The nonpartisan Illinois State Society of Washington, DC was founded in 1854 and is the oldest of all the state clubs in the national capital region. When a group has been around for 152 years, it sometimes moves a little slowly.
Dr. Lonnie Bunch, pictured at right, is the former president of the Chicago Historical Society. He was appointed in 2005 as the founding director for the new Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC which is under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.
On Feb. 14, 2004, the Illinois State Society of Washington, DC sponsored an official welcome to town reception for Dr. Bunch in the prestigious Mike Mansfield Room on the Senate side of the Capitol Building.
Society members include about 700 transplanted Illinois expatriates now living in the national capital region who are students, military, business representatives, journalists, congressional staff, and government workers. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a former president of the society, Sen. Richard Durbin, Sen. Barack Obama, and other members of the Illinois delegation often attend these events.
Coincidentally, in addition to being St. Valentine's Day, Feb. 14 is also the birthday of the abolitionist pioneer Frederic Douglas who was born a slave in Maryland the same year that Illinois entered the Union in 1818.
There have been recent controversies about the value of a Black History Month in February. Actor Morgan Freeman recently offered the opinion that the month is too limiting and that African-American history should be seen as an integral part of American history rather than something apart.
Advocates of the month argue it is desirable to set aside a special venue to celebrate the unique contributions of African-Americans. However those opinions might differ, I think what is most important for young African Americans now growing up in Illnois is to realize what a spectacular list of role models they might choose to emulate who were also African American and who also were a vital part of Illinois history and the history of the country.
Many Illinois students do not know that Dred Scott was a slave to a U.S. Army doctor when he lived on an Army post near Rock Island, Illinois for three years from 1833 to 1836. It was because of his residence in Illinois, a free state, that Scott had standing to sue for his freedom in a Federal Court which ruled in his favor.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court by a vote of 7 to 2 in the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857 adding dry fuel to the abolitionist fire in the north. In 1856, when Abraham Lincoln was still in transition from the Whigs, the brand new Republican Party in Illinois elected Dr. William Bissell of Monroe County as the first Republican governor of Illinois and he was elected on an anti-slavery platform.
The next year, Long John Wentworth became the first Republican mayor of Chicago. For more than 60 years from the 1870s to the 1930s, most black voters in Illinois strongly supported the GOP. In 1928, Chicago alderman Oscar De Priest became the first African American elected to Congress in any northern state. He was a Republican.
The allegiance of black voters in Illinois and nationally began to shift to FDR in the 1930s due to his administration's hard work at both the policy and symbolic level in trying to reverse his own party's terrible history on race relations up to that time.
In 1939, Chicago attorney Harold L. Ickes, a one-time Republican and Bull Moose, served as Secretary of the Interior in the FDR cabinet. Ickes took on the then prevailing culture of segregation in the District of Columbia by offering singer Marian Anderson a venue for a concert at the Lincoln Memorial on federal land after she had been turned down in other D.C. venues. That was one turning point for the political support of blacks and there were others in more recent eras.
Patricia Roberts Harris of Mattoon, Illinois became the first African American woman to serve in a cabinet under President Carter. Ambassador Donald McHenry of East St. Louis was the first African American to serve as U.S. representative to the United Nations also under Carter.
But the greatest advances for African Americans from Illinois have been outside the context of either political party in any era. They have come from individual initiative.
The late publisher of Ebony, John Johnson, was lucky enough to have a very strong mother who brought him to Chicago at the end of the World's Fair of 1933-1934 to try to offer him opportunities he would not have had anywhere else. She taught him the values hard work and integrity that served him well the rest of his life.
Young African Americans in Illinois can look to music legends such a Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who was a lifelong member of Chicago's Salem Baptist Church. They can look to jazz and popular Chicago musical artists and composers such as Herbie Hancock, Lou Rawls, Quincy Jones or Miles Davis from Alton.
In the field of science and aviation, the Illinois African American heritage includes people like Bessie Coleman of Chicago, the first African American woman to earn an international pilot's license in the 1920s, or Janet Harmon Bragg of Robbins, Illinois who was the first black woman to win a commercial pilot's license in 1943. Janet was a role model for Nichelle Nichols, also from Robbins, who sang for the Duke Ellington Orchestra and became famous for her role as "Lt. Uhura" on Star Trek.
Nichelle in turn was a role model for Mae Jemison who graduated from Chicago's Morgan Park High School in 1973. An avid Star Trek fan, Dr. Jemison lived out her dream to become the first African American woman to orbit the Earth in space in 1992.
Because of his untimely and premature death in 1967, many Illinoisans forget that Air Force Maj. Robert Lawrence, a graduate of Englewood High School in Chicago and Bradley University in Peoria, was NASA's first African American astronaut.
Two of the most decorated Tuskegee airmen of World War II were appointed to West Point by Congressman De Priest---Lt. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis and Maj. Felix Jackson Kirkpatrick, Jr. Both are in the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame at Rantoul.
The great African American role models with Illinois associations in sports is too long to list.
The point is that both camps are right. The special contributions of African Americans to Illinois and American history deserve special venues for celebration as do the contributions of other groups.
But Morgan Freeman is also right in encouraging those contributions to be seen as an integral part of American history and not as something apart.
Illinois State Society events are open to all Illinoisans who visit Washington, DC. For more information see www.IllinoisStateSociety.org.