‘Safe house’ now African American History Museum in Jacksonville, Ill.
At left is Art Wilson, founding executive director of the African American History Museum in Jacksonville, Ill. At right is Ruth Linear, director. Linear is a native of Hannibal. Contributed photo.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
JACKSONVILLE, Ill. - The African American History Museum in Jacksonville, Ill., is a collaborative endeavor, dedicated to the preservation of, and education regarding, the role that African Americans played during this country’s early years.
Among the primaries of the museum are Hannibal native, and long-time Jacksonville resident, Ruth Linear, and Art Wilson, a long-time researcher of the Underground Railroad, and a native of Jacksonville.
The museum is located at 859 Grove Street in a house that was owned by Joseph Duncan, a year before he was elected governor in 1834.
The original first section of this house was built in 1833, and the other two sections in the 1860s. Joseph Duncan sold the house to abolitionist Asa Talcott, who assisted slaves along the Underground Railroad, which came through Jacksonville. Talcott was also a founding member of the Congregational Church, which was a abolitionist church in Jacksonville.
Art Wilson, who grew up in Jacksonville, is founding executive director of the museum. In January 2022, he was able to acquire the then-empty Asa Talcott House on behalf of the museum, and with the help of Linear and a committee of like-minded individuals, they have since transformed it into the city’s first African American History Museum.
“I got ahold of the company that owned it,” Wilson said. “They left it empty, and the people who used it tore it up. After long discussions and months and months of talks, to my surprise they sold it to me for $10. They gave me a quit claim deed and took my $10.
“It was a blessing. I couldn’t have it in my name, so it is in the name of the museum, which is a not for profit.”
The first event at the new museum was the Juneteenth celebration, which was followed in early August 2023 by A Taste of Culture on the property’s lawn.
They offered samplings of Italian, Asian and Mexican food as well as traditional African staples, including fish, ribs, chicken, pigs feet and oxtail.
On Tuesday evening, they handed out candy to trick-or-treaters.
Before the donation of the historic building, the museum had been planned for the third floor of Jacksonville’s Congregational Church.
They subsequently moved the displays to the new museum site.
“The house was not in good shape,” Wilson said. “There is still a lot to do; hopefully we’ll get grants to get brick and mortar” projects completed.
When they took possession, “the wall paper was hanging, and paint had gotten into the hard wood floors,” which are original to the 1860s portion of the building.
“We had to sand the floors to get the paint off,” Wilson said. “We did room by room.”
Work started in February, and the museum was open for the grand opening, which coincided with Juneteenth.
“It was a lot of work, the seven of us (on the board) did most of work. Without them we wouldn’t be able to get it done.”
A bit of good news came within the last few weeks: The museum qualified for exemption of real estate taxes.
“Now everything we make will go directly to the museum,” he said, “with no taxes and no mortgage.
“Now I am learning to write grants,” he said. He applied for a $4,000 grant this summer, and was disappointed to learn that the museum wasn’t selected.
Then in September, the JAAHM was selected by the Illinois Humanities to receive a unsolicited Racial Equity Grant for $5,000 for promoting of racial equality, cultural diversity and racial awareness through education and the events that the JAAHM presents that reflect the goals and roll of Illinois Humanities.
“It was like a blessing from God,” Wilson said.
The museum’s contents came primarily from three sources:
Ruth Linear’s collection of material compiled throughout the time she has lived in Jacksonville; and
Art Wilson’s research on the Underground Railroad, which he has compiled since his release from the Marine Corps in 1993; and
Scrapbooks that the late Arola Chapman kept throughout her lifetime, which were preserved by Ruth Linear.
“I collected facts and information for many, many years,” Linear said. “I educated children at the local schools, and also put up exhibits in the schools so they could learn visually. A lot of students, they didn’t understand what it was like during the black history time; they didn’t teach that kind of stuff in school. It is personal knowledge. It is important that black history be recorded.
“I carried the information in a satchel, from school to school. There are lots of big pictures. Most of the students didn’t know or realize the true history, and the teachers were amazed as well.”
The museum features an exhibit on boxer Ken Norton, a Jacksonville native, who became known as “the man who beat Ali.”
“Most of it was given to me by his mother and aunt. I also collected newspaper stories. When things would be in the newspaper, I would cut it out and save it for future reference.”
Within the museum is a 52-inch portrait of Harriet Tubman. Randall Williams, the artist, graduated from Jacksonville High School in 1975, and now lives in California. “He painted the portrait and donated it to the museum,” Linear said.
Nora Creason of Hannibal donated artifacts, and loaned other items to the museum. “She’s been down here two or three times for events,” Wilson said.
Two people have donated quilts, and there have been numerous monetary gifts.
Another exhibit at the museum is a picture, donated by Linear, of a slave wearing a collar. “Art has an actual collar and chains hanging on the wall,” she said.
The museum is open for tours from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays, Saturday and Sundays, May through September. At other times of the year, tours are given by reservation only.
Donna Bradley of Jacksonville, Ill., donated an Underground Railroad-style quilt to the African American History Museum in Jacksonville. Above the hearth is a painting of Harriet Tubman, painted by and donated to the museum by Randall Williams, a California artist with roots in Jacksonville. The museum founders are Ruth Linear, a Hannibal native, and Art Wilson, a native of Jacksonville. Contributed photo.