By Kristen Romanowski, Staff Writer & Editor
Juanta Griffin was in third grade at Longfellow Elementary School when her teacher, Mrs. Simmons, turned her onto Eyes on the Prize. Griffin says it was this PBS series, which chronicled the civil rights movement from the perspective of ordinary people, that first opened her eyes and drove her to keep learning about Black history and her own roots.
“Before seeing this documentary I felt cultureless,” Griffin says. “I was not aware of the historical contributions of Black Americans.”
At the time, Griffin says, schools weren’t teaching about Africa or Indigenous tribes before slavery. But “Mrs. Simmons put some meat on the bone,” Griffin says. “She showed me Eyes On The Prize, and Betty Smitherman, another Longfellow teacher, coordinated Black History Month programs in the auditorium. We learned music and history.”
And now it’s Griffin, as the library’s Multicultural Learning Coordinator, who’s putting “some meat on the bone” for the next generation. With February’s “The Work”: Black History Museum in the Idea Box, she has curated a first-of-its-kind showcase of Black history in Oak Park, honoring Black leaders past and present.
“My mission in life is to create the Oak Park that did not exist for me as a child, so that other Black and Brown children may see themselves reflected in the culture of our village,” she says.
‘This museum is an opportunity to tell their stories’
In February 2022, the Idea Box’s Black History Month exhibit featured items from community member ShaRhonda Dawson and the library.
This year, Griffin says she wanted to focus on items from the library’s Multicultural Collection and honor the Oak Parkers who curated the Multicultural Resource Collection at Oak Park Elementary School District 97. (The library’s Multicultural Collection was born when the school district transferred the collection to the library in 2016.)
But “I couldn’t stop there,” she says. “I wanted to honor and celebrate all of the wonderful Black men and women whose shoulders I proudly stand on!”
She adds: “I’ve been a resident since 1976. However, there are people living in our village that have been fighting for social justice issues far longer than I have. This museum is an opportunity to tell their stories.”
People you should know
To pull it off, Griffin gathered artwork and artifacts from the community and the library, and she compiled photos and biographies of prominent Black history-makers.
As the Idea Box is a small space, Griffin says she was not able to recognize as many people as she would have liked. So she added a book inside the Idea Box where visitors can write the names of people who aren’t represented.
This year, the museum focuses on people from government agencies, including the Village of Oak Park, school districts, Oak Park Township, the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce, and the Oak Park Police Department.
They include Lynne Allen, former multicultural education specialist in District 97; Joslyn Bowling Dixon, Oak Park’s first Black library executive director; Robert Simmons, the first Black social worker hired in a U.S. public library; and Shatonya Johnson, Oak Park’s first Black female police chief.
And on Thursday, February 2, a day after the Idea Box museum opened, Griffin and the library held a reception to celebrate the Black community leaders featured in the Idea Box, to recognize their contributions to our community, and to help connect them to one another.
More about what’s inside
Everyone passing through the library’s entrance will see those honored on the exterior windows. Stepping inside, visitors will see more honored “People You Should Know,” as well as artifacts from the library’s Multicultural Collection, such as replicas of the Benin Bronzes.
Griffin also partnered with the Oak Park River Forest Museum to include artifacts from its collections and exhibits, including a gown worn by a former Miss USA from Oak Park, Marjorie Vincent-Tripp.
And inside the Idea Box, as well as throughout the library, visitors will see a traveling version of the Oak Park River Forest Museum’s award-winning exhibit “Open House: The Legacy of Fair Housing” all February.
There are also community artifacts, like the handmade quilts donated by Jaqueline “Doctor” Johnson. One, a “code quilt,” shows how enslaved people trying to escape north via the Underground Railroad could find safety by reading symbols embedded in quilts hung in the windows of safe houses.
‘The Work’ continues
“This is a critical time in our village,” Griffin says, noting that Oak Park’s Black population is decreasing.
“I want Black residents to know that we were here in the 1800s. I want them to know about Westgate and Mt. Caramel Baptist Church. I want them to know that this is our village too. Black Oak Park History runs deep!”
For future Idea Box exhibits, Griffin says she’d like to create an installment dedicated to past and present Black business owners, as well as Black contributions in arts and entertainment, sports, activism and social justice, and more.
“There is so much work to do!” she says. “We have relied on oral history that is often unreliable, lost, or forgotten. We need to document Black and Brown history, especially at a time where there exists an effort to make it illegal to teach it! Who will tell our story if not us?”
Griffin references one of Lynn Allen’s favorite quotes, printed underneath her photo on a window of the Idea Box:
“Until the lion has his own historian, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” —Chinua Achebe
Open hours in February
Come and see “The Work” in the Idea Box through the end of February, during open hours:
- Tuesdays, 1-3 pm
- Wednesdays, 1-3 pm
- Thursdays, 1-3 pm
- Sundays, 12-3 pm