Living History: African American Historical Exhibits

The African American community’s legacy emerges through exhibits and events at the state’s museums and historical sites.


The son of former slaves helped found a Chicago organization devoted to collecting and promoting Black history in 1915.

The efforts of this scholar, Carter G. Woodson, eventually grew into Black History Month, now celebrated nationwide each February to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Throughout the state, immersive experiences note the lives of African Americans and their achievements, tightly woven into the nation’s fabric.

Five Top Spots to Visit:

1. Safe Station on the Underground Railroad 

The African American Museum at the England Manor is a historic home museum that not only focuses on the African American experience, but was also a stop along the Underground Railroad. Sylvia England, the founder of the museum, tells her ancestors’ story from their time in Africa to today through exhibits and artifacts which chronicle the various stages of the African American experience. This museum aims to allow individuals who have been systemically silenced to have a voice and tell their stories and encourages all visitors to sit down and reflect on their own experience with their family.

2. Wartime Heroics

Learn the incredible story of Kathryn Magnolia Johnson, among a small group of African American women who served during World War I at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. The exhibit calls attention to Johnson’s service in Europe and her life’s work as an educator and activist, using artifacts and archival footage. 

3. For the Kids

The Bronzeville Children's Museum is the first and only African American children's museum for kids ages 3-9. Plus, the museum is home to interactive exhibits such as "African American Inventors Changing Lives," where the little ones and adults alike can learn about all the Black entrepreneurs whose inventions changed our lives for the better. This exhibit covers a range of Black business pioneers, from 17th century inventor Benjamin Banneker to modern-day computer engineer and businesswoman, Donna Auguste.

4. Stirring Stories

Less than 2 miles from the Illinois State Capitol and past former President Abraham Lincoln’s final resting place at Oak Ridge Cemetery sits the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum. Walk through "The Door of No Return" as part of the new Middle Passage interactive exhibit, which tells the story of trafficking Africans to parts of the world through compelling audio and visuals, such as a replica of a slave ship. The museum also honors President Barack Obama—whose political career began in the Illinois legislature—with an exhibit featuring speech excerpts, campaign paraphernalia and other memorabilia.

5. Art and Artifacts

Carbondale's African American Museum of Southern Illinois celebrates culture through hundreds of original art pieces, photographs, literary works and artifacts. See local artist DeSande R's painting of Billie Holiday when Holiday was just starting to sing in clubs. It hangs on the wall alongside art by internationally known painter Najjar Abdul-Musawwir (a Southern Illinois University professor) and a print by Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, co-founder of what is now Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American History. Artifacts include slave shackles used on children and adults as well as books on African history by Black authors. Rotating displays include traditional furniture and masks.

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