DeKalb County History Center Executive Director and county historian Michelle Donahoe said the collaboration began in 2020, as the U.S. was reckoning with the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.
The program seeks to use art to help share the stories of Black individuals in DeKalb County, so the first step involved delving into the DeKalb County History Center’s archives.
On Feb. 1, Donahoe told a predominately white audience of about a dozen people that archived documents show DeKalb County has a racist past.
“We found racially restrictive covenants guarding neighborhoods and cemeteries, separating people not only in life and in death. Newspapers from the 1920s revealed a Ku Klux Klan rally involving 12,000 people. Later articles described decrepit migrant housing infested with insects and rats,” Donahoe said.
While DeKalb city was considered a sundown town – municipalities in which Black individuals were outlawed from being out after dusk – no actual law was passed that excluded Black people from being out after dark or living in the city, according to DeKalb County historians. That did not mean Black residents were not made unwelcome, however.
Arts in Actions was launched by help from Healing Illinois, an initiative that provides funding and resources through the Illinois Department of Human Services.
The local initiative also is meant to showcase all of DeKalb County’s voices and record a more inclusive accounting of the area’s past, project organizers said, including those of inspiration and hope.
It’s a great avenue to bring out the real stories of people that have lived in this community. It’s like peeling an onion. I’ve learned a lot.”— Tammie Shered
Over the past three and a half years, the Arts in Action collaboration has created a centralized platform to learn about the art and history of Black individuals in DeKalb County. That hub of educational resources can be found online at createchange.today, the initiative’s website.
The website’s landing page describes Arts in Action as the initial step in the history center and Ellwood House Museum’s effort to change the narrative of local history away from a predominately white tale and into a more inclusive and honest account.
Donahoe said Arts in Action has presented several times to area school teachers and during teacher workdays. Ellwood Museum curator of education and interpretation Audrey King said they don’t dictate what teachers put into their lesson plans, but they hope they’re providing additional resources for learning.
“We can’t make the schools do anything, right? We’re not in control of curriculum in any way,” King said. “But I know that when we did the community read ‘Stella by Starlight,’ we gave some of the books to our local schools. So if the kids wanted to participate or classrooms wanted to participate, they had access to the books.”
“Stella by Starlight,” written by Sharon M. Draper, is a Depression-era young adult novel about a girl who witnesses the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in her North Carolina hometown.
Arts in Action’s educational resources cover topics such as the end of slavery in the northern U.S., the Great Migration, racial exclusion and the history of the Latino community in DeKalb County – something Donahoe and King said they hope to expand upon this year.
Officials said the materials are meant to keep alive the memories of Black individuals who lived or came to DeKalb County.
The story of Henry and Judy Beard is one of many archived on the website thanks to the help of DeKalb County History Center archivist Robert Glover.
According DeKalb County History Center documents, Judy Beard was born into slavery in Texas in 1851. At age 12, after she was freed, she was hired to plow fields with a horse-drawn plow for $35 annually. A year later, her family left for the north. She walked barefoot alongside a wagon train from Texas to Kansas.
Henry Beard was born into slavery in Tennessee sometime around 1843, according to the history center, but he managed to join the 105th Regiment of the Illinois Infantry during the Civil War. He worked as a cook for Company A and marched as far south as Georgia and South Carolina, where Glover said Henry Beard would have been killed – or worse – had his company been taken as prisoners of war.
In 1871, Henry Beard met his wife, Judy, in Fort Scott, Kansas. He brought her back to his two-room house in Sycamore on 5 acres of land he’d bought from Deacon David West, according to archived documents.
Henry Beard died in 1924 at Glidden Hospital, not long after being hit by a passing train. Judy Beard lived until she was 90 and died in 1941.
Many accounts of the lives of Black residents in Sycamore, DeKalb and elsewhere in DeKalb County are chronicled on the Arts in Action website. Local historians said they’re soliciting new voices and historical accounts to add.
Tammie Shered has been involved with Arts in Action since its inception. She’s asked friends to document their stories with the program, and said she’s learned more than she expected at the project’s genesis.
“It’s a great avenue to bring out the real stories of people that have lived in this community,” Shered said. “It’s like peeling an onion. I’ve learned a lot.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 8:48 p.m. Feb. 5, 2024, to correct an earlier version which attributed incorrect information to Michelle Donahoe. The story instead should have stated that while DeKalb was considered a sundown town where Black people were made unwelcome, no laws were passed in DeKalb or Sycamore that excluded Black people or other minority groups from living in them.