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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Organizers Turn Looted Office Into Pilot For West Side Black History Museum

"We were trying to understand the mindset of why this would happen," said Ralph Hopkins. "We attribute it to a lack of understanding exactly who we are as a people, our culture."

A mural at the Future Drive Empowerment Center.
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AUSTIN — A West Side office that was trashed during the social unrest this summer is being developed into a museum honoring Black history and culture.

Organizers behind the Future Drive Empowerment Center at 5404 W. Madison St. wanted to create a museum for years. But a new sense of urgency struck after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis and riots tore through Madison Street, one of the West Side’s main commercial corridors, museum Director Ralph Hopkins said. 

“We were trying to understand the mindset of why this would happen,” Hopkins said. “We attribute it to a lack of understanding exactly who we are as a people, our culture.”

Viewing the riots as a symptom of a deeper issue, the group’s members decided to convert their looted office into a museum and community center, Hopkins said.

“We couldn’t just look at it like, ‘These are bad people,'” Hopkins said. “Instead of dealing with the surface, we had to take a deeper look at it all and try to reach people where they are, build the self-esteem and talk about who we are as a people.”

The mini-museum — which is not open to the public — has installations documenting pivotal chapters in Black history, including the transatlantic slave trade, the cotton industry, the Motown music era, the Tuskegee airmen and Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The exhibits combine visual arts, film and music.

The center is designed to be an answer to the disenfranchisement prevalent in the Black community by empowering people with a sense of pride in their history, Hopkins said. The exhibits will provide an opportunity to reclaim the harmful narratives that hang over Black communities, he said.

“We watch on television all the time how we are depicted almost as savagery. It’s always negative stuff. You don’t see .… who you are as a people, the accomplishments,” Hopkins said.

Once complete, the museum will allow locals to learn more about their history and culture without traveling out of the West Side, Hopkins said. Organizers plan to have after-school programs for youth and exhibits that archive the stories “of the unsung heroes on the West Side of Chicago,” Hopkins said.

Organizers are building a website and fundraising campaign to develop the museum, which they hope to open later this year.

“We have the DuSable [Museum of African American History] down on the South Side … but on the West Side of Chicago, we don’t have anything,” Hopkins said. “We actually need something where people in the community don’t have to travel so far to get some knowledge of self.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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