Jeri Stenson gives a tour of the West Town Museum of Cultural History to District 89 students. | District 89

Earlier this year, Jeri Stenson and Sidney Hurst Jr. died. Both personified the deep connection between Maywood’s and Oak Park’s African American communities. Sidney Hurst’s family was one of the first Black families to settle in Oak Park on a homestead shared by relatives of Jeri Stenson, longtime curator of the West Town Museum of Cultural History in Maywood.

I recall a visit to the West Town nearly 10 years ago, where I interviewed Stenson and the museum’s founder, Northica Stone, inside of Stone’s office. Both of those women — along with my aunt Francis mentioned below — have since died. I thought I’d share a portion of that account this week, in their memory.

Northica Stone, president and CEO of Operation Uplift, parent organization of the West Town Historical Museum, didn’t so much verbalize the following as sigh it in exasperation: She’s old and growing older, but the world outside is fast and getting faster.

There’s a line from John Updike’s 1960 novel, Rabbit, Run, that comes to the reader as a thought by the 20-something protagonist Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, a washed-up high school star basketball player who encounters a group of young boys shooting hoops in an alley.

“He stands there thinking, ‘the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up’”

At twenty-something, these are my sentiments exactly. At Stone’s age, I imagine her brooding on the adolescent rowdiness of 5th Avenue and thinking, ‘The kids keep going, they keep passing you by.’

It was a Wednesday at the West Town Historical Museum, the only day during the week that is open for public visitation, and as far as I could tell I was the only visitor so far. I had called a few days beforehand to notify Mrs. Stone of my intentions to talk with her and take a tour. She suggested I come on Wednesday, the day when the museum’s curator and person-pretty-much-in-charge-of-everything-else, Jeri Stenson, is on site. This was the first time I’d walked through West Town’s doors, which is why Mrs. Stone’s lamentation rang more like a personal indictment. I silently realized I’m no different from everybody else who’s forgotten about this place, if we ever really thought about it at all.

But my twinge of guilt was short-lived when, as I was making small chatter with Mrs. Stone before formally beginning our interview, Mrs. Stenson placed a frayed monochromatic photograph on the former’s office desk. It was an image of Washington School’s class of 1935 and among the sober, Depression-era pupils gathered for the photo, I spotted the taut face of my late great-grandmother, Venida Perkins (nee Linyard), peering into her future and my present — two faces merged in the act of looking, reunited by this preserved piece of the past.

“Nearly all of the people in that photograph are gone,” said Mrs. Stone as I stared at the photo, still transfixed.

“Except your aunt, Francis Linyard,” Mrs. Stenson said. She handed me another grainy photo — class of 1937, Washington School. The photograph made miraculous the fact that my great-aunt, my great-grandmother’s younger sister, is still alive, nearly 90 years old. From being a schoolgirl during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the corporate reign of Henry Ford, and the cultural supremacy of swing music/jazz to being a senior citizen during the presidency of Barack Obama, the corporate reign of Steve Jobs and the cultural supremacy of hip-hop has to be a shock to the senses. At least my aunt had some time to adjust. But only some.

There’s no denying the sense of loss that seems to permeate this barely-peopled place, the sense that its time-tested vanguards are still recovering from the death of a past that they wish could’ve been present for a bit longer and that they hope, with enough enthusiasm and funding, they can revive, albeit with severe modifications.

To think about transfusing the best of my great-grandmother’s past — things like community and (relatively speaking) respect for tradition in general and the old in particular — into a present that seems sorely wanting in those qualities is to deal with some sordid contradictions.

During the time those graduating class photos were taken, Blacks were only allowed to live in a five-block radius extending from Madison Street to St. Charles Road and 10th to 14th avenues, and Washington was the only elementary school Black children were allowed to attend. But these five blocks, the result of racist restrictive covenants, encompassed a world that was defined less by its limitations than by its concentrated vitality. The contents of this world, and the historical conditions that created it, dominate the visitor’s attention.

“When we were growing up,” Mrs. Stone said, “our families were close, we created things for our kids to do … we created our own opportunities, our own mom-and-pops, but once things opened up, these activities seemed to go away. Those things that could feed a career, maybe not a college education, but [a decent life] … all that was just gone.”

It’s been one of the accidents of time that the West Town, which (as Mrs. Stenson was very quick to point out) specializes in the multiracial history of Proviso Township — not just Maywood and not just Blacks — that the majority of its visitors are not Black and not from Maywood. Back in 1995, field trips to the museum somehow couldn’t be arranged by District 89, even though schoolchildren from places such as Hinsdale, Downers Grove and Oak Park would visit.

 “We’ve just been able to get District 89 to send their students here on field trips,” Mrs. Stone said.

Although in some ways it may appear that Operation Uplift and the West Town are on their last legs, Mrs. Stone isn’t in the business of accepting defeat. Her and Mrs. Stenson’s resolve takes on aspects of the heroic when one considers the sacrifices they’ve made on behalf of people who (like me before my visit) don’t quite realize what it means to lose a community.

As I looked at the youthful faces of my great-grandmother and great-aunt, I began to wonder if my generation would be so fortunate to be remembered in such a way. Where will our memories go? How will they be shared? And will the anxious, attention-deficit generations we will no doubt leave behind even bother to think of us? Where will looking back fit into a future that (it often seems) may only be interested in itself?

“The museum still has a place in Maywood,” Mrs. Stone insisted, before telling of the time she and her board of directors allowed the family of a gunshot victim to hold the funeral repast in a space on the second floor that houses a Percy Julian exhibition and memorials dedicated to some of Maywood’s first Black realtors.

“They [the family] came to us with limited funds, but I talked to the board and asked if our volunteers could handle that and they said you never know until you try,” she recalled. “It went off without a hitch.”

“There were so many youngsters […] they came in droves and it almost frightened you […] they came in their T-shirts” Mrs. Stenson said. “But they were respectful. We told the police and Chief Curry and they gave us excellent backup in case we needed it, but we didn’t need it.”

“It really gave us something to think about,” said Mrs. Stone.

The women are confident that if more people simply come inside, enthusiasm will follow. Mrs. Stone said that people are often surprised after they visit for a while.

“Two years ago, CeaseFire [the anti-violence nonprofit] came to tour,” she said. “It was amazing how interested they were. One of the guys pleaded for us to stay open a little longer.”

He wanted to rush home and get his family.


Join the discussion on social media!