Bloomington-Normal Black History Project
In 1970 Marge Smith and others began to organize local African Americans to discuss their history. This group (Margarite Esposito, Joe Munro, Caribel Washington, Luvinda Hunter, and others) disbanded around 1974, though it managed to collect a considerable amount of information on local African Americans.
In 1977, Dr. Mildred Pratt of Illinois State University assigned one of her students (Janet McMath) to interview elderly African Americans in Peoria about their medical practices. Interest was considerable, and the project was expanded. Unaware of the group started by Marge Smith, Dr. Mildred Pratt and Dr. Stephanie Shaw, also of Illinois State University, began to collaborate on conducting interviews of elderly African Americans in Bloomington-Normal.
Over time the group expanded; their goal was to compile an authentic history of African-Americans in McLean County since 1835 when Henry Clary and Rosanna Johnson reportedly settled in Bloomington.
Greg Koos, director at the McLean County Museum of History, expressed interest in the project, and suggested seeking a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, which was subsequently awarded to the group. The grant led to the composition of a fifty page narrative, “We the People Tell our Own Story” in 1986, and launched the alliance of the group with the McLean County Museum of History.
In 1989, the group became institutionalized; they established a consortium, composed a constitution and by-laws, and relocated to the Old McLean County Courthouse, taking the title Bloomington-Normal Black History Project / Culture Consortium. Thereafter the group received funding from both Illinois Wesleyan (through Dr. Pam Muirhead) and ISU (through Dr. Mildred Pratt).
By 1990 sixty-five oral interviews had been conducted (by Dr. Pratt and Dr. Shaw), two expositions undertaken, and a curriculum booklet distributed to schools and libraries (among other things).
Between 1985 and 1995, the group was heavily involved in conferences, research trips, publications, and outreach. The group spread the word about the project nationally by attending conferences. The educational outreach program was bolstered as Caribel Washington and others spoke at schools and passed out teaching aids on local African American history. Various research trips were conducted with funding from the two universities which gave new BNBHP members the chance to do firsthand research, some of which was published. In addition the group was active in ongoing events such as Juneteenth celebrations, inviting African American speakers, and ongoing research.
Since roughly 1980, Dr. Pratt and Caribel Washington have been the official and unofficial leaders of the BNBHP, conducting endless research, interviews and working to advertise and expand the BNBHP. Currently Willie Tripp Jr. is the head of the BNBHP.