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Roosevelt Pratt Brings African Culture To Springfield With Music, Language & More

You might not know it, but Springfield is home to a cultural center specializing in Africa. Run by a man known for his permanent smile, Roosevelt Pratt has unrelenting enthusiasm for his mission - to teach those in the Springfield-area about different aspects of African culture - from food, to language, to music... and more. But his path to Springfield was not an easy one, and he still struggles to do what he loves most, educate: 

Pratt's store is called Fashion Afrique at the African Hut - across from the post office downtown on Monroe street, it's hard to miss, with a colorful store-front and multiple flags, including the Black Nation flag and ones for Egypt and South Africa.

Pratt came to the United States as a Liberian refugee who fled the country due to civil war. He got his start in the states in a way similar to many immigrants. He had what most would consider a pretty undesirable job: “I was a cleaner at the mall, I was working on the food court … and then they wanted to make me a supervisor. But I was on my way out… I got my little state job in 2005.”

In Liberia, Pratt worked as a 4th grade teacher and also founded a language institute aimed at teaching literacy to local women. When he fled to neighboring Ivory Coast after Liberia's civil war destroyed his family's livelihood - he founded another language institute there. But he had to leave that country as well, and came to live with his sister and mother in Springfield. Pratt wasn't satisfied with working at the mall, or at the state job he later took. So he opened a stand at the corner of 5th and South Grand selling African goods. Now, he has the brick and mortar shop downtown. Toward the front of the store, he's showing me a shelf of spices and coffee, a rack of purses, and: “Our clothing, authentically made, we have clothes from Ghana, Nigeria a little from all over Africa. And as of late I'm working with an African-American tailor who uses authentic African fabric.”

Pratt emphasizes selling items that benefit the makers - whether they be local tailors, or village women in central Africa. He also has a gallery selling high-end African art, and cases with expensive vintage tribal masks. But a unique and diverse shopping experience isn't the only thing Pratt offers to the Springfield community. This may be a store, but it's a center for cultural integration too, as Pratt calls it. He, along with a couple employees - themselves African natives - teaches French and Swahili language classes for adults and children. He also teaches African drumming.

This evening, he's playing and singing a Liberian song outside his store, with a handful of other drummers, part of his master class who help him perform at events in the Springfield area. At one point he hops up - his drums between his knees, and begins to dance with a student. He's average height and slender, dressed in colorful African garb. Sherry Flynn is one of the parents watching the group from the side walk. Her sons and step-daughter are students of Pratt's. “We love Roosevelt, he's a really great guy and he makes us feel at home here. It's a little bit different when the kids have music lessons - you usually drop them off but here I stick around and dance, it's a very inviting atmosphere," says Flynn.

Flynn says she was downtown for lunch one day when she noticed the sign advertising African drum lessons. She signed up her kids who were already musically inclined. Roosevelt says compared to other instruments, playing the drums is very social. “You have to take advantage of the drums because you know, it's a very good outlet - you can recharge, you can wind down - it's healing," explains Pratt.

Pratt has also taught African drum and dance through after-school programs run by the Urban League and Boys & Girls Clubs. This year, he's volunteering his lessons at Graham Elementary School as the other programs have been cut due to district budget shortfalls.

Pratt, who is 54 and married to a woman he met in Springfield, has lived in the city for nearly a decade. He's working to acquire an Illinois teaching certificate. Pratt says life-long learning is a value he gained from his parents - back in Liberia his mother was a nurse and his father headed a department at the Booker T. Washington Institute. "'Cuz I came with nothing, and started with nothing. People can see the opportunities in America ... empower themselves. And that's what we believed in - and that's what we were taught," says Pratt.

And he has bigger dreams still. Pratt says his ultimate goal would be to bring a sort of African village to Springfield - a place where people can shop, eat, and be entertained by all things African. However, he stresses that while he's been able to keep the center running, even upgrading to a larger location it's never turned a profit, and if not for local philanthropists, he would have had to close up shop multiple times. "I've actually been touched by the level of support that people have been giving me," says Pratt.

For now, Pratt continues to gain long term students - though the number of customers on a daily basis can be in the single digits. Pratt remains hopeful. His pleasant demeanor never seems to leave, and he says he'll keep following his mission to educate others as long as the community is willing to support his effort.

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