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Origins

By: Mark Wyman, Ph.D (professor, Illinois State University)

From the arrival of the first African-Americans in McLean County, Illinois, in 1835, until the present, the Bloomington-Normal community has been influenced in its development by the activities of its black citizens. But the story of that influence, of the many ways that African-Americans participated in the life of what became a thriving Central Illinois commercial and educational center, was seldom acknowledged. Their experiences lived on as memories, brought out at family reunions, almost unmentioned in local historical accounts.

This began to change in the late 1960s. The energy and curiosity centered on the African-American past that burst forth around the nation with the Civil Rights movement and the "Roots" narration led to the eventual emergence in Bloomington-Normal of a determined effort to collect and publicize information on the local black community. This brought formation of the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project (BNBHP).

Today that project, connected to the McLean County Historical Museum, operates on a variety of levels and in a variety of formats: it collects materials, holds workshops, sponsors archeological digs (including one at a Tennessee plantation where the slave ancestor of a Bloomington man had lived), features concerts by black performers, presents scholarships to encourage student research, and offers ongoing aid to persons seeking to study the African-American past.

The organization also has prepared transcripts of some eighty interviews conducted over the past thirty years. Recently, the BNBHP has been the guiding force behind preparation of material for a database showing African-American residents of Bloomington-Normal as depicted in the City Directories from 1885-1917.

The first gathering to begin telling the story of the local black community apparently was held in 1969, at the Bloomington Public Library. Planning to write a book, the participants began some collecting and these materials would form the first assembling of artifacts and interviews. Although these early efforts faded after several years, several persons later active in the Black History Project were also active in this earlier endeavor, including Jo Munro, Caribel Washington, Howard and Elaine Bell, Ruth Waddell, and Marge Smith. Early academic leaders were two historians at Illinois State University, Dr. Joseph Durham and Dr. Ira Cohen, and later art professor Dr. William Colvin.

But as that group was going through its rocky early years, another effort-independent and unconnected to the efforts launched in 1969-was taking form through the efforts of an ISU Sociologist in the late 1970s to have students learn folk remedies through interviewing elderly African-Americans. The sociologist was Dr. Mildred Pratt, who became the guiding force behind the eventual formation in 1984 of the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project (BNBHP).

"I was interested in content as well as process," Dr. Pratt commented in discussing those early activities with students. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response among members of the black community, she soon teamed with ISU historian Dr. Stephanie Shaw to organize an extensive interviewing project among elderly African-Americans, seeking some even in the distant cities to which they had migrated after their early years in McLean County.

Excitement over these activities spread, and in addition to the interviews the BNBHP collections grew to include hundreds of photos, records of local churches and such organizations as the "Working Man's Club" and the NAACP; family letters dating back to the slave era; clippings, and artifacts ranging from a black carpenter's homemade cupboard to a 1920s hair-straightener.

By 1988 the collecting and organization work had proceeded to the point where the McLean County Historical Society presented an exhibit in conjunction with the BNBHP, aided by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Illinois Humanities Council, and several local institutions including State Farm Insurance.

That exhibit provided visitors with abundant evidence of the broad, multi-disciplinary approach followed by the BNBHP. Such exhibits around the nation "are generally individualized and splintered," Dr. Pratt noted, but the local activity covers many areas and calls on a wide variety of skills from scholars and laypersons involved. The 1988 exhibit, for example, presented artifacts and information from and about craftsmen, quilters, churches, fashion, home life, parlors, business, military and clubs, in addition to remnants of the slave era.

A scholarly conference in conjunction with that 1988 exhibit provided several scholars an opportunity to evaluate both the project and the local African-American community. More than 4,000 persons toured the exhibits, and one visitor who had visited other African-American history exhibits concluded: "Never have I seen such a broad array in a Black history exhibit."

The increased cooperation between the BNBHP and the McLean County Historical Society was cited by the Congress of Illinois Historical Societies and Museums in 1990 when it presented the historical society with its top award for special projects.

The BNBHP now receives financial and/or other assistance from ISU, Illinois Wesleyan University, the David Davis Museum, and the McLean County Arts Center, as well as the McLean County Historical Society. Three grants have come from the Illinois Humanities Council.

After Dr. Pratt retired from teaching, leadership in the BNBHP passed to Caribel Washington, who served as president for several years and continues an active role in the organization. Both ISU and IWU continue to provide members and leadership, seen in current treasurer Monica Taylor (IWU), secretary Mark Wyman (ISU), and historian Pam Muirhead (IWU). Current co-presidents are Willie Tripp and Reginald Whittaker. Other current officers are co-vice presidents Diana McCauley and Jean McCrossin and historian Jack Muirhead.

By the opening of the new century in 2001 the BNBHP collections were extensive enough and well-known enough to attract researchers from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, seeking information on blacks in small Midwestern towns as it created an exhibit of a black homestead for its Old World Wisconsin outdoor museum.

Other topics which can be followed in the collections include differing viewponits on community life in general, regardless of race; the homefront during America's wars from the Spanish-American War onward (and black soldiers' experiences during those conflicts); religion; economic life in boom times and Depression; housing; education; social life; medical care and health; athletics; discrimination; civil rights activities; children, and many others.

Research is ongoing into census materials and city directories. They have helped determine the number and location of the twin cities' African-Americans, because from 1885-1917 the City Directories listed a (C) or (N) for "Colored" or "Negro" after the names of blacks. The McLean County Genealogical Society is publishing this information in a booklet, using the results of earlier work by Caribel Washington in transcribing some 7,000 hand-written cards from the directories.

Artifact collecting continues, as families seek to preserve photos, letters, and clippings as well as home and work objects. Clippings files document the increasing civil rights activity that led to desegregation of Bloomington-Normal's restaurants and public facilities in the 1950s and 1960s. A prize among the collected letters is an 1858 written request from a slave to a slave owner, asking for her "sayso" that he might marry a woman who was her slave; it had survived in family records.

Archeological digs have provided further artifacts, and also much local publicity for the BNBHP as co-sponsor. The first, in 1991, was conducted by ISU's Midwest Archeological Research Center at the Tennessee plantation which had been home to the slave ancestors of some Bloomington African-Americans. In 1993 a dig was held at Wayman A.M.E. Church, and two digs were conducted on property of the Barton family in Normal, whose nursery man ancestor was recruited to migrate there by the town's founder in the Civil War era.

At the heart of the project-and much used by researchers--is the oral history collection, numbering some eighty taped interviews with transcripts. While most of these center on descriptions of life for Bloomington-Normal's black population from the early 20th Century onward, some venture into recollections passed down from the slavery era, as well as discussions of more contemporary events.

In one such account, a retired man recalls his fourteen-hour segregated bus trip from St. Louis to a Southern military post soon after his induction into the Army in World War II-when the deputy sheriff in one small Southern town forced the uniformed soldier back onto the bus at gunpoint, forbidding him from either eating or using the restroom there.

Continuing to branch out, the BNBHP in recent years has helped sponsor and participate in Juneteenth celebrations held on the IWU campus.

But the importance of the work of the BNBHP and its predecessor can perhaps be best evaluated in the answer given by Greg Koos, executive director of the historical society, when asked how many artifacts from the community's black population were present in the museum's collections before the efforts began in the 1970s: "We had one artifact then." Today a large and broad array of materials awaits researchers visiting the Bloomington-Normal Black History Project collections in the McLean County Historical Museum, 200 N. Main St., Bloomington, IL 61701.