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A Trip To The Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum

Late last month, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture was officially opened in Washington, D.C. Did you know that Springfield has had its own version for about five years?

The Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum has changed location three times. It now sits in a building directly outside of Oak Ridge Cemetery, where Abraham Lincoln is interred (for hours & to keep in the know about upcoming events, click here.) The museum is run solely on the enthusiasm and work of volunteers. Doug King is the president of the board, and is acting as its director – though the non-profit is actively seeking a fulltime, paid director. King showed me around the museum and told me about its mission and purpose. Listen to the audio piece:

King says the museum is devoted to capturing pieces of history that are unique to the area. One set of posters tells the stories of black Springfield residents that Abraham Lincoln would have been in contact with. There is also contemporary art on the walls, including from the Illinois native Preston Jackson. In one corner, a whole wall is covered in a captivating array of black and white photographs – they come from a Springfield photographer, Eddie Winfred Helm, aka “Doc.” He spent 50 years covering state government events for the Secretary of State. As a black man – he also took it upon himself to photograph important events within the African American community – and also took hundreds of pictures that portray everyday life for black people. He had a skillful, sensitive eye and the photos are artful, they span through the 1940s to the sixties.

The museum also serves as a community center. Recently, for instance, it has hosted a fashion show, and a summer history camp for children. King has long been an active believer in the value of public service, volunteering for groups like the Boys & Girls Club - and sitting on the city’s Human Relations Council in the eighties and nineties. King says says he’s constantly on the lookout for volunteers, young adults in particular, who are willing to get behind the mission and help spread the word about the museum's offerings. King says for black people in central Illinois – it serves as a way they can actively get involved in understanding and personalizing their own local history. He says too often people think of history as “dead white guys fighting.” The museum is successfully standing in opposition to that stereotype.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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