UPTOWN — Elsie Hernandez started the Haitian American Museum of Chicago with a modest collection.
“In the beginning, I was downloading photos from the Internet and framing them,” Hernandez said, laughing.
Now, the institution Hernandez started to give Americans a more detailed, nuanced view of the Caribbean nation is poised for critical upgrades. A major grant will allow the museum at 4654 N. Racine Ave. to digitize its collection for the first time. The added visibility and opportunity to educate Chicagoans about Haitians and Haitian Americans comes on the heels of the city renaming one of its iconic roadways for Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Chicago’s first non-Indigenous settler.
For Hernandez, the grant is also a chance to tell more of Haiti’s history from a Haitian perspective.
“Haitians always have foreigners doing things for us,” Hernandez said. “Haitian history is so rich, but the narratives are not written by Haitians themselves.”
Hernandez, a longtime Chicagoan who was born in Haiti, is a former nurse who recently transitioned to teaching biology classes at City Colleges of Chicago. She was inspired to start the museum after a volunteer trip to Haiti nine years ago, which included a visit to to Cité Soleil, a notorious slum in Port-Au-Prince.
“It’s not the same when you see poverty on TV,” Hernandez said. “I thought the best way to help was to focus on the positive aspects of the country.”
The experience motivated Hernandez to introduce a different Haitian narrative to the United States and highlight the country’s cultural richness. With hardly any art background, Hernandez opened the Haitian American Museum of Chicago in November 2012.
The museum — just 486 square feet — is tucked into the corner of Racine and Leland avenues, a large red and blue flag bearing the Haitian coat of arms waving at passersby.
As Hernandez built up her museum, she was inspired by Estrella Ravelo Alamar, a Filipina and West Sider who self-funded a Filipino American museum and later became founding president of the Filipino American National Historical Society.
Hernandez relied on donations from community members to fund her small collection. The initial museum board comprised five members, including Hernandez, her son, friends and relatives.
When the Field Museum opened its exhibit “Vodou: Sacred Powers of Haiti” in 2016, museum leaders tapped Hernandez as a Haitian American consultant, her “first major connection” to a larger museum. Through that, Hernandez caught the eye of women’s volunteer organization Know Your Chicago, whose members facilitated a meeting between Hernandez and Nicole Smith, a fellow Haitian American and notable Chicago curator.
“When the women from Know Your Chicago came to visit, they realized I had nothing,” Hernandez said. “It was all printed stuff.”
When Smith came to the United States in 1973, she sold Haitian artwork out of her home and car. She later opened Nicole Gallery, 1723 N. Halsted St., where she became known for her collection of Haitian, African and African American art. The Nicole Gallery closed in 2011 after 40 years.
“It was Nicole who loaned us all her big paintings,” Hernandez said. “It was Nicole who made it look like a real museum. She said, ‘Elsie, I have to help you.’”
A painting that once belonged to Smith hangs on the west wall: an allegory of Haiti in the form of two horses pulling half of the island into the Caribbean Sea as colorful huts don the backs of the horses and Haitians mill about the island.
Before Smith died in March 2016, she asked Hernandez to take possession of the work she accumulated in her gallery. Most of Smith’s collection, mainly paintings, are in storage because there’s not enough room in the museum to display them all, Hernandez said.
The museum now boasts a permanent collection, a rotating collection, a library and a store. Current exhibits include work from Haitian and Haitian American artists, student artists at Truman College and oral histories collected and donated by Chicago historian Courtney Joseph, whose parents emigrated from Haiti.
The museum has seven executive members and 10 interns and volunteers. Over the years, museum leaders have partnered with other community organizers, like raising money to support the Haitian-Polish community in Haiti. The museum joined the Chicago Cultural Alliance in 2015.
“It is so important to recognize and learn about the contributions and resilience of the Haitian community in Chicago,” said Marie Rowley, communications manager for the Chicago Cultural Alliance. “The museum has created a beautiful, welcoming space for education, reflection and celebration.”
The museum also was involved in the city’s effort to honor perhaps the most famous Haitian in its history. In June, the City Council renamed the outer portion of Lake Shore Drive as Jean Baptiste Point duSable Lake Shore Drive, an effort that had been in the works for years.
Hernandez was consulted about the name change and called it “a win.” Ald. David Moore (17th), who helped spearhead the renaming, said in October it “opens the door for everybody to learn” about du Sable’s contributions to modern Chicago.
Du Sable, a Black man believed to be of Haitian descent, is often credited as Chicago’s founder. He and his wife, Kitihawa, settled where the Chicago River and Lake Michigan meet in 1779, establishing a trading post and farm before selling the property in 1800 and moving to the port of St. Charles.
In addition to a school and the DuSable Museum of African American History in Hyde Park, a small monument to du Sable sits near the DuSable Bridge on Michigan Avenue.
Beyond du Sable, Hernandez said she and her team have an opportunity to help Chicagoans learn more about the city’s Haitian diaspora.
In July, the museum received a $20,000 Broadening Narratives grant from the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, which supports archival projects sharing stories of racial, sexual, gender and other historically underrepresented identities.
The grant helped hire archivist Eve Mangurten to digitize the museum’s complete collection so the public can view it anytime. Mangurten has been working in archival work for over a decade.
“It’s important to have a collection be accessible to the public and to the museum, because it’s important to know what they have so that they can properly make material available to whoever wants to access it,” Mangurten said.
Accessibility to the public is a common theme in the museum’s goals. Mangurten will spend a year archiving the museum’s extensive collection into a digital catalogue. She will also host public presentations of the collection.
“Our collection will be available for the public to look at, think about, do research on,” museum Executive Director Carlos Bossard said. “Long term, digitizing the collection will help uncover stories from the Haitian community that go overlooked.”
Bossard