An exhibit showcasing where Blacks first settled in Elgin, Illinois is up through Black History Month
A Black historian is putting a spotlight on the area he grew up in with a new library exhibit in northern Illinois.
When you first walk into Elgin’s Gail Borden Library, 270 N. Grove Ave., and look straight ahead, you’ll see two street signs. One reads Gifford Street, and the other Freemont Street. You’ll also see a life-size cardboard figure of Elgin Historian Ernie Broadnax welcoming patrons to walk down a small block full of 3-D cardboard houses and other buildings.
This exhibit “The Settlement,” is featured at the library, for Black History Month, in conjunction with the Elgin History Museum. The settlement is where Blacks first settled in Elgin.
Broadnax is 86 years old. One of his fondest memories from childhood involves a landfill.
“We would set the dump on fire and when it started burning,” he said, “we would run back across the street to our houses on Freemont and sit and watch the big red fire trucks, beautiful fire trucks.”
Broadnax said there were many fun times in his childhood, but he also remembers some obstacles he encountered because of his skin color.
“My mother and my father and my grandmother, they gave us a little insight into racism, even when it was in terms of segregation,” Broadnax explained. “And so from that beginning, learning a little bit about that before we even went to school.”
Broadnax said Blacks weren’t the only ones who lived in the neighborhood and said as an adult, he learned about many different cultures.
“We had a family that was Jewish that lived next to us. We had a family that was German across the street from us,” he added, “down the street near Gifford Street, we had a family that was Italian.”
Dominique Garcia is a virtual programming associate and the exhibits and displays assistant at the library. She said this exhibit symbolizes unity, but it is also a reminder that “The Settlement” was the start of diversity in Elgin.
“That is basically what our community is built on,” she said. “We have, you know, the African American in the community, we also have a large percentage of Hispanics in our community, and they utilize this library a lot.”
She said, oftentimes, Black youth forget what their elders had to go through, and that needs to stay front and center.
“It was so heartwarming, to hear how much the Black community stood together,” Garcia said, “when they were only allowed to be in this — three blocks. They couldn't go anywhere else.”
Elda Sirridge is the manager of exhibits and displays. She said the content of the exhibit is important, but it is also meaningful to see the impact that one person can have on a community.
“This is a huge part of Elgin's history,” she said. “And most people have no clue. And Ernie Broadnax, who is, you know, the brains behind all this, you know, he's the one who wrote the book and did the movie.”
The movie she’s referring to is a documentary called “Project 2-3-1: Two Boxcars, Three Blocks, One City.” This three-part series covers the plight of African Americans in Elgin from the time they migrated from the South to present day.
Broadnax said many Blacks crossed the Mississippi River and ended up in Southern Illinois.
“And they were invited up here by the First Baptist Church of Elgin, who had two members of that church, one a pastor, and another one newspaper person,” he explained. “And they invited the first Blacks to Elgin. They arrived in Elgin in October 1862.”
Broadnax has been teaching about Elgin’s Black history for many years. In the late 1960s, he put together a bus tour where he showed people that history.
Broadnax said he wants to leave a legacy of his family and the contributions that Blacks have made to the city. He’s currently working on a book and hopes to one day open a Black history museum in the city.
His efforts aren’t going unnoticed. Last year, Elgin declared July 30th, his birthday, “Ernie Broadnax Day.” The Illinois House also passed a resolution honoring him.
“The Settlement” exhibit features a small duplicate of “The Promise of Elgin” mural and a glass case that displays high school memorabilia of these residents. The exhibit can be seen virtually on the library’s website and will continue at the location throughout Black History Month.
- Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.