Illiana students continue Black History Month observance

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Black History

History Teacher Jeff White arranges tour of significant Chicago sites

story and photos by Melanie Jongsma

LANSING, Ill. (April 17, 2018) – The Bishop Ford Freeway, Beaubien Woods, Pullman porters, Oakwood Cemetery, elevated trains, the stockyards, Bronzeville, Prairie Avenue, Harold Washington, Dearborn Station, Union Station, Lou Mitchell’s, the Obamas’ Hyde Park home, Valois Restaurant—these people and places are all significant parts of the story of blacks in America. History Teacher Jeff White included them all, and more, on a special tour he offered to Illiana students last week.

Black History
“This is really special,” said Aerial Shaffer about the tour. “I actually know very, very little black history, so this is great.”
The tour was inspired by a student club called Better Illiana through Better Understanding, which is facilitated by Senior Aerial Shaffer. The club worked hard to involve the whole student body in a variety of observances of Black History Month this past February, including panel discussions, a “river mural” of meaningful quotes, and special chapel services. White’s tour was originally planned for a Saturday during Black History Month, but student sports schedules, theater rehearsals, and other commitments made it difficult to find a day that worked for everyone who was interested. So Principal Peter Boonstra agreed to allow the tour to be offered during a school day.

On Thursday, April 12, 37 students and 2 teachers boarded an Illiana bus at 7:30am. They spent the next seven hours listening, observing, taking photos, and expanding their understanding of the black experience in Chicago and the south suburbs.

Black History
White began teaching before the bus even arrived at its first destination, offering information about Civil Rights Leader Bishop Henry Ford and Beaubien Woods, which was the location of a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The group first got off the bus at Oakwood Cemetery, which White calls the second-most-famous cemetery in Chicago. Though many influential people are buried in Oakwood, the class had time to visit only two gravesites—those of Olympian Jesse Owens and Mayor Harold Washington.
Black History
At the historic gate to the old Chicago Stock Yards, White explained how the stock industry—which employed mainly Irish Americans and African Americans—impacted other industries in Chicago and across the nation.
The Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ building is where the funeral and visitation were held for murdered Chicago teenager Emmett Till. While relaying the brutal story, White encouraged students to take out their phones and search for images of Till’s body. “You need to see it. You need to see man’s inhumanity toward man,” he told them solemnly.
Following a brief stop at the marker where the Sunset Café once stood, the group walked to the Victory memorial, which honors an African-American unit that served in World War I. For blacks arriving in Chicago from the south, seeing a monument like this would have been astonishing.
In Bronzeville, the plaque near this sculpture by Alison Saar explains, “This bronze monument depicts a man wearing a suit made of shoe soles rising from a mound of soles. The soles, worn and full of holes, symbolize the often difficult journey from the south to the north. It commemorates all the African-American men and women who migrated to Chicago after the Civil War.”
Black History
The wealthy subdivision of Prairie Avenue includes several original mansions, such as this one that was owned by Marshall Field’s son. Many African-American females who migrated to Chicago and lived in Bronzeville were able to find work as domestics, cooks, and nannies for the captains of industry who lived on Prairie Avenue.
Black History
White explained that Chicago Blues includes electric elements that make it distinctive from Mississippi Blues. “Chicago has deep connections to Mississippi in so many ways,” he told the group.
Black History
White pointed out that students in the group who have family in Mississippi may have had ancestors arrive in Chicago through Dearborn Station.
Black History
The Chicago Public Library is home to the Harold Washington Library Center, and the tour group had time to wander the exhibits and learn about important milestones in Mayor Washington’s career. Part of Mayor Washington’s legacy is that he represented people who were typically marginalized, and he cast a new vision of who could be involved in government.
Black History
Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant is within walking distance of Union Station. For blacks arriving in Chicago from the south, Mitchell’s would have been their first opportunity to get a hot meal after a long trip—and they probably would have been amazed that they could be served in a restaurant.
Black History
The group ended their tour in Hyde Park, where the area around former President Obama’s home is barricaded…
Black History
…but it’s still possible to get a good view of the house.
Black History
Final stop: a late lunch at Valois, where many Chicago politicians—including Obama—unofficially started their political campaigns.

This was the first time White had given this particular tour, and depending on student response, it may become a regular part of his tour repertoire. There were a lot of stops and a lot of information to pack into a single school day, and White hoped to debrief with the students and other teachers to find out which, if any, stops should be eliminated or shortened.

However, if Aerial Shaffer’s reaction is representative of her classmates’, it may be difficult to make the tour any shorter. “The trip was awesome,” she said via email the following week. “I thought it was a great way to celebrate African-American history. I learned a lot of information about the history of the area around me—from the minute we got on the bus until the end of the tour.”

Illiana Christian High School is currently located at 2261 Indiana Avenue in Lansing. For more information, call 708-474-0515.


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