A New Look at Old Favorites Exploring Chicago's African-Amercian Heritage

By Jabari Asim Of The Post-Dispatch Photo James A. Finley Of The | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), July 3, 1994 | Go to article overview

A New Look at Old Favorites Exploring Chicago's African-Amercian Heritage


Jabari Asim Of The Post-Dispatch Photo James A. Finley Of The, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


AFRICAN-AMERICAN ROOTS in the Windy City stretch back to Chicago's beginnings. The area's first non-Native American settler, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, was a Haitian-born black man.

DuSable established a trading post near the mouth of the Chicago River in 1779. He built his home near the site of the Wrigley Building. His rugged homestead was the site of the city's first wedding, first recorded birth, first election and first court.

Around 1916, Chicago became a cultural mecca for many of the hundreds of thousands of blacks who left the South during the Great Migration. These new Chicagoans, often possessing little more than dreams and the thin threads on their backs, quickly made the city's South Side a bustling black metropolis. They found jobs with factories, hotels and railroads, bringing with them their music, their religion and their considerable talents.

Visitors to modern Chicago will marvel at how well the city has preserved the cultural legacy of its black inhabitants. To help document that legacy, the Illinois Bureau of Tourism and the DuSable Museum of African American History have produced "Illinois Generations: A Traveler's Guide to African American Heritage." The handsome publication provides detailed information about historically significant sites throughout the state, including more than 50 in the Chicago area.

Fifty sites are far too many to visit in a single weekend, but a recent sojourn still provided plenty of opportunities to come face-to-face with history. Harold Washington Library

Echoes of the recent past are present at the Harold Washington Library Center, 4000 South State Street. The center is named in honor of Chicago's 42nd mayor and its first and only black chief executive. The 10-story structure was completed in 1991, four years after Washington's sudden death.

The Harold Washington Archives and Collections fill the ninth floor. They are highlighted by Vision Of A New City, a permanent exhibit that documents Washington's political career through campaign buttons, photos and copies of newspaper articles. In addition, the archives contain Washington's personal papers, artifacts and more than 10,000 photographs.

The other floors comprise the full spectrum of library services, programs and special collections, including a Chicago Blues archive and an art collection featuring 19 African-American artists.

The most impressive work of art is a large Jacob Lawrence mosaic titled "Events in the Life of Harold Washington." Lawrence's trademark technique features muscular, stylized figures representing Washington as a young track athlete, carpenter and congressman.

Close runner-up is "DuSable's Journey," a large brass-and-terrazzo floor installation by Houston Conwill, Estella Conwill Majozo and Joseph DePace. Its circular design incorporates a number of themes and symbols linking Chicago's first permanent settler to the city's first black mayor. A map tracing DuSable's trip from Haiti to Chicago is encircled by a ring of quotations taken from Washington's first and second inaugural addresses. Field Museum

Our next stop was the Field Museum of Natural History to visit a permanent installation called "Africa." The exhibit comprises 15,000 square feet and was five years in the making. It represents a collaborative effort among African and African-American scholars as the narrators and designers of their peoples' stories.

Large-format photo cutouts, three-dimensional constructions, text and video monitors combine to present a fairly comprehensive tour of the African diaspora. Curators of the exhibit have paid careful attention to both the people and the wildlife of the continent. Hands-on and interactive displays will be particularly appealing to youngsters.

Highlights include bronze sculptures from Benin. Memorial heads and ornate benches are decorated with intricately detailed, bas-relief carvings. …

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