Joliet man has plan for African American museum at Casseday house

Casseday house was saved in 2020, but original museum plan has sputtered

Luther Johnson stands outside the Casseday house in Joliet. Johnson wants to convert the 1851 building into a museum depicting local African American history and African American contributions to the U.S. military. Nov. 9, 2021.

The future of the Casseday house may rest in the hands of Luther Johnson, a Joliet resident who says he can turn the 1851 limestone building that has become somewhat of an eyesore into a regional attraction.

Johnson is the director of History on Wheels, a traveling exhibit that depicts the contribution African Americans have made to the military and the cause of American freedom back to the days of slavery.

“We start with Crispus Attucks,” Johnson said, referring the sailor of African ancestry recorded as one of five men killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770 as the colonies began the revolution against England that led to American independence.

Wars on Wheels depicts the African American contribution from the Revolutionary War and onward to the present day, telling what is little known about a segment of the American population that was not integrated into the regular military until after World War II.

“We talk about prominent African Americans that fought in each of the conflicts,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he will combine local African American history with his depiction of American military history at the Casseday house if he gets approval to move ahead.

The Casseday House, seen Monday evening, has sat unused an unimproved on a city-owned lot on Jackson Street in Joliet since the 19th Century building was moved there in March 2020 to save it from demolition. March 6, 2023.

“I want the city support to be behind the only African American museum in Will County,’ he said.

The Joliet City Council on Nov. 7 tabled a vote on whether to approve a lease with Johnson, who is in the process of acquiring the Casseday house. Johnson would own the house. But the city owns the land on which it sits. The council will take up the matter again on Nov. 21.

Johnson wants to make the depiction of African Americans’ contribution to the military part of the mission of the Casseday house, a 19th Century building that was saved from demolition with much acclaim in 2020 but has since sat unused to the point that many consider it an eyesore.

The Casseday house, built of Joliet limestone, is considered one of the oldest buildings in the city. It was moved from its original location at Collins and Jackson streets four blocks west to make room for a Thorntons gas station.

The Will County Historical Society took ownership of the building with the idea of turning it into a museum of local African American history. Unable to raise funds for the museum, the Will County Historical Society has agreed to transfer ownership to Johnson.

Joliet officials, some of whom have grown wary of plans for the building as it has sat unused for years, are looking for more information about Johnson’s plans and his financial resources to convert the Casseday house to active use.

“It’s been sitting there for three years,” council member Cesar Cardenas, who represent District 4 that includes the Casseday house site, said on Tuesday when he called for a vote on the lease transfer to be put on hold.

Johnson has agreed to meet with Cardenas and other city officials before the Nov. 21 meeting.

A graduate of the University of St. Francis, Johnson has participated in military reenactments for 15 years. He started the History on Wheels museum five years ago

Johnson said he takes the mobile museum around the country, setting up mannequins in period costume to depict figures in military history and help tell the story of African Americans in the Unites States military.

The museum at the Casseday House would combine that along with the original purpose of depicting local African American history, he said. Johnson estimates the cost of the project at between $200,000 and $400,000, saying he would begin fundraising efforts once he gets the city lease.