Once Upon a Time: Visiting the West Town Historical Museum

By Michael Romain

“We’re starting our celebratory 45th Year Anniversary with no money.”

Northica Stone, President and CEO of Operation Uplift, the parent organization of the West Town Historical Museum, didn’t so much verbalize the sentence as sigh it in exasperation. She’s old and growing older, but the world outside is fast and getting faster. There’s a line from John Updike’s 1960 novel, Rabbit, Run, that comes to the reader as a thought by the twenty-something protagonist Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, a washed-up high school star basketball player who encounters a group of young boys shooting hoops in an alley. “He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up” (at twenty-something, these are my sentiments exactly). At Stone’s age, I imagine her brooding on the adolescent rowdiness of 5th Avenue and thinking, ‘The kids keep going, they keep passing you by.’

It was a Wednesday at the West Town Historical Museum, the only day during the week that is open for public visitation, and as far as I could tell I was the only visitor so far. I had called a few days beforehand to notify Mrs. Stone of my intentions to talk with her and take a tour. She suggested I come on Wednesday, the day when the Museum’s curator and person-pretty-much-in-charge-of-everything-else, Jeri Stenson, is on site. This was the first time in my life that I’d walked through the West Town’s doors, which is why Mrs. Stone’s lamentation rang more like a personal indictment. I silently realized that I’m no different than everybody else who’s forgotten about this place, if we ever really thought about it at all.

But my tinge of guilt was short-lived when, as I was making small chatter with Mrs. Stone before formally beginning our interview, Mrs. Stenson placed a frayed monochromatic photograph on the former’s office desk. It was an image of Washington School’s Class of 1935 and among the sober, Depression-era pupils gathered for the photo, I spotted the taut face of my late great-grandmother, Venida Perkins (nee Linyard), peering into her future and my present–two faces merged in the act of looking, reunited by this preserved piece of the past.

“Nearly all of the people in that photograph are gone,” said Mrs. Stone as I stare at the photo, still transfixed.

“Except your aunt, Francis Linyard,” Mrs. Stenson said. She handed me another grainy photo–Class of 1937, Washington School. The photograph made miraculous the fact that my great aunt, my great-grandmother’s younger sister, is still alive, nearly 90 years old. From being a schoolgirl during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the corporate reign of Henry Ford and the cultural supremacy of swing music/jazz to being a senior citizen during the presidency of Barack Obama, the corporate reign of Steve Jobs and the cultural supremacy of hip-hop has to be a shock to the senses, but at least my aunt had some time to adjust. But only some.

There’s no denying the sense of loss that seems to permeate this barely-peopled place, the sense that its time-tested vanguards are still recovering from the death of a past that they wish could’ve been present for a bit longer and that they hope, with enough enthusiasm and funding, they can revive, albeit with severe modifications.

To think about transfusing the best of my great-grandmother’s past–things like community and (relatively speaking) respect for tradition, in general, and the old, in particular–into a present that seems sorely wanting in those qualities is to deal with some sordid contradictions.

During the time those graduating class photos were taken, blacks were only allowed to live in a five block radius extending from Madison to St. Charles Road and 10th to 14th Avenues and Washington was the only elementary school black children were allowed to attend. But this five blocks, the result of racist restrictive covenants, encompassed a world that was defined less by its limitations than by its concentrated vitality. And its the contents of this world, and the historical conditions that created it, that dominate the visitor’s attention.

One of the museum’s more absorbing features is a model replica of Ten Mile Freedom House, designed by Trustee Michael Rogers. The house served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, which led blacks from the south northward to Canada. If the Village had not torn the home down in 1927, Mrs. Stone said, it could’ve been a national historic monument and perhaps a tourist draw for a town desperately in need of both positive attention and revenue.

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Mrs. Stenson (second to right) and Mrs. Stone (far right), in front of Mr. Rogers’s (far left) Ten Mile Freedom House model.

