Sherry Williams walks through the front door of the old brick house on 35th Street in Bronzeville and is quickly reminded of the rich heritage of African-Americans in this historic community.
Williams is founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society, and the cottage building is the organization’s home. The Society is located on Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas’ former homestead; the landmark site is adjacent to Lake Michigan and the Illinois Central Railroad. A few yards from the cottage building lay a couple of African Heritage Gardens and a Migratory Bird Oasis. (The Oasis is a sanctuary for more than 20 species). The constant arrival of birds to the Oasis and gardens echo the history of the Great Migration, the movement of six million African-Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West that largely occurred between 1910 and 1970. That history is central to the experience of African-Americans in Chicago who, like so many others, came here from another place.
Bronzeville Historical Society started because of Williams’concern about diminishing historical sites in African-American communities, pride in cultural diversity and the need to increase historical resources on African-Americans for children in classrooms.
Williams jokes that many years ago, “Every time I drove through this area with my daughters I gave them kind of a narration of the neighborhood – here’s where Harold Washington lived, here’s where the old Palm Tavern was, here’s the oldest black church in the city. They got tired of it, and suggested that I start the historical society. And I did.” The organization was founded by Williams, her mother and her daughters in 1999.
One key experience she had over the years that led to the organization, Williams says, was working as a postal worker for 26 years. “I delivered mail to everyone, and it wasn’t unusual to have conversations with people like the first black female U.S. Senator, Carol Moseley Braun and civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson.”
In the early 1940s, Williams’ mother moved from Mississippi to Chicago; her father moved from the state to Chicago in the mid-50s. (Both picked cotton in the South to earn their way to Chicago.) Williams shares personal details of their life here, including the way they farmed, gardened and conserved the earth. All of her elders taught her how to plant collard greens in the city just as they had in the South.
Just as land was seen as sacred, family stories were seen as sacred as they were shared over the years. Williams has always been fascinated with family stories and the history of African-Americans, and at least one family member took special notice. Her maternal great aunt, Gertrude Hale, chose her to be “the family griot” – a historian and storyteller who preserves, and passes on, the traditions of a family, village and culture.
The search for one’s roots and protecting Chicago’s African-American history are integral to the work of the Society. Every year, the Bronzeville Historical Society organizes Underground Railroad tours. Tour takers visit key historical sites that tell the story of the efforts of abolitionists, union soldiers and citizens of Chicago. One current priority of the group is to index records that have been obtained from the Jackson Funeral Home in Chicago. As Williams pores over one page of records, she points to information that can help open up a world for people who want to find out where their ancestors were from, when they died and other key details. “I’d like for every record donated to our care to eventually be made accessible to the public for scholarship for greater understanding of black life,” Williams says.
Another priority is expanding the bird sanctuary. The sanctuary, Williams says, reflects the story of African-Americans who migrated from the South to Chicago. “Birds have to travel hundreds of miles to find refuge and food,” she says. “After the Civil War, blacks also had to come hundreds of miles to find refuge and food.” Every year, the Bronzeville Historical Society welcomes about 800 local second to eighth-grade students a month to the sanctuary, where they learn about history, conservation and African growing practices. “They come and plant seeds for collard greens, okra and watermelon,” Williams says. “Before the transatlantic slave experience, these foods were not here.”
Over the years, Williams has also exhibited some of the Society’s collections, including a presentation at the Pullman historic site a few years ago that showcased what African-Americans brought with them during the Great Migration. “They brought things like quilts, washboards – things they treasured,” she says. (Millennium Reserve priorities include supporting the Pullman national park and the proposed Black Metropolis national heritage area).
Michael Howard, executive director of the Eden Place Nature Center in nearby Fuller Park, says “The Bronzeville Historical Society serves as a valuable resource for our community in terms of educating youth and families about our history. The organization has amassed a brilliant archive that grows leaps and bounds every year.”
After stepping inside the Society’s brick home, one is greeted by a four-foot tall photo of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, an almost life-size image of President Obama and many other images and artifacts that tell the story of people who impacted this community and those who have lived there. Outside, Williams points out spaces where cardinals, red-winged blackbirds and even peregrine falcons have thrived.
“Conservation and preservation can mean so many things,” Williams says. “For me, they can be about preserving family and cultural history -- and taking care of the earth and creatures that live here.”
Visits to the Douglas Tomb Site and Bird Oasis are free to the public. The Douglas Tomb is open Friday – Sunday 10am to 5pm (winter hours)
Call or email ahead to visit the Society library and office: (312) 428-8033, firstname.lastname@example.org