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exhibit pic

Ada Owens, Decatur Township clerk and African-American Cultural & Genealogical Society Board member, talks to Alec Clark, who helped build the lynching room exhibit, and Clark's grandfather, Robert Moore.

DECATUR -- As he prepared to lead a crowd gathered at Central United Methodist Church to the neighboring African-American Genealogical Society and Museum, Mount Zion history teacher Rich Hansen read the following quote by W.E.B. Du Bois:

"If the suffering of the American Negro is once forgotten, then there is no guarantee ... that the Devils will not again enslave and maim and murder and oppress the weak and unfortunate."

The crowd then walked to the museum and went into the basement, which Hansen and a work crew had remodeled to hold an exhibit created by the students in Mount Zion's African American History class. The exhibit, Hansen said, "looks at the darkest days of African American history," the Jim Crow Era.

"My students and other people involved with the project knew what Jim Crow was, but most textbooks don't have pictures from that time and most teachers don't know how to present it, so they ignore it," Hansen said. "They teach slavery and emancipation, then the Civil Rights movement with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. The 100 years in between those events -- that's the subject of this exhibit."

Students in the class cleaned and prepped items they and Hansen found on eBay depicting blacks in the Jim Crow Era, and also made exhibits on the 13th Amendment, Plessy v. Ferguson, pig laws and the origins of Jim Crow -- those made up the first room of the exhibit. The second room -- kept intentionally darker -- had exhibits on lynchings, including the first lynching in Macon County.

"I had lunch right after this class, and it was difficult for me to eat sometimes," said Mount Zion student Katlynn Sims, who was part of creating the exhibit. "I kind of had an idea of how things were, but what I thought it was actually was just a small percentage of what it really was. It's beyond what I could have imagined."

The first Macon County lynching occurred in 1893 when a black man named Samuel J. Bush was accused of raping two white women, including one from Mount Zion. Bush was placed in the Macon County Jail, but a mob from Mount Zion broke into the jail, dragged Bush into the street and hung him from a telephone pole on the corner of Water and Wood Streets. Someone in the crowd gathered to watch yelled, "Three cheers for Mount Zion."

"People actually watched these as a form of entertainment -- that's scary," said Mount Zion student Sammy Dewey, who was involved in creating the exhibit.

Evelyn Hood, director of the African-American Genealogical Society and Museum, admitted the imagery brought back bad memories of her childhood growing up in the South but said it's an important era to remember.

"I saw many things that were really unpleasant growing up, but my mom taught me that the most important thing in life is love," Hood said. "Hate will eat you up.

"We must communicate. In order for the future to be better, we have to talk about the past."

This was the fifth year Mount Zion students have produced an exhibit for the museum. Hansen said this was the exhibit he'd been wanting to produce since year one.

"In past years, we've highlighted positive aspects and obstacles African-Americans have overcome," Hansen said. "This is why I teach history: If we don't learn from the past, we're doomed to repeat it."

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Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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