Ready to start on Joliet museum for African American history

Luther Johnson said work starts next week, and he’s making plans for Juneteenth

Luther Johnson stands next to the Casseday house. Johnson plans to convert the 1851 Joliet building into a museum depicting local African American history and the role of African Americans in the U.S. military. Nov. 9, 2023.

Work starts next week on a Joliet museum devoted to local African American history, the new owner of the Casseday house said.

The City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to transfer the lease on the city-owned land where the building sits to Luther Johnson, who leads Joliet-based History on Wheels.

After the vote, Johnson invited the council to a Juneteenth ceremony June 19 to celebrate progress he expects to make on the project by then.

“The decision you made to allow us to move forward with the first African American museum in Will County makes you a part of history,” Johnson said to the council.

The council two weeks previously tabled a vote on the lease with some concerns voiced on whether Johnson would be able to improve conditions of the 1851 limestone structure that has sat vacant and unused since it was relocated from its original location more than three years ago.

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.

Council member Cesar Cardenas, who represents District 4, where the building is located, said he was persuaded by Johnson’s “passion” for the project after meeting with him.

Other members of the council also voiced support for the project.

“Mr. Johnson, we wish you a lot of success, and I’m going to do everything I can to help you make that happen,” Mayor Terry D’Arcy said.

Johnson told the council that he is “ready to go to work.”

Johnson’s History on Wheels is a traveling exhibit that portrays the role of African Americans in U.S. military history. He plans to combine military exhibits with other depictions of local African American history.

In an interview Wednesday, Johnson said, “We’re starting work, actually, next week.”

Just how far the project will be by June 19 is hard to say, Johnson said.

“I want to at least have a portion of the museum open so people can see what we have done since January,” he said. “Everyone I’ve spoken to about this museum gets excited.”

Johnson hopes to convert some of that excitement to funds to support the project.

The Casseday House can be seen at its new location near the corner of Youngs Avenue and East Jackson Street on Tuesday, Mar. 24, 2020, in Joliet, Ill.

The Will County Historical Society took ownership of the Casseday house to save the building from demolition in March 2020, when it was moved from its original location at Jackson and Collins streets before a Thorntons gas station was built.

The historical society, too, planned to create a museum devoted to local African American history but was unable to raise funds for the project. The building has sat unused at its present location near the corner of Jackson and Youngs Avenue, and some were concerned that the boarded-up building was an eyesore.

Johnson said one of his first jobs will be to add lighting and increase security at the site.

“I’m having a sign made to let the neighborhood know that we’re there,” he said.