Illinois' African-American History and Heritage

Discover sites that reflect the legacy of African-Americans on the history and culture of Illinois, from museums to music.

From Chicago claiming the birthplace of gospel music and its own version of the blues, to the Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum sharing authentic stories, you can easily spend a weekend (or more) exploring the contributions of African-Americans throughout the state.

 

Museums and History

DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago

Jean Baptiste Point DuSable was a Haitian of African and French descent, who in 1779 established the trading post and permanent settlement which would become known as Chicago. Today, recognized as the founder of Chicago, his name graces the DuSable Museum of African American History, one of the country’s largest repositories of African-American art, history and culture.

Permanent exhibits include one featuring Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, with more than 150 artifacts about his impact on the city and country, as well as an animatronic likeness of the man who greets guests as they enter the exhibit. Temporary exhibits rotate throughout the year.

Pullman National Historic District, Chicago

The Pullman State Historic Site and the National A. Phillip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum offer exhibits, tours and interpretive programs throughout the year. The museum recognizes the legacy of the Pullman Porters who were instrumental in our country’s transportation mode at the time, and follows the story of their unionization and link to the Civil Rights movement. 

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield

This museum not only documents the life of our country’s 16th president but also stages exhibits based on its impressive historical holdings, including an extensive Civil War collection and strong offerings on slavery and abolition.

The museum space that tells Lincoln’s life story includes what is probably the most emotional scene in the entire building—a slave auction of the type Lincoln would have seen when visiting New Orleans. It depicts a family being torn apart, vividly illustrating slavery’s dark realities. This section also includes text and photographs about slavery and Lincoln’s reaction to it.

The museum’s main plaza includes a large reproduction of the entrance to the White House. Figures representing several key individuals of the era are shown outside, including Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. 

Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum, Springfield

Just shy of a few miles from the Illinois State Capitol and past the wrought iron gates of the Oak Ridge Cemetery (Lincoln’s final resting place) sits the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum. Through oral histories and exhibits, the museum offers guests insight into authentic stories about African American life in Central Illinois.

Among the current exhibits are object-enhanced oil paintings by Preston Jackson, often more recognized for his monumental outdoor sculptures such as the powerful Acts of Intolerance sculpture in Springfield’s Union Square Park to commemorate the centennial of the brutal Springfield Race Riot of 1908. More of Preston’s work can be found at the Contemporary Art Center in Peoria, which Preston and other artists started as a studio space for them to work together, create and encourage viewing and discussing contemporary art.

The African American Museum of Southern Illinois, Carbondale

Nestled within the University Mall, The African American Museum of Southern Illinois includes a permanent collection of African art and slave artifacts. Rotating displays include Underground Railroad message quilts, local artwork and exhibits that portray the achievements of African-American citizens.  

The Underground Railroad

Many homes around the country were part of the Underground Railroad, the effort to assist persons in bondage to escape slavery. Some Illinois homes that were part of the Underground Railroad offer tours to individuals or groups. Sites include the Owen Lovejoy House in Princeton and Beecher Hall at Illinois College in Jacksonville. The National Park Service keeps an active list of which properties offer tours and when.

Music

Chicago-Style Blues

The Great Migration found southern blacks making the journey north seeking a better life. It brought more African-Americans to Chicago from Mississippi than any other state, especially during and after World War II. Many African-Americans settled in a strip of the South Side known as the Black Belt and with them they brought their love for music. They introduced us to the Delta blues, the foundation of the classic post-war Chicago blues style.

Among the thousands of Mississippians who arrived on Illinois Central trains at Central Station was Muddy Waters, who became king of Chicago blues. A plaque honors The Blues Trail on the southeast corner of Grant Park, across the street from what was then Central Station from 1893-1974. Buddy Guy’s Legends in the South Loop offers up-and-coming and famous acts seven nights a week alongside New Orleans-inspired dishes. Chicago Blues Festival, the largest free blues festival in the world, takes place in June in Millennium Park. Taking to the stage in the past include Ray Charles, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor.

Gospel Music

The city’s South Side was also the epicenter of gospel music. Bronzeville residents combined blues, jazz, swing, spirituals and hymnody to create gospel sound. For those who want to experience a taste of one of the world’s most popular musical forms, the House of Blues in Chicago offers Gospel Brunch every Sunday complete with local talent performing both traditional and contemporary Gospel songs while guests dine on an all-you-can-eat buffet of southern specialties. 

All That Jazz

While the Windy City can’t claim jazz, its jazz scene shouldn’t be overlooked. The Chicago Jazz Festival celebrates all forms of jazz over a free four-day celebration annually in Millennium Park over Labor Day weekend. Small jazz clubs throughout the city keep the music alive throughout the year where you can hear living legends and new talent.

Bud Billiken Parade

Dozens of drill teams, bands and marching units make their way to Washington Park during the nation’s largest African-American parade (August 11, 2018). Chance the Rapper served as the grand marshal of last year’s 88th annual event, which also features a giant picnic in the park after more than 200 units parade along the 2-mile route through Bronzeville.

Food

For an authentic restaurant steeped in the history of black Chicagoans, there’s no better place to start your food tour than Lem’s on the South Side. Known for their rib tips and hot links, loyal customers recommend bringing more than one person with you so you can order both. Fourteen years after it opened in 1954, the brothers added a second location in the historic Chatham neighborhood.

For southern-style comfort food, consider stopping at Pearl’s Place in Bronzeville. Choose from their soul food buffet (available for breakfast, lunch and dinner) or order off the menu. Make sure to leave room for sweet potato pie.

For other breakfast and lunch options, check out Sweet Maple Cafe, a cozy restaurant nestled among Italian restaurants and co-ed apartments in Little Italy that serves country-style home-cooked meals and homemade “sweet milk biscuits.” Consider ordering the “Not-So-Plain Buttermilk Pancakes.”

On the city’s north side is Batter and Berries, ready to serve 62 different varieties of French toast, homemade sausages and chicken and waffles for breakfast and lunch.

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