By Brooke E. O'Neill | Fall 2016

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Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History empowers the South Side community — and takes its stories to the world.

It’s 10:01 a.m. on a Tuesday and Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History has just opened its doors. Nestled at East 57th and South Cottage Grove, its elegant, neoclassical facade seems at home amid the lush greenery of Washington Park, a historic South Side strolling ground dotted with trees, walking paths and a lagoon.

It’s an elegant tableau reminiscent of a bygone era, of a time before stretches of gleaming glass buildings sprouted up on the University of Chicago campus to its east and poverty hobbled the struggling Englewood neighborhood to its west.

The building, too, has its own past lives. Designed by famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham — who also designed the historic Railway Exchange Building on Michigan Avenue where the Mendoza College occupies classroom space — the 1910 structure served as a police station and park administration building before becoming permanent home to the DuSable in 1973.

Stepping inside, one finds a place of calm. Sun floods the lobby. A bench creaks.

The DuSable is quiet on this summer morning, but it has powerful stories to tell.

Depicted in a lobby mosaic mural is Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, an enterprising 18th-century Haitian fur trader who established a river trading post to become Chicago’s first non-Native American settler.

A Cubist painting nearby celebrates activist Robert Abbott, founder of The Chicago Defender newspaper that inspired thousands of Southern blacks to flee Jim Crow segregation for Chicago.

Elsewhere in the collections sit the boxing gloves worn by a young Joe Louis during his 1934 Golden Gloves fight, just before he became world heavyweight champion.

Among these pioneering tales is that of the DuSable Museum itself.

“When I first started collecting the artifacts of black history, things were often just thrown out,” its late founder, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, once said. Salvaging items ignored by museums, the African American artist, writer and educator teamed up with a group of like-minded locals in 1961 to transform her personal collection into a small museum on the first floor of her Bronzeville home.

“Then as word got out of what I was up to,” she recounted during a 1997 ceremony honoring the museum’s namesake, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, “people started bringing me the raw material of history from their attics and basements.”

Today, the world-class South Side institution and Smithsonian Affiliate houses more than 15,000 artifacts, paintings, sculptures, prints and pieces of historical memorabilia. “One of the reasons our collection is so unique is we were collecting things that other institutions did not find valuable,” says Chief Curator Leslie Guy.

Among its holdings: writer Langston Hughes’ inscribed christening gown and the country’s largest collection of political cartoons by Henry Jackson Lewis, a former slave who became the first African American satirist.

Unlike many African American museums that were bankrolled by wealthy benefactors, the DuSable grew directly out of its surrounding community. As founder Burroughs told Black Enterprise magazine in 1980: “We weren’t started by anybody downtown; we were started by ordinary folks.”

More than a museum 

As museums everywhere scramble to attract a new generation of visitors and stay relevant in the internet age, the DuSable is amplifying what it’s always done best: Give people a place to connect and share their stories.

It’s an approach that mirrors larger trends as museums try to redefine themselves and become an indispensable part of the 21st-century social fabric. Around the world, cultural institutions large and small face the challenge of evolving to be more socially focused and responsive to the interests of diverse audiences.

“Even in a media-driven age, much art is, at some basic level, personal,” wrote New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Holland Cotter. “People made it, reacted to it, treasured it in ways we can identify with. But art is also intrinsically political, designed to shape a view of the world in empowering ways, ways that write certain people and ideas into the record and leave others out.”

That reality makes inclusion all the more important for museums as they navigate changing audience demographics. Museums of the future “should be sociable spaces, which quietly undo social hierarchy and inequality,” declared industry expert Maria Balshaw in 2015. “If you make (more and different) people feel comfortable in a museum, they can learn something new and accept that there are things bigger than any one of us.”

And therein lies the heart of the DuSable’s mission: building black history into the larger cultural consciousness. It’s curation with an eye toward social justice, preservation intertwined with community building.

Above all, it’s a constant evolution.

That’s why this past spring, DuSable president and CEO Perri Irmer partnered with Notre Dame MBA marketing students to think about how the museum can strengthen its brand further — and be a more powerful force for change. Among the students’ recommendations: increase social media marketing, partner more with local educators and become a social destination for young professionals.

“One thing the students picked up on was it’s more than a museum,” says Carol Phillips, the adjunct marketing professor who taught the six-week Brand Strategy course (see sidebar on page 37). “It’s more of a hub, not only where the African American community comes together, but also where it intersects with the rest of the community around issues of the black experience.”

Guy agrees. “Because of how it came about, the DuSable was really ahead of its time in terms of being community focused,” she says. “What a lot of museums have found now is that they need to build and create those connections with their community. For us, it’s part of the legacy of our institution.”