Instead, a next best scenario sits just off the parking lot of the McDonald’s on 1st and Lake, at the edge of the Des Plaines River. When the fast food company discovered the historical significance of the site, they commissioned Mr. Rogers, an in-house architect with the company, to design a memorial to the site’s past. There was an official unveiling of the memorial attended by a few hundred people. The memorial itself is an exercise in understatement–two replica train rails propped up on stones and slanting into a bush at the center, foregrounded by a rock that bears a plaque explaining it all. A bench invites people to sit and reflect on the site, but I wonder how this actually works out with the restaurant framing the memorial like the San Gabriel mountains over the LA skyline–inviting cartoon visions of the Hamburglar and Harriet Tubman.

The McDonald’s memorial illustrates the difficulties of merging the sacredness of the better aspects of our past with the often sacrilegious present. It’s a feat that’s rarely accomplished without yielding perverse side effects, because the truth is that often, the better aspects of our past were themselves the products of perversity. And so it is that the cultural and economic high point of black life in Maywood was the result of anti-black racism.

Although the first blacks that stepped foot on Maywood soil arrived by way of the Underground Railroad, they didn’t end up settling here. In fact, the history of Maywood’s early black residents is much more congruent with free labor than slavery. Many of these early residents of color were employed as skilled tradesmen and service workers who established a relatively strong tradition of independent enterprise that coursed down to Mrs. Stenson’s and Mrs. Stone’s generation. The compact living and interdependence forced on these early blacks through prejudicial housing policies and tactics bred in them a strong sense of place.

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Ivan Hurst was a cook at the Palmer House in Chicago’s Loop in the 1880s when he saw a handbill advertising a land sale in Maywood. Hurst and his wife Amanda purchased two lots and then built a three-room home at 417 South Thirteenth Avenue. These are four of their children. The Hurst family has live in Maywood for 120 years. Photo and caption from “Maywood” by Douglass Duechler.

“When we were growing up,” Mrs. Stone said, “our families were close, we created things for our kids to do…we created our own opportunities, our own mom and pops, but once things opened up, these activities seemed to go away. Those things that could feed a career, maybe not a college education, but [a decent life]…all that was just gone.”

What opened up was space for blacks to exist without penalty in Maywood. This was the result of the moral war successfully waged during the Civil Rights movement from the mid-1950s to the late-1960s and the national rage that followed in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, an event that would leave just about every major inner city in America engulfed in riots.

The country was finally forced to confront it’s systemic, centuries-long abuse of blacks head-on. In Maywood, desegregation came as a result of the agitation of the local NAACP, famed research chemist Percy Julian, who was an active resident of Maywood before moving to Oak Park, and other concerned citizens. Pressure was put on the Village Board to pass several measures against prejudicial housing policies and tactics. Things began to open up on the economic front, too.

George E. Stone, Northica’s late husband, was a union organizer at Alcoa who’d witnessed the upheaval in 1968–the droves of blacks who were pouring into Maywood from neighboring suburbs such as Oak Park and the push-back from the Village’s white leaders–and refused to let Maywood sleep through the national malaise (which he presciently understood was rife with opportunities). He met a man who was a manager at Illinois Bell and together they conceived of the idea to start an organization that would help propel blacks into careers previously denied them.

Operation Uplift first convened in the home of Rev. Wallace Wyatt Sykes, pastor of Second Baptist Church. From that initial meeting, the organization would grow to offer job training, job counseling, pre-employment skills and GED assistance, among other services, to blacks seeking entry into the country’s burgeoning information economy. Uplift would eventually supply well-trained minority employees for, and implement some of the first affirmative action programs at, companies such as Illinois Bell (now At&T), Jewel’s and Nicor.

AFRICAN AMERICAN HERITAGE TRAIL TOURWhen George Stone died in 1988, Operation Uplift’s board of directors sought a way to sustain his spirit and to perpetuate the organization that he founded. Mrs. Stone realized that a museum was a two-tiered solution to both Uplift’s and Maywood’s problems. “We saw that Maywood was underserved and the history that Maywood had was being lost,” she said.

