Joliet breaks ground on local Black history museum

History on Wheels hosts a groundbreaking ceremony and Juneteenth celebration at the African Descendants Military and Historical Museum in Joliet on June 19, 2024.

Joliet — Joliet officially commemorated Juneteenth – the holiday recognizing the official end of slavery nationwide in 1865 – by officially breaking ground on a museum dedicated to the history of Black service members in the U.S. Armed Forces and local African American history.

The African Descendants Military and Historical Museum, as the institution will be called, is being built inside the historic Casseday House, which was built in 1851 and moved from its original location to its current address at 575 E. Jackson St. in 2020.

After sitting untouched for more than three years after its dramatic move, the Casseday house was finally given its new purpose in January, when its new owner, Joliet resident Luther Johnson, began the renovation work to prepare the building for the groundbreaking.

History on Wheels founder Luther E. Johnson Jr. shares remarks during the groundbreaking ceremony and Juneteenth celebration at the African Descendants Military and Historical Museum in Joliet on June 19, 2024.

City Council member Jan Quillman was at the event Wednesday and said she was glad to support the project.

“We have so few old buildings here, I felt it should be preserved, and when Mr. Johnson wanted to put the museum here, I thought it would be good to have it on the east side,” Quillman said.

“It has been a street fight to get to this day,” Johnson said in remarks to the assembled crowd before the official groundbreaking. “Six months ago, this building was an eyesore. All the windows were boarded up. We couldn’t have you all out here with it looking like that.”

In addition to Quillman, other elected officials at the groundbreaking ceremony included U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, state Sen. Rachel Ventura, D-Joliet, Will County Executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant and fellow Joliet City Council member Ceasar Guerrero.

Johnson said he and his team have been working “tirelessly” since January to get the renovation process started – including leveling the ground, which eventually will be landscaped into a front walk and porch for the museum, and gutting most of the two-story limestone building’s interior.

U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, shares remarks during the groundbreaking ceremony and Juneteenth celebration at the African Descendants Military and Historical Museum in Joliet on June 19, 2024.

Johnson said he wanted to have the groundbreaking on Juneteenth, which he noted means different things to everyone as a holiday. To him, he said, it is both a celebration of freedom and a reminder of the need and ongoing struggle for equality and unity in America.

He plans to hold the museum’s grand opening in one year to commemorate Juneteenth in 2025.

“That’s my timetable,” Johnson said. “It’s an aggressive plan, but I believe with the funding and some help I can do it.”

Johnson, who has a background in construction and remodeling, is doing a large portion of the work on the building himself, and said he is working with the city and Joliet Township to secure funding for the project. The Joliet Area Historical Museum also was hosting a fashion and comedy show on Juneteenth to raise funds for the renovation.

When it is complete, the museum will incorporate artifacts and exhibits on Black military history from Johnson’s History on Wheels collection – a mobile exhibit that travels to schools and community groups to discuss Black and Afro-Latino soldiers’ contributions to U.S. military operations from the Revolutionary War through Operation Desert Storm – as well as exhibits on local Black history.

“Our family really believes in the mission of what’s being done here with the house,” said Lorraine Partlow-Smalley, a great-great-great-granddaughter of the original owner of Casseday House, who attended the groundbreaking with her sister Tricia Partlow.

“It’s amazing having something that old from our family we can touch and feel, and we’re all thrilled with how it’s being used. It’s very exciting,” Partlow-Smalley said.

Underwood praised the museum plans, saying she was looking forward to the grand opening next year.

“African Americans in the military have made significant contributions to our country and they’ve protected our way of life,” she said. “This museum will recognize their sacrifices and their achievements throughout history to the present day. Their stories and their legacy will serve as reminders of their resilience and their strength for generations to come.”

Local point of interest

In addition to sharing the stories of those who served, Johnson hopes the museum will bring new life to the east side of Joliet and become a tourist destination for people around the state and those visiting the area along Route 66, especially with its upcoming 100-year anniversary in 2026.

“This is so exciting for our community,” said Ventura, who presented Johnson with a resolution from state leaders recognizing the museum. “This investment in tourism and history will be an economic driver in our community, and as someone who loves to sightsee, I’m excited to have another tourism destination in our backyard. This museum will become a cornerstone for the community – a place where we can reflect on our past, celebrate our present and look forward to a brighter future together.”

Elected officials and representatives from History on Wheels host a groundbreaking ceremony and Juneteenth celebration at the African Descendants Military and Historical Museum in Joliet on June 19, 2024.

“This is a joyous occasion for not only me, but everyone here who lives in the area to see this building transformed into something so positive and meaningful for the community,” Guerrero said. “America is a mosaic. It’s made up of many different stories from different perspectives from people all around the world and when we look at this museum, I want to remember that African American history and Black history is American history, and that American history can’t be told unless every story is told.”

Guerrero went on to directly contrast the museum’s mission with current efforts in other states to restrict the teaching of Black history and the histories of other minority communities.

U.S. Representative Lauren Underwood chats with History on Wheels Founder Luther E. Johnson Jr. (Left) and his son Christian Johnson during the groundbreaking ceremony and Juneteenth celebration at the African Descendants Military and Historical Museum in Joliet on June 19, 2024.

“When we look across the country at books being banned, schools being challenged for what’s being taught, it’s important that we’re able to preserve these histories and have them told because if we don’t tell our own stories, then who will?” he said to cheers from the crowd.

Despite the 90-degree heat, dozens of community members lingered after the groundbreaking admiring concept drawings of the finished museum and a small display of History on Wheels’ artifacts which Johnson had set up in front of the building, while enjoying refreshments from Super Mercado Joliet.