How does Black History Month impact Peorians? You only have to think of Peoria’s underground railroad ties commemorated by Peoria artist Preston Jackson “Knocking on Freedom’s Door” attached to the Peoria Civic Center building which is located on a historical underground railroad site of the home of Moses and Lucy Pettengill, who courageously helped escaped slaves flee the South to claim their freedom.
And there’s also Peoria’s ties to Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement becoming famous for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings.
Douglass wrote several autobiographies, notably describing his experiences as a slave in his “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” (1845), which became a bestseller, and was influential in promoting the cause of abolition, as was his second book, “My Bondage and My Freedom” (1855). Following the Civil War, Douglass remained an active campaigner against slavery and wrote his last autobiography, “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” (1881).
Douglass spoke several times in Peoria, noted Marilyn Leyland of the Peoria Historical Society, referencing Romeo Garrett’s research on African American history in the area. “Three days after Abraham Lincoln countered the arguments of Stephen Douglas here (in Peoria) in 1854, drawing the line against expansion of slavery, Douglass was scheduled to play that same role in Aurora,” stated Leyland.
In 1859, Douglass was at Rouse’s Hall in Peoria in late February and in early March delivering anti-slavery lectures from his personal perspective. By this time, Douglass had founded an anti-slavery newspaper in Rochester, N.Y.
Douglass lectured again in Peoria on March 10, 1864, under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Aid Commission. After the Civil War, Douglass returned to Rouse’s Hall, brought by the Library Association of Peoria. His last visit, on Feb. 7, 1870, was for the benefit of Ward Chapel AME Church.
And of course, there’s the most famous black Peorian of all, Richard Pryor. Widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential stand-up comedians of all time, his legacy is commemorated by Preston Jackson, who created the sculpture of Pryor now on display at the corners of Washington & State streets in downtown Peoria.
Jackson’s “Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story” which will premiere at the Peoria Riverfront Museum this spring, showcases the stories of American migration and immigration, hope and opportunity, freedom and the struggle for equality.
Twenty-five years in the making, “Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story,” created by Jackson, is a sculptural installation comprised of hundreds of unique small bronze and steel figures, relief sculptures, automobiles, buildings, streets and a truss bridge. Originally entitled “From Bronzeville to Harlem,” the cityscape is a simultaneously playful and serious contemplation of the individual stories that made up the urban centers from places such as Peoria, Chicago’s Bronzeville and the Harlem neighborhoods of Manhattan.
Completed in 2020, in conjunction with the centennial of the start of the Harlem Renaissance, Jackson more than doubled the size of the original installation and retitled the piece, “Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story.”
The period known in history as the Harlem Renaissance represented a cultural and artistic movement spanning the 1920s in the urban communities in the Northeast and Midwest during the great migration. “Bronzeville to Harlem: An American Story” showcases the stories of American migration and immigration, hope and opportunity, freedom and the struggle for equality.
Installed as the climactic centerpiece of the Peoria Riverfront Museum Gallery known as The Street, the sculpture provides an artistic experience unique among any in the nation. An immersion for visitors into the Harlem Renaissance, the exhibit is set to period jazz music and brought to life with expert lighting and an audio narration by actors and the artist himself. The museum kicked off the month with a special program on Feb. 6 in the museum lobby and African American Wall of Fame. Find full details at http://www.peoriariverfrontmuseum.org
Peoria Public Schools is preparing the roll out of BH365, its new Black History curriculum in the fall, beginning at the high school level. Features from the comprehensive K-12 curriculum are running on the district Facebook page throughout February. A state-mandated reform of social studies curriculum, PPS will offer classes with a greater focus on Black History and the contributions of other underrepresented groups to American culture. “With the adoption of BH365 curriculum, Peoria Public Schools is ahead of the curve on meeting new curriculum standards,” said Lisa Gifford, the PPS Literacy and Social Studies Coordinator who has managed the process.
Some online Black History Month programs include “Eyewitness to History: Tuskegee Airman Dr. Harry Quinton” which will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 17 at 2 pm. Celebrate Black History Month with a very special conversation between two members of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. Dr. Harry Quinton is an original Tuskegee Airman, who spent three years in the Army Air Corps and served as an aviation mechanic during World War II. Dr. Quinton experienced the pain of discrimination, and the joy of seeing pilots fly for the very first time. This interview will be conducted by Howard Baugh, son of the late Tuskegee Airman Howard Baugh.
Quinton is a member of the Tidewater Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. and Baugh is currently the President of the Howard Baugh Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. located in Petersburg, VA. Learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. and its chapters at https://www.tuskegeeairmen.org
Although free, registration is required and may be done HERE
Anther Black History Month event will take place on Friday, Feb. 19 at 6:30 pm when the University of Illinois Chicago presents political activist and son of the late Black Panther Party leader, Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. on Zoom to answer your questions. Learn about his involvement in the Black Panther party and how the youth can play a role in preserving the culture. Hampton’s father was slain along with Peorian Mark Clark in a raid by Chicago police in 1969. Join HERE
Among online resources to celebrate Black History Month (suggested by Judy Schmidt of Illinois Extension) are:
—Reading Rockets: a national public literacy initiative with a vast collection of book suggestions, interviews, classroom activities and virtual resources that celebrate and educate about the lives and contributions of African Americans.
—The National Portrait Gallery with over 1000 portraits of African American history makers.
Find Peoria area events on our calendar.