After listening to conversations about racism in DeKalb County during the summer of 2020, DeKalb County History Center and Ellwood House Museum staff dug into their archives for relevant materials and the results were unsettling. They found restrictive covenants and advertisements for Ku Klux Klan rallies. Yet, there were also inspiring stories of resilience and hope. The challenge was how to share these stories, and to provide an accurate and inclusive account of the community's past.
Several generous grants provided an opportunity to thoughtfully present this history. In January of 2021, Arts in Action was part of a larger Healing Illinois grant coordinated with Northern Illinois University and Family Services Agency. This grant provided stipends for artists to create a variety of artwork. Working with guidance from the Arts in Action committee, a DeKalb County Nonprofit Partnership intern created an online exhibit flipbook that incorporated the artwork and historical context. This project was on a tight timeline and was completed within three months.
It was clear from the start that the online exhibit was only the starting point. More work needed to be done. Virtual tours exploring the themes in the flipbook were presented to the public, church groups, service organizations, NIU staff and students. Traditional Black churches collaborated in recruiting people for oral histories and to promote the donation of photos and other artifacts to the History Center collection.
Conversations with history partners throughout the county clearly showed that there was more information about Black and Latino history that needed to be shared to develop a deeper understanding of DeKalb County’s past. We secured additional funding from Illinois Humanities to create a more interactive website where new resources and oral histories could be shared. Partnering with other local history groups heightened the impact of the project. Individual stories about the Klu Klux Klan, restrictive covenants, and racial discrimination in Kirkland, Fairdale, Genoa, Hinckley, Sandwich and Shabbona could be difficult to share with communities. However, by collaborating, our organizations could support each other in sharing and discussing difficult histories.
This grant also supported an in-person exhibit at the Ellwood House from May 31 – July 2, 2022 where the original artwork was on display. Dr. Joseph Flynn also led a related program, “Racism in Popular Culture.”
Grant funding from the DeKalb County Mental Health Board and Juday family also provided two assistants to work on the project. As project coordinator Ayanna Johnson, was hired to help with the new website, and Tammie Shered was hired as the community Engagement Coordinator to be part of the oral history project.
What’s next? This website is updated regularly as new evidence comes to light through research and oral histories. Another priority is to expand the information connected to the Latino community in our county. An app that will also connect the stories gathered in this project to specific places in DeKalb County. Details will be shared on social media and on our website.