For more than two dozen years, the African American Museum of Southern Illinois has been pointing to the past in order to inspire for the future.
“Many of the young people now, they don’t have a clue about some of our history, especially our local history,and other people have forgotten a lot," explained museum co-founder Corene McDaniel of Carbondale. "So, we’re here to help start a great conversation and help our community learn more about the place we all live, as well as those who came before us.”
McDaniel and her husband, Milton, conceived the idea for the museum in the 1990s when Corene was serving as president of the local chapter of the NAACP.
“I was reading nominations for one of our awards and I found out about all of these African American people who had done all of these things and I didn’t know anything about it,” she recalled. “I thought if I didn’t know, there might be a lot of other people who also didn’t know. That’s how we started. We wanted to recognize and share information about African Americans in the community who had made contributions to our region.”
Milton said the first organized exhibit was a collection of portraits of notable African Americans from the region called “Icebreakers.”
“We wanted to show young people that you can be proud about yourself and that you can be somebody without being a basketball player or a rap artist or movie star,” he replied.
The museum, located in Carbondale’s University Mall near The Science Center, boasts more than 2,000 items in its collection. In addition to historical exhibits, the museum often displays the work of local artists.
An outreach of the museum is a program called “Learned Wednesday,” which began as a one-day-per-week summer program for 20 to 40 youth that focused on history, life skills and more.
“We would take them to African American-owned businesses, we’d go to the cemeteries for history lessons, we would teach them etiquette and we’d meet with leaders like judges at the courthouse. It was wonderful,” Corene stated.
The effort has grown to where it now meets four days each week during the summer and includes extensive tours to destinations important in the Civil Rights movement such as Birmingham, Memphis and Tuskeegee.
“It’s called Learn Wednesday Enrichment Program,” Corene said. “We didn’t want to get rid of the ‘Wednesday’ because that is how it all started.”
She said each year, students in fourth through seventh grade participate under the direction of a group of volunteers.
“The students meet at the beginning of the program to determine the direction and set their own rules,” she explained.
Milton said they are very proud of the program.
“This is something the kids never forget. It is one of our biggest accomplishments,” he said, adding that the program is a natural fit for the museum and he relishes the opportunity to share the challenges and successes of the past.
“Some people say to us that if you want to forget about some things, why do you have this museum and keep bringing it all up? I tell them if they look around, it’s not just about African Americans, this is about all of us. It’s about history that we hope will change the world.”
His wife agreed.
“I hope people would come to the museum and leave with a sense of pride and understanding. This is history and though it often is not talked about, it is not forgotten,” she said. “If we can understand that history, it impacts us every day.”