The West Town opened in 1995 as a division of Operation Uplift and has since been inundated with the attic and basement things of Maywoodians (and non-Maywoodians) who hope to preserve something of the past. “Once we put the word out, they started sending us items and they were glad we were doing this,” said Mrs. Stenson, who was one of the first people on board when Mrs. Stone conceived of the idea for a museum.

But as the times changed–as the wave of affirmative action legislation that marked the 60s, 70s and 80s reached its trough and corporations shifted priorities–Operation Uplift’s funding leveled off and then dipped precipitously after the state money it was receiving suddenly stopped coming in. Nowadays, the organization’s first-floor computer lab, which used to house career-building activities, is typically empty save for a few volunteers, or “Friends of the Museum,” as they’re called (in point of fact, for the past three years every person who works to keep Operation Uplift and the West Town operational does so voluntarily).

“We may get 3-4 phone calls a week from people asking about family members,” said Mrs. Stenson, who as curator is responsible for conducting the guided tours, answering phone inquiries and attending various seminars, among other things. She’s also president of the Maywood Historical Society. Her and Mrs. Stone’s only compensation is the intrinsic reward of doing the work.

But rewarding work doesn’t always pay bills. In order to stay afloat, Operation Uplift and its attendant museum puts on yard sales, hosts its annual Martin Luther King Day fundraising banquet in January, accepts both individual and institutional donations, and sales annual memberships for the museum ($25/year for individuals and $100/year for families).

It’s been one of the accidents of time that the West Town, which (as Mrs. Stenson was very quick to point out) specializes in the multiracial history of Proviso Township–not just Maywood and not just blacks–that the majority of its visitors are not black and not from Maywood. Back in 1995, field trips to the museum somehow couldn’t be arranged by District 89, even though schoolchildren from places such as Hinsdale, Downers Grove and Oak Park would visit. “We’ve just been able to get District 89 to send their students here on field trips,” Mrs. Stone said.

Although in some ways it may appear that Operation Uplift and the West Town are on their last legs, Mrs. Stone isn’t in the business of accepting defeat. Her and Mrs. Stenson’s resolve takes on aspects of the heroic when one considers the sacrifices they’ve made on behalf of people who (like me before my visit) don’t quite realize what it means to lose a community.

As I looked at the youthful faces of my great-grandmother and great-aunt, I began to wonder if my generation would be so fortunate to be remembered in such a way. Where will our memories go? How will they be shared? And will the anxious, attention-deficit generations we will no doubt leave behind even bother to think of us? Where will looking back fit into a future that (it often seems) may only be interested in itself?

“The museum still has a place in Maywood,” Mrs. Stone insisted, before telling of the time she and her board of directors allowed the family of a gun shot victim to have the repass in a space on the second floor that houses a Percy Julian exhibition and memorials dedicated to some of Maywood’s first black realtors.

“They [the family] came to us with limited funds, but I talked to the board and asked if our volunteers could handle that and they said you never know until you try,” she said. “It went off without a hitch.”

“There were so many youngsters […] they came in droves and it almost frightened you […] they came in their t-shirts” Mrs. Stenson said. “But they were respectful. We told the police and Chief Curry and they gave us excellent backup in case we needed it, but we didn’t need it.”

“It really gave us something to think about,” said Mrs. Stone.

The women are confident that if more people simply come inside, the enthusiasm will follow. Mrs. Stone said that people are often surprised after they visit for a while. “Two years ago, CeaseFire came to tour,” she said. “It was amazing how interested they were. One of the guys pleaded for us to stay open a little longer.” He wanted to rush home and get his family. VFP

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One thought on “Once Upon a Time: Visiting the West Town Historical Museum”

  1. If operation uplift were forced to close their doors it will be such a disservice to the town of Maywood. All the memories of our town from beginning to now, would be no more….I pray that God blesses operation uplift to keep it going for years to come. Such a wonderful article and a good insight of what will be lost if we allow it to happen.

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