For example, the DuSable recently invited Chicago residents to share personal mementos and family stories for its permanent exhibition, Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality, a 400-year chronicle of the African American experience from the transatlantic slave trade to present day.

Among the items people have brought are childhood trophies, family photographs and a father’s pharmacist license. Their contributions appear online at, the exhibit’s online home, along with videotaped stories from locals.

In one film clip, for example, Chicagoan Joyce Teasley speaks about her personal experience with racism during the civil rights era, sharing the story of her older brother who graduated as one of only two black students in his Illinois Institute of Technology class and landed a chemical engineering job in Baltimore.

“We were so excited,” she recalls in her interview. “We had to buy him a new suitcase and give him a new suit.” When he showed up for work, the company realized he wasn’t white and told him a mistake had been made. His offer was revoked. “Soon after that,” Teasley says, “was when companies started requiring that you send a photo with your résumé.”

Beyond a singular concept of the world

From such participatory history projects such as exhibition-related film screenings and lectures to jazz nights on the museum’s sprawling front lawn, the DuSable continues to ramp up its public programming in an effort to foster understanding around race.

“A colleague of mine recently made a comment about museums being comfortable places for uncomfortable conversations,” Guy says. “That’s really where we need to be: having respectful and meaningful dialogue in a safe and inclusive environment.”

The conversation comes at a time of great urgency. Across the country, fatal police shootings of young black men and retaliatory killings of law enforcement officers have fueled racial tension and distrust. Meanwhile, an election cycle plagued by vitriolic rhetoric has brought a troubling brand of intolerance into public discourse.

Amid the noise, the DuSable plays a critical role, steadfast in its mission to celebrate black culture. “We are a multiethnic, multiracial, international country,” Irmer says. “It’s important our citizens understand something beyond a singular concept of the world.”

Regaining control of the narrative

That’s especially true for the youngest generation, one of the DuSable’s most important audiences.

“With so many cuts in public education, we really are a primary source of education for children on African American history,” Irmer says. The museum welcomes hundreds of field trips annually and recently partnered with the Chicago Teachers Union to help schools better leverage the museum’s collections in their curriculum.

“What we’re trying to do,” Irmer says, “is regain control of our historical narrative.” The approach: Introduce students to facts, figures and stories that might otherwise be glossed over, or ignored completely, in the classroom.

The exhibition Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality lays the groundwork. Entering the space, a feeling of claustrophobia sweeps over you. Gone is the open airy gallery. Suddenly, you’re standing in the dimly lit wooden underbelly of a slave ship.

You find yourself flanked by artifacts such as punishment collars used to restrain slaves who attempted escape, silence seems the only appropriate response, which amplifies the volume of the film reel playing just ahead.

“Blacks were made to jump and dance to demonstrate their sprightliness,” the narrator says. “Buyers poked and prodded them. … precisely as a jockey examines a horse.” Onscreen, a black man jumps and paces in front of a group of white men. 

In many ways, it’s exactly what a visitor might expect in an exhibit chronicling four hundred years of black history starting with the slave trade. But expectation doesn’t make the imagery any less shocking, nor the reality of what one race can do to another any less shameful.

And, to some extent, that’s exactly the point.

You cannot walk through this exhibit and deny the toll centuries of racism has taken in our country. The stain-covered 1930s Ku Klux Klan robe and hood that stares out of a glass case and the “colored-only” sign above a water fountain serve as visceral reminders of the intolerance that has long plagued the nation.  

The exhibit also reveals pieces of history that may not be commonly known. Many may be surprised to learn, for example, that the controversial Black Panther Party of the 1960s and 70s — former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once called it “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” — fed free breakfast to more than 10,000 schoolchildren daily and set up community health clinics in poor neighborhoods.

“This exhibition lays the foundation for all the stories we tell,” Guy says, pointing to it as the nerve center of the museum. “Everything we do here connects to this history.”

Education is freedom

Perhaps nowhere is that connection more poignant than in Reflections, a documentary photographic exhibition from artist Terrence A. Reese that gives an intimate look into the lives of pioneering African Americans who spent their careers overcoming odds and breaking barriers deeply rooted in our nation’s slave history. 

Photographed in homes and offices, each subject’s face appears reflected in a mirror somewhere among his or her furniture, keepsakes and other trappings of everyday life. You have to look closely to spot the individual, drawing young and old alike into a game of “I Spy.”

There’s obstetrician and gynecologist Helen O. Dickens, the first African American woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons, who eats her meals at a dining room table decorated with a collage of family photos. Her father was a slave-turned-janitor; her mother a low-paid domestic worker.

In another photograph, education policymaker Adelaide Sanford — who started out as an elementary teacher before rising to vice chancellor of the State University of New York’s Board of Regents — sits at her piano, her reflection well-hidden in a small mirror perched atop her mantel. An image of her grandson in his high school graduation cap and gown decorates a nearby end table. 

