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Students help record Lake County’s Black history

by Public Relations and Marketing | Published Jan 25, 2021

When one speaks of Black history, often the conversation turns towards the South; slavery, the Civil War, the civil rights movement. However, those eras do not encompass all Black history. In an effort to capture some of Lake County’s Black history, the Lake County Forest Preserve’s Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County partnered with staff and students at College of Lake County (CLC) to create a living history display.  

CLC Multicultural Coordinator Beverly Phelps was first approached by the Dunn Museum in summer 2020 and was given full autonomy to design the project. She enlisted the help of several students including Jermaine Hilton, who is in his second year at CLC studying computer science and serves as president of the club, Black Male Xcellence.

Photo of Jermaine Hilton and Mayor Rockingham
“I’ve been in Lake County my whole life,” said Hilton. “Growing up here, I’ve seen how hard our civil leaders worked for rights and equality. I was very excited for them to get their opportunity to shine at this time in history and have all the work they’ve put in throughout their lifetime recognized.” 

Photo: CLC student Jermaine Hilton (left) interviews North Chicago Mayor Leon Rockingham, Jr. (right)

The team decided to make the project two-fold: gather a collection of original pieces created by students to include poems, pictures and short stories, and interview prominent Black leaders in the community. The Dunn Museum hired a professional videographer to document the interviews and help turn them into polished products to go on display both virtually and in-person at the Dunn Museum. 

Photo of Mayor McKinney, Willie Mitchell and Jermaine Hilton“The students conducted all of the interviews and were able to hear these stories and ask questions,” said Phelps. “Questions like: what does it feel like to be the first Black mayor in a major city, what are your thoughts about Black Lives Matter, what’s going on in the world and compare the civil rights movement to what’s happening now.”

Photo: Zion Mayor Billy McKinney (left) is interviewed by CLC students Willie Mitchell, Jr. (center) and Jermaine Hilton (right)

A variety of leaders and prominent community members were interviewed including three mayors: Sam Cunningham of Waukegan, Leon Rockingham, Jr. of North Chicago and Billy McKinney of Zion. 

“It was interesting to hear the stories of everyone we interviewed. I could have just sat there forever and listened,” said Phelps. “One question and its answer would prompt another question and so on and so on. It gave the students an opportunity to get to know their community leaders. They were able to really feel good about their work, especially talking to the three African American mayors. They were able to see themselves in a mayor because they look like them.” 

Though the Dunn Museum is not currently open due to COVID-19 precautions, portions of the project will be displayed at the upcoming virtual Dunn Museum event, the 38th annual Profiles in Excellence. The 2021 theme is “Our Voice is Black History” and features inspiring presentations and performances in honor of Black History Month. Students and faculty from CLC will also share their experiences through collected stories. In fact, Hilton is one of those who will be honored at the event, though he says being a part of the project was an honor in itself. 

Photo of Jermaine Hilton, Mayor Cunningham, and Phinas Alexander

“I learned how many different ways leaders before my time have been inspiring, working and teaching the black youth, as well as everyone in our community,” said Hilton. “They taught our history through different ways such as art, church, law and civil service. It was an eye-opener for me.”

Photo: CLC students Jermaine Hilton (left) and Phinas Alexander (right) interview Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham (center)

The free virtual Profiles in Excellence event will happen Saturday, Feb. 6 from 3 – 4:30 p.m. and once the Dunn Museum reopens to the public, the full project will be on display. The Dunn Museum will later archive the videos and artwork, making them a permanent part of Lake County’s recorded history. 

About College of Lake County: 

College of Lake County is a comprehensive community college committed to equitable high-quality education, cultural enrichment and partnerships to advance the diverse communities it serves in northeastern Illinois. Offered at three campuses in Grayslake, Vernon Hills and Waukegan or online, college classes are affordable and accessible to help each student achieve academic, career and personal goals. More than 70,000 students graduated with degrees and certificates since the college opened in 1969. The College of Lake County is the only higher-education institution ranked among the top 15 best places to work in Illinois by Forbes and is a national leader in many areas, including sustainability and conservation.