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
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.
By Mark Wyman, PhD (Professor, History, Illinois State University)