underwoods, and Bartons. Their names, too, are inscribed on the new marker.
William Fields came to Illinois with his wife Maria and their growing family in 1856. By 1866, Fields had a 160-acre farm in Normal Township which his four sons and three daughters aided in maintaining.
John and Laura Underwood migrated to Normal in 1867, and in 1871, John was working as a laborer at the Illinois Soldiers' Orphans' Home.
As for Milton and Lucinda Barton, Koos cites Barton family lore, remembering Milton Barton and his father "as the ones who planted the hundreds of silver maple street trees, which Fell had chosen as a quick-growing tree to fulfill his plan for a shady academic village."
By 1870, 103 African Americans had settled in Normal. Koos states, "They were attracted to the work opportunities in the rapidly developing new town."
The contributions of these early African American settlers shaped the growth and success of the Town of Normal. The Bloomington-Normal Black History Project (BNBHP) has preserved many of their stories and made them available at mchistory.org/research/black-history-project.
Later this summer, on Thursday, August 3, at 11 a.m., the Museum will also dedicate a historical marker at the Booker T. Washington Home site. The BNBHP has been actively researching the story of this significant place in McLean County's history.
The Booker T. Washington Home for Colored Children dates to 1918 as a segregated group home for impoverished and neglected children until the 1960s.
Originally the McLean County Home for Colored Children, it was chartered in 1920. In late 1935, construction began on a two-story, tile block and brick building. The two existing wood-frame buildings were torn down and converted into a playground.
In 1942 the home was renamed for Booker T. Washington, an African American leader who advocated a social philosophy of "self-reliance born of hard work." The home's most famous "graduate" is Sister Antona Ebo, a nun in the Franciscan Sister of Mary order.
Ebo's mother died when she was four, and her illiterate father was of little help, so she and her siblings were sent to the Colored Home in Bloomington. A chance visit to St. Mary's Church led to a passionate interest in Catholicism, and she eventually entered a convent in St. Louis. In March 1965, the 41-year-old Sister Ebo and five other nuns from their St. Louis order traveled to Selma, Ala., to support the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historic march to Montgomery. "I am here because I am a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness," she said.
In the Museum and BNBHP's quest to gather more stories of residents like Ebo, it has been difficult to recruit former residents willing to open up about their experiences there. Still, nevertheless, we have persisted in ensuring their stories get preserved.
Hundreds of McLean County children, spanning different generations, grew up here, and their experiences at the Booker T. Washington Home shaped their development and our community. Documenting the history of the home and the people who lived in it is essential to preserving our community's history.
We'd also like to recognize the work of our friends and local activists in Decatur, Illinois, who recently erected a historical marker remembering and honoring Samuel J. Bush and the story of a long-overlooked instance of racial terror, during the early morning of June 3, 1893.
Samuel J. Bush, a 30-year-old Black man from Mississippi, was accused of assaulting two white women in separate incidents. Bush denied assaulting the women, saying he only asked them for food and water as he passed through the area.
A white lynch mob from Mt. Zion (a nearby "sundown town") stormed the Macon County Jail in Decatur, dragged Bush to the northeast corner of Wood and Water Streets, and hung him from a utility pole.
Bush never got to defend himself in a court of law, nor were any charges brought against the mob of 20 white men who stormed the county jail and murdered Bush.
One hundred thirty years later, on Saturday, June 3, 2023, a historical marker was erected at the corner of Wood St. and Water St., on the very spot where Bush was lynched (which is the northwest corner of the current Macon County Courthouse), thanks to the work of Decatur activist groups Affordable Activism and Walk It Like We Talk It, in collaboration with the Illinois State Historical Society.
This is the first marker anywhere in Illinois dealing with racial terror lynchings, of which there are 27 known incidents in state history.
While this dark moment in Central Illinois history did not happen in McLean County, the people living in our community certainly would have been aware of this heinous act by reading the pages of our local newspapers, in particular The Pantagraph, which ran front-page coverage of the incident as it was unfolding in Decatur.
We must remember and learn from our history, no matter how dark or uncomfortable it makes us feel.
Markers allow us to tell stories outside the confines of a museum. They are an invaluable tool for creating a shared community history, for public education, and for contextualizing stories from our past in our everyday world.
The Museum is excited to contribute to historic marker initiatives in McLean County and supports activists and history organizations in their preservation efforts across the state.
To learn more about our ongoing efforts, please visit mchistory.org/participate/historic-marker-matching-gift-initiative.