Other subjects include sociologist Adelaide M. Cromwell, the first black graduate of Smith College and later its first black professor, and physician Muriel Petioni, who graduated from Harvard Medical School and became known in Harlem as the “Mother of Medicine” for her work bringing health care to underserved communities.

Crisscrossing professions and geographies, there’s one theme that comes up again and again as an antidote to racial inequality: education.

“African American culture has always had such a strong emphasis on education,” Irmer says. “Education is freedom. It’s something you can’t take away.”

Opening up the dialogue

The museum’s newest exhibition, Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba continues the work of educating and urging visitors to think globally about black culture. As highlighted in the Freedom exhibition, less than 5 percent of kidnapped Africans during the transatlantic slave trade ended up in mainland America. Most were routed to Brazil and the Caribbean, where they developed their own dynamic cultures.

Drapetomania’s visually stunning collection of paintings and artifacts resuscitates the work of Grupo Antillano, a suppressed arts and cultural movement that flourished briefly in Cuba from 1978 to 1983. Contrary to notions at the time that regarded African cultural practices as primitive, the artists argued that Africa and Afro-Caribbean influences directly shaped Cuban national identity.

“This exhibit discusses what it’s like to be of African descent in another place, and our visitors can make comparisons with their own experiences,” Guy explains. “That’s been one way of opening up the dialogue cross-culturally.” In July, an exhibition lecture with Cuban scholar Giraldo Rosales held partially in Spanish drew several Spanish-speaking African Americans.

A painting by contemporary artist Alexis Esquivel Postales de la Guerra also speaks to how different cultures perceive each other. A visual critique of how Africa was distorted in the imaginations of Cubans involved in African liberation movements, it’s a surreal tableau: a young black girl poses in a T-shirt that reads “Kwanzaa”; a rhino meanders among straw huts; the figure of an African president glides across the grass on skis while uniformed soldiers stand guard. “It’s an intentional fever dream,” Guy says.

Then there’s the work of dispelling myths around Santeria, or voodoo. Asked by Edward “Amani” Conley, the museum’s education manager, what they know about the religion, a group of teens who are training to become docents quickly echo a popular stereotype. 

“Satanic stuff?” one girl ventures. Conley shakes his head.

“Voodoo was vilified by Europeans who didn’t understand the practices,” he says, explaining how the Afro-Haitian religion borrows from both Bantu and Roman Catholic traditions.

Since its May opening, Drapetomania has helped the DuSable foster cultural understanding — and create new connections. For example, a June film screening of Black and Cuba — the 2013 documentary that follows a small group of black students journeying from Yale to Cuba — led to a discussion that engaged millennials and seniors alike.

Some of the latter had been very politically active in the Black Power Movement and had direct links to Cuba’s revolutionary fervor in the 1960s. “It was one of those examples,” Guy says, “where something contemporary with strong historical ties can bring together two different groups in interesting and unusual ways.”

What I can do, I ought to do

Building bridges is just one of many ways the DuSable Museum is boldly architecting its future. With the Barack Obama Presidential Center slated to open less than a mile away in 2020 — the project is expected to bring an additional 800,000 visitors annually to the South Side — the institution hopes to dramatically expand its influence.

In March, the museum became one of only two Chicago institutions to be named a Smithsonian Affiliate — Adler Planetarium is the other. The designation gives the DuSable an opportunity to bring Smithsonian artifacts and traveling exhibits to the local community, as well as to showcase its own collection through the Smithsonian’s network.

Also in the works: the Roundhouse, an ambitious building renovation that will increase museum space by 61,000 square feet and make the DuSable the country’s first African American museum campus. Built by the museum’s architect, Daniel Burnham, the historic 19th-century Roundhouse is a former horse stable that boasts soaring ceilings and sunlit spaces. Located across the street from the current museum, it will house all the DuSable’s galleries and exhibitions, as well as a library, technology and language lab, conference space and children’s learning areas. 

The stunning Roundhouse promises to elevate the DuSable’s brand and its rare African collection, much of which no one has ever seen simply because of space limitations. “In terms of where we are going, we’re uniquely positioned as far as the stories that we will be able to tell,” Irmer says.

Meanwhile, the museum is exploring opportunities to grow partnerships with academic and cultural institutions, such as the University of Notre Dame. Long term, the DuSable team envisions the institution not only as a cultural powerhouse, but also as a thought leader on policy and social justice.

“That was part of Dr. Burroughs’ original mission,” says Irmer, “and it’s even more important in today’s world.”

Like its founder, the DuSable Museum of African American History remains deeply committed to empowering its community — and pushing it forward.

“I am but one, but I am one,” Burroughs once wrote. “I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do — and what I ought to do, I will do.”    

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