The DuSable Museum of African American History began on the ground floor. Literally. Originally, the oldest and until very recently the largest caretaker of African American culture in the US was housed on the ground floor of the Michigan Avenue home of Charles and Margaret Burroughs. Then known as the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art, it was a point of pride for the Bronzeville neighborhood and the Burroughses themselves when it debuted, essentially in their living room, in 1961.
Maybe it’s this that gives the DuSable, renamed and relocated into a park district building erected by none other than Daniel Burnham, its intimate feel. What used to be a Chicago PD lockup building is now the key to unlocking so much history, art and culture that’s absolutely at the heart of not only Chicago, but the nation. True to its namesake, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, who forged his own path and became the first non-native settler in what would become Chicago, the DuSable was a pioneer in preserving, protecting and bringing to the forefront African American’s journey in the US. Whether shining a light on the darkness of that history to avoid it happening again or celebrating the art, history and culture that’s so central to Chicago, the US, the world— the DuSable is one of a kind. In 2016, the museum received Smithsonian Affiliate Status in recognition of their excellence, an honor that has only been otherwise bestowed to the Adler Planetarium thus far in Chicago. Even more recently, the DuSable Museum of African American History received a grant from the Walton Family and the Ford Foundation to offer a three-year curatorial fellowship.
Even the entryway of the DuSable tells the story of African American influence in Chicago, so spend some time upon arrival at the North Entrance taking it all in. From there, you can choose to branch out from the top down or the bottom up. There’s a lot packed in to the DuSable Museum of African American History, but what’s lovely about it is that a few hours will afford you time to explore it thoroughly. One of the ways the DuSable excels is to tell the tale of African Americans both locally and at large simultaneously.
One of the most important permanent exhibits is Freedom, Resistance and the Journey Toward Equality. Its goal is to take visitors through the African-American experience from start to finish, beginning with the Transatlantic Slave Trade and continuing through the Civil Rights movement, on through to the election of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, and the rise of Barack Obama from young Illinois Senator to the first African-American president. A lot of this exhibit, much like some of the exhibits we saw at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, remind us of the ugliness and evil in society—and it’s for the better, as that darkness seems to be creeping in even more steadily today. At a time when racial lines are being drawn darker by some, it’s imperative to see the road already travelled, and the fights already fought—to inspire us to fight for freedom and equality for all every day, so that we learn from the past instead of repeating it blindly.
One of the other focal points is the Harold Washington exhibit. Washington, for whom the 1993 expansion wing of the museum is named, was Chicago’s first black mayor, and the DuSable documents his journey and mayorship with no detail left out, including an alarmingly realistic Washington robot seated at his desk and ready to tell you the tale himself.
Visitors to the DuSable will also learn about the soldiers who fought for this country, and died. Clearing a Path for Democracy: Citizen Soldiers of the Illinois Fighting 8th is just one exhibit telling the tale of African Americans fighting for and defending the country. This exhibit tells the story of some of these soldiers, specifically a National Guard regiment unique in American history. These guardsmen were deployed in two foreign wars, the group was made up entirely of African Americans, and their regiment, designated the 370th US Infantry during WWI, was also the most highly awarded group of any that fought on the Western Front during that war.
Art, too, is a huge part of the DuSable, from the amazing mosaics and busts of DuSable and King to the galleries and special exhibitions. When we were there during Museum Week, we caught three outstanding special exhibits. The first we checked out was by Lee Bey, who aside from being the museum’s vice president and a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, has served as an architectural critic for the Sun Times and is an absolutely wonderful photographer. His exhibit, Southern Exposure, takes a look at the underappreciated buildings of the south side for their architectural and cultural significance. Gorgeous blue skies and green lawns boast true treasures of Chicago, from the soaring roof of Pride Cleaners to the works of van der Rohe, Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright. Apart from just the admiration of these beautiful buildings, Southern Exposure begs the question “why?” Why aren’t we seeing all Chicago has to offer? Why aren’t we celebrating these works of art in the same way we celebrate those further north? It’s a good look at classism and racism in our own back yard as much as it is a gallery full of beautiful photography.
This is also the case when considering the beauty of the Fabiola Jean-Louis exhibit, Rewriting History: paper gowns and photographs. This exhibit is a photographic and mixed media project meant to look at how much (or little) things have changed since the beginning of slavery. Beautiful paper garments made to mimic European aristocratic fashion adorn even more beautiful African-American women, but buried just under the surface are the atrocities of the past. Each piece is stunning, and requires a deeper examination. It’s the hope of the artist, that the entire exhibit serves to remind us that while we cannot change the past, we can certainly act to change the present.
The last stop on our recent visit was to see Kitihawa’s Chandelier. It’s a semi-non-fiction, photographic and mixed-media journey from the mind of Nicolas Henry, and it blends African and Native American culture while also speaking to a woman’s plight in the world. It’s colorful, grand and meaningful, and the imagery is absolutely unforgettable.
The Dusable Museum of African American History is vastly important and shamefully under-celebrated. Its importance cannot be overstated. For a time, prior to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, it was the largest caretaker of African American culture in existence, and it continues, to this day, to educate, expand its reach, participate in and preserve African-American culture in and out of Chicago. If you’d like to plan a visit to the museum, check out their schedule, hours, and exhibit info here. If you missed out on Museum Week discounts, don’t forget that Tuesdays are free days year-round at the DuSable, and make sure to stop in.