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Lincoln Library exhibit offers perspectives on life in Illinois

SPRINGFIELD — What’s it like to live in Illinois?

A black doctor remembers wandering around a predominantly white neighborhood when he and his family moved to a new home in Springfield’s Washington Park district. One man thinks Anna grew up in an apartment above a funeral home downtown. A 7-year-old growing up in Chicago talks about serving as an English translator for her Mexican parents.

These remembrances of daily life are interspersed with stories of more well-known Illinoisans in the “I Lived Here: Home in Illinois” exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which offers a mix of perspectives from past and present residents. How Illinois shaped their understanding of the world around them.

Christina Shutt, executive director of the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, said she and museum historians wanted to show how the state was not a “transit place” but rather a place where people from all walks of life settled. and developed their own meanings for the term “home”.

“There are a lot of people like Abraham Lincoln who weren’t born here but discovered Illinois and ended up raising a family here, making a life for themselves here,” said Shutt, of Kansas City, Missouri.

Prominent Illinoisans of the past whose lives in the state are described include comic book legend Richard Pryor, who grew up in a brothel in Peoria, and Richard Pryor, who began his career in East St. There’s also singer Tina Turner, who got her start in clubs in St. Louis. and St. Across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

Ronald Reagan, the only U.S. president born in Illinois, suffered a childhood of “constant displacement” as his father sought work and the family moved from Tampico to Chicago to Galesburg to Monmouth to Tampico before settling in Dixon.

The exhibition also includes artifacts such as Reagan’s letter sweater and yearbook from her student days at Eureka College and the dress Tina Turner wore on “The Tonight Show.” A pottery found during an archaeological dig is part of the “People of Cahokia” exhibit, which pays homage to Native tribes who established a robust trading network hundreds of years ago that included communities like Cahokia near present-day Collinsville.

The exhibit tells the story of Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, who grew up in a wealthy slave-owning family in Lexington, Kentucky, before living in Springfield with her husband.

An excerpt from her story reads: “She and Abraham’s house in Springfield became an expression of Mary’s ambition and domestic priorities—literally growing the more she lived there, including the addition of an entire second floor.”

Another former First Lady, Michelle Obama’s story began on Chicago’s South Side before attending Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

“Michelle Robinson Obama called the White House home from 2009 to 2017, but grew up in an apartment of less than 800 square feet on Chicago’s South Shore,” her story reads. “Yet the small size of the Robinson house partly reflected a choice made by Michelle’s parents, Fraser and Marian. Instead of investing their modest income in a house, they chose to invest in their children.”

Also on display is the turbulent home life of another black South Side writer, Lorraine Hansberry. His story tells how angry white neighbors threw bricks at the window of his South Side home. A case over racially restrictive housing policies eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Hansberrys prevailed.

“This struggle traumatized Lorraine, and she later channeled this trauma into the script of ‘A Raisin in the Sun,'” Hansberry’s short story reads. “Set entirely in a South Side apartment, the film tells the story of a family on Chicago’s South Side grappling with the racism inherent in 20th-century American life and its impact on the Black community.”

Less well-known Illinoisans also appear in the exhibit through recorded references.

Dr. In her testimony, Nicole Florence talks about the life of a child living in a predominantly white area of ​​Springfield, but says she was largely unaware that “we were probably one of the few, or even only one, kind of Black families in that area.” time.”

Florence, who eventually became close to her neighbors, remembers her mother sending her to a neighbor’s house to borrow a knife to cut a watermelon.

“I go over there, knock on the door. ‘Hi, I’m your new neighbor Nicki. I was wondering if we could borrow a knife to cut our watermelon?’ I remember picking it up, going home and telling my mom what I said, and she said, ‘Did you say that?’ “I remember you looking at me,” said Florence, giggling. “I said, ‘Yes, because it’s true.’ ”

It was only later that she realized how her request fit into racial stereotypes.

“Maybe it’s just on TV, maybe they have friends, maybe they have a vision that all we do is eat watermelon and fried chicken, you know that kind of thing. I mean, I remember that look on his face. “And I didn’t really understand it at the time,” he said.

In an interview with the Tribune, Florence said her participation in the exhibit stemmed from her late grandmother’s participation in an oral history project for the Lincoln Presidential Library about the fight against racism in Springfield schools.

In her thoughts on the current exhibition, Florence said she wanted to highlight the importance of understanding different people’s backgrounds.

“I think a lot of it has to do with us not listening to each other and not taking the time to understand another person’s story, another person’s truth and perspective,” Florence said.

In another testimony, Gabriela Ramirez describes how, while growing up on Chicago’s Southwest Side, she served as an interpreter for her Mexican parents, who had difficulty with English.

“When they got there, they devoted their lives to learning the language. This is ‘We have to hurry. ‘We have to make money.’ They had a growing family,” Ramirez said in an interview with the Tribune. “So in the end they never really grasped the language.”

Ramirez said his parents still live in the house where he grew up and he still helps them with English.

“I feel like I’m their advocate,” Ramirez said. “And it remains so to this day. Like, ‘Oh, there’s this paper in the mail.’ You know, it seems important. ‘Can you read it for me?’”

Shutt hopes the impression the public gets from the exhibit is not just the different perspectives, but also that each person featured is trying to figure out how to make their Illinois home a place to belong.

“We are so rich, interesting, colorful and beautiful, with incredible stories of people and places,” he said. “I hope people want to explore more.”

The exhibition runs through January 21 in the museum’s Illinois Gallery and is free with regular museum admission.

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

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