Familiar Histories, New Perspectives: Sherry Williams reclaims Chicago’s history for African-Americans

The Bronzeville/Black Chicagoan Historical Society existed long before its official inception eight years ago–albeit in a much less formal incarnation. Namely, the institution’s beginnings lay inside founder Sherry Williams’s head. Her detailed knowledge of the city’s African-American heritage lay just behind pursed lips, on the tip of her tongue, waiting for the opportunity to make itself heard. The chance emerged often on family trips throughout the city. “We would take King Drive and I would point out all the homes of notable African-Americans in the community,” she explains. But her children did not share her level of enthusiasm. Williams remembers their impassioned pleas, recounting them with a laugh: “Mom, quit it, we can’t take it anymore! Why don’t you form a society!” Their words lodged firmly in her ears, and so form a society she did, joining with her mother and her three daughters to create the Bronzeville Historical Society in 1999.

The Society’s goal, as stated in its slogan, is “preserving, promoting and protecting the black history of Chicago.” It’s much like the MOs of typical historical societies, with a subtle twist: the emphasis on the African-American. While it might seem like merely one of many ethnocentric approaches to the city’s culture, in reality it is at least as important as the “history” aspect itself, and to Williams, absolutely essential to her conception of history in general. “Typically in the larger institutions in the city, typically their presentations on black life are structured and developed through other ethnic groups,” she maintains. “I can give a different perspective because I’m an African-American living as an African-American. It adds more credibility to the presentation.”

As her endeavor unfolded, Williams found that she wasn’t content to limit herself to Bronzeville or the South Side in her attempt to document and preserve the African-American experience in the city of Chicago, even if historical conditions led Bronzeville and its surrounding neighborhoods to form the center of the city’s African-American community. “There were state statutes that prevented blacks from moving south of 51st Street,” Williams explains, referring to restrictions in place from 1890 to 1940 that bound African-American settlement between 18th and 51st Streets, and Cottage Grove on the east and State Street on the west. But Williams admits that some African-Americans nevertheless proceeded to live beyond these boundaries, and of course have gone on to live all over Chicago in the decades since. Thus, the society moved to change its name to reflect the growing scope of the community, adding “Black Chicagoan” to the title soon after its foundation.

In the eight years following the society’s formation, it has worked to provide a number of presentations throughout the city in efforts to achieve its goal. Previous undertakings include a photography project in 2000, in which Williams worked with the Elliott Donnelley Youth Center to help document the changes in the city’s landscape. Kids from the center took photographs of the surrounding neighborhood, capturing black and white images of public housing that, unbeknownst to them, would soon be torn down. Williams went through the pictures and set up a chronicle of the changes; when they finished, they had produced nine hundred photographs. Other projects Williams and the Historical Society have facilitated include a book signing with authors Timuel Black and Glennette Tilley Turner, orchestrated alongside an art exhibit at the Swift Mansion in 2005. On top of that, Williams puts on many presentations for school groups, community groups, church communities, and other interested members of the public, as well as providing tours of African-American landmarks throughout the city. She does one tour a month with the school groups, and at least five more annually on top of that.

To further her efforts of documentation (while simultaneously boosting the credibility of her institution), Williams put together a small book around the time of the Society’s inception, entitled “100 Notable People and Places in Bronzeville (Black Chicago).” It provides a “one-stop place” to find short biographies of the city’s notable African-Americans, along with profiles of important organizations they were involved in and the places they lived. For Williams, the book wasn’t just a pet project, but a necessity to get the Historical Society off the ground. “We knew that we [at the Society] needed a signature piece to introduce what we really wanted to do,” she points out. So she wrote up the biographies–which include Gwendolyn Brooks, Harold Washington and the DuSables alongside less well-known figures like journalist Vernon Jarrett and Milton Olive, the first African-American awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor–finding help from many corners of Chicago’s black community along the way. Living honorees presented in the book responded positively to its creation, and provided information to help with the writing. Williams was most honored by the response of Lu and Jorja Palmer, chief organizers for Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign, when they agreed to aid in her endeavor. To her, “It meant the elders understood that we were making a real effort…when the elders say ‘we want to be a part of it,’ it shows real respect.” But of course, this was eight years ago; Williams admits that she, too, is now an “elder” to the city’s African-American community.

So what’s next for Williams and the Bronzeville/Black Chicagoan Historical Society? On the immediate agenda, the Society is co-sponsoring an event at the Chicago History Museum on the importance of the kitchen in traditionally fostering community bonds, to take place December 9. Then, in the spring, Williams hopes to launch the African Heritage Garden Project, with which she plans to “take the strength of African-Americans to schools and help [students] cultivate the fruits and vegetables that African-Americans brought to the states,” including watermelon, yams, and okra. “Do you like watermelon?” she asks with a none-too-naïve smile. “Because I do too! And I want to help kids understand why it’s part of their diet.”

But most importantly, Williams stresses the need for a permanent space from which the Society can operate. She has amassed about two thousand books and eight hundred photographs of African-American life–including a picture of first African-American postmaster Henry McGee and his grandfather, and one of Jorja Palmer with Nelson Mandela–all of which are currently stored in the first floor of her home. Attempts to procure space at the Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Inner City Studies and the Swift Mansion have proven unsuccessful, and you can hear the genuine anguish in Williams’s voice as she discusses the situation.

“I just need a place so bad,” she laments, melancholy seeping into her smile. “It’s like covering a lamp by not having a site, and I just want all of this [history] to shine.”