DECATUR — Fans of the Oscar-winning movie "Green Book" will find a connection in the newest exhibit at the African-American Cultural and Genealogical Society of Illinois Museum.
The travel guide by Victor Hugo Green, compiling safe spots for African-Americans to visit in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era, is part of the exhibit “Headin’ for the Promised Land - The Great Migration” created for the museum by Mount Zion High School's African-American Experience class. This is the seventh year that the class, taught by Rich Hansen, has created an addition for the museum — often confronting harsh realities in the process.
“This class teaches you a lot about history you really wouldn’t learn about in a regular history class,” said student Colby Vahlkamp, who researched the Ku Klux Klan for the exhibit. “You think you know about the topics but until you really dive into the details, you have no idea how serious and how violent this time was.”
Members of the class unveiled the exhibit Monday night after a program at Central United Methodist Church where they explained their work. The theme of the class was the Great Migration, when millions African-Americans moved from the rural South to northern cities during and after World War I. Growing tensions led to what became known as the "Red Summer," a series of race riots in which hundreds of people were killed. The riots started in late winter 1918 and ended in August 1919. The Mount Zion High School Mixed Ensemble performed “Headin’ For the Promised Land” to complement the theme.
Hansen said students particularly focused on migration routes from Mississippi to Chicago and Brownsville, Tennessee, to Decatur. They researched the way Blues music traveled north, as well as the riots and the resurgence of the Klan.
“The exhibit involved students researching these topics in small groups and designing the look of the exhibit and incorporating existing artifacts,” Hansen said.
Senior Paige Willer worked with fellow classmates to include the section on the Green Book. Willer, 17, said seeing her classmates' work in the museum was fulfilling.
“Everything we’ve created goes together very cohesively and I’m so proud of my class for what we accomplished in the short amount of time,” Willer said. The students were given four months to research and design the exhibit.
Hansen has taught at the high school for 22 years but started teaching this class seven years ago. Last year’s exhibit provided an overview of the civil rights movement. In previous years, students have researched topics and created exhibits based on Little Rock Nine, the Underground Railroad, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Jim Crow segregation and lynching. Hansen said he has seen an increase of the class enrollment each year, and this event could be the reason why.
The class works with the nonprofit African-American Cultural and Genealogical Society, which was established 26 years ago with a mission to promote an interest in African-American genealogy and the study of African-American history. The society provides access to the public to research using local, state and national sources. Since opening in 1993, museum staff have located slave names during the period of 1619-1860.
Evelyn Hood, founder and CEO of the organization, said she looks forward to this event all year round.
“It is my pleasure to have the students here to learn what the history is all about,” she said.
Hood said she plans on continuing to incorporate student involvement in the museum because the students play an important role in making sure racism does not continue.
“Seeing their passion for contributing to the museum is a wonderful thing,” she said. “These kids give you faith things will get better.”