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Been There! Illinois
Back to Travel: Upper Midwest

Bloomington, IL

McLean County Museum of History
Bloomington, IL  


Since 1992, the McLean County Museum of History has been housed in this beautifully renovated American Renaissance style building which dates to 1903. High quality permanent and temporary exhibits are presented in seven galleries.

The permanent exhibit Encounter on the Prairie tells the diverse history of McLean County using four interpretive galleries, each one focusing on a different aspect of the community: People, Politics, Farming and Work. The People section showcases the kitchen of Peter Duff, a middle class African American who left the post Civil War south seeking better opportunities.

But the star here is a temporary exhibit called Presence, Pride & Passion: A History of African Americans in McLean County, on display through May 25, 2008. It examines the local experience of Blacks from 1840 to the present, and features artifacts from the Museum's Bloomington-Normal Black History Project (BNBHP) Collection founded in 1982. Dr. Pamela B. Muirhead and John "Jack" W. Muirhead served as the exhibit's guest curators together with staff curator, Susan Hartzold. Jack is a retired 5th grade teacher and author of African-Americans in McLean County. Pam Muirhead is an Associate Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University, where she teaches American literature.

I was impressed by how effectively the artifacts were used to weave a narrative explaining various facets such as migration patterns, Black Codes, social movements, etc. Stopping in Bloomington took me about 2 hours out of my way on a trip to Kansas City, but I was very glad I'd made the detour...I highly recommend this exhibit!

Support for the exhibit is provided by Mitsubishi Motors of North American and by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council.


Presence reveals where African American immigrants came from and why, where they made their homes, and how they made productive lives as community citizens. 

In addition to photographs, among the many valuable artifacts displayed and interpreted here are Tabitha Fulton's Certificate of Freedom (and the county ledger in which such certificates had to be recorded), a family quilt which Lue Anna Brown brought with her from Kentucky at the turn of the 20th Century, and various home furnishings and artifacts of middle class life such as this precious doll.

Courtesy the McLean County Historical Society



Pride celebrates accomplishments in business, the pursuit of dignified employment, the success of their community organizations, and their record of military service despite cultural and political boundaries.

In the photo at left you see representatives of seventy-five clubs who attended the state convention of the Illinois Federation of Colored Women's Clubs held in Bloomington in 1918 at the Wayman A.M.E. Church. (I have more resources for the study of African American Women's heritage here, including the Federation Song, sung at meetings of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs.)



Image Courtesy the McLean County Historical Society


Passion  for Expression explores the heart and soul of the African Amerian community, which is revealed through its celebrations, honors and achievement in the arts and athletics.  

One artifact which gave me goose bumps was the 1880 Ashley House guest register with signatures of members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who stayed at the Ashley when they performed a benefit concert for Illinois Wesleyen University in 1880.

Left: In 1897, a time when baseball was becoming increasingly segregated, ISNU hired George Green (far left middle row) to coach its all-white baseball team.


Passion for Civil Rights uncovers efforts to gain access to the rights and opportunities promised to all citizens - in education, employment, and politics - but denied by racism and both the written (Black Codes) and unwritten laws of segregation.

Left: This woman's Klan robe serves as a sobering reminder that access to rights and opportunities must never be taken for granted: though Blacks made many gains in the period following the Civil War, most of these gains eroded once Reconstruction ended. For example, though the Fisk Jubilee Singers lodged at Bloomington's finest hotel in 1880, thirty years later Blacks were not allowed as patrons in any Bloomington hotels. The rise of the Klan was met by the rise of the NAACP, which by 1918 had 66 members in Bloomington.


Frederick Douglass was invited to speak in Bloomington on several occasions. The event featured on this flyer was organized by the Bloomington Library Association, a white organization.

I particularly liked the line near the bottom which assures prospective attendees "Those who heard Mr. Greeley speak on this subject should now hear Mr. Douglass, and be thereby better enabled to judge of the merits of the lecturers. We are told that this lecture is full of life and pathos and real eloquence, and that It is not simply a Dry, Long-Winded Dessertation (sic), gotten up to make money out of, But that it is the best effort of an ever eloquent writer and speaker."

Throughout the exhibit are thought-provoking and engaging activities called Choices based upon true stories. Here's one example:

It's 1844, and you're a white couple trying to sell your farm. A buyer wants to pay with a slave, but slavery is illegal (though practiced) in Illinois. What would you do:

-Accept and trade the farm for the slave?
-Refuse and find another buyer?
-Accept and free the slave?

Lifting the placard reveals that in 1844, a Mr. & Mrs. Preston Laughbaugh traded their farm for a slave, but there is no record of whether they freed the slave.

Image Courtesy Bloomington Public Library