DuSable aims for a ‘better and different place’

On a recent Saturday morning, I found myself standing in front of the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Washington Park, waiting for a man who had been waiting at that moment in North Laundle due to a misunderstanding.

A quick phone call sorted out the confusion, and instead of racing through town, we put it off. The remainder of my morning was suddenly freed up while the museum’s revolving door was open. I felt an opportunity.

I’d be more reluctant to admit that up until that point I had never visited the DuSable Museum if I thought it made me some kind of weird anomaly. To be honest I consider myself exceptional because I genuinely wanted to see the place but never had a chance to go, never heard of any exhibit that caught my interest and seemed worth the trip.

I imagine a number of Chicagoans have to succumb to the racism of low expectations when it comes to DuSable, envisioning something similar to House on the Rock, in Wisconsin, a collection of random artifacts, perhaps using slightly skewed typed cards explaining it.

Honestly, I was glad to stay away. What if I go to the museum and I don’t like it? What’s Next? Volunteer myself as the white guy who didn’t like the DuSable Museum? There is no upside there. Or worse, to cough silently into my fist and say nothing, that in itself is a kind of racism?

Turns out my fears transcended reality, as fears often do. The museum has an in-depth exhibit of black soldiers in World War I, with original letters and real guns. Interesting presentation about civil rights and redlining. Film puts you in March 1963 in Washington. professionally. A new interactive show about life in an African village – albeit a perfect Black Panther-ish village – caught my eye.

However … after 38 minutes, I made an obligatory tour of the gift shop, was outside, gritting my front teeth, and formed my thoughts, which can be summed up as follows:

Could be better. He. She should be better.

Perry Ermer, DuSable’s president and CEO, agreed, “The building has to be better.” “You are not at all wrong.” She said the museum is getting better. “It’s like night and day, compared to what it was, exponentially better. The way this place was, we’ve had an African gallery that’s been there for 35 years, unchanged.”

Ermer led the museum for seven years in September. “We Opened 30 New Shows, Never Heard Of DuSable.”

An animation of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington speaking in a replica of his city hall office at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center. | Pat Nabong/Sun Times

Pat Nabong / Sun Times, Pat Nabong / Sun Times

There are three categories of museums in Chicago.

There are the Big Three: the Art Institute, the Field Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry, which are mandatory cultural attractions that residents and visitors return to again and again, or they must.

There are great secondary museums – the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Museum of History, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and hidden gems that will reward anyone who finds their way into it.

Then there’s the third degree, the strange outposts that most Chicagoans would never think of visiting. Some are for a narrow audience: the Holocaust Museum, designed to deliver a few diluted spoonfuls of twentieth-century crime to busloads of fidgety fifth-graders and teach them how to bully.

Some are commercial projects or fictional character assignments – the Writer’s Museum and the Pritzker Military Museum are examples of both. Some are just weird: The International Museum of Surgical Sciences comes to mind, a creepy temporal warp, Marcus Welby, MD’s gall bladder preserved in a bottle of formaldehyde.

DuSable occupies the back of this third group when, given its lively and compelling theme, it should be front and center in the second group.

Blame it on a lack of money.


Perry Ermer, president and CEO of the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center.

“We’ve practiced alchemy for a long time,” said Ermer. “Doing the best we can with the little we have. I have half the staff I really need. We haven’t had enough funding before, but we are doing a really great job, beautiful exhibits.”

I suggested there’s nothing wrong with DuSable that $50 million won’t fix.

She said, “Exactly.” “That is exactly it. To give us a way to be able to exhale.”

Ermer, an architect and attorney, sees the stakes clearly: “The importance of our mission to the black community and to the whole of Chicago, at this time in history, when so many people on the far right are trying to deny history, trying to prevent people from exercising the right to learn history, and most importantly That institutions like ours are able to get the needed support so that we can operate at the highest levels.”

They are busy developing cooperation with MCA and international companies. She pointed to the new Equiano exhibition, a celebration of life in the village of Igbo propelled by an Israeli film company.

“They called us, a little over two years ago, to see if we’d be willing to work with them on this movie,” she said. “What you normally find in the American version of our history always begins with the slave trade. What that means is that the black person’s conception of themselves is rooted in slavery, rather than being rooted in freedom. It makes all the difference in the world when you acknowledge that you were a free people, with the culture beauty, art, and joy, before the crimes of slavery were committed.”


The Roundhouse, originally a stable designed by Daniel Burnham – as was the building that housed DuSable – is located across the street from the museum. Transforming the initial space into a facility that can present performances and welcome visitors has been a long-term dream that will cost approximately $30 million.

The opportunity is there. Across the street is the 1880 Daniel Burnham Roundhouse, a raw space that would increase five times the museum’s 10,000 square feet of exhibition space. If only they could find $20 million to $30 million or so to completely renovate it.

“It’s not a lot of money for Illinois,” Ermer said. “Not much money for a billionaire.”

We talked for about an hour, and I can’t help but scrape the surface of the conversation. Ermer definitely has a vision. A much needed Southside music venue. Plans to expand the campus to Midway. To create a community of artists and craftsmen. Chicago Museum to supplement the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History.

It all comes down to the money needed to fill the gap that DuSable could fill. It must be filled.

“To be relevant to 90% of Chicago’s public school students are black and brown,” Ermer said of her goal. “This is the biggest message I want to put out there: How important these stories are to contribute to healing, progress and a positive perspective for cities, black cities, and for black children’s image of themselves.

“It can’t just be what they see on the evening news. Otherwise we’re not going anywhere, and nothing will change. I consider us members of the resistance. Every child, no matter what color, has the right to learn history, and has the right to know what happened, And why we are where we are and how to get somewhere better and different.”

Right now, I can’t in good conscience urge Chicagoans to check out DuSable. Not there yet. But it should be. maybe you can be. The history is there, radiating from the page, waiting to be transformed into the magic of museums.

Now all they need is money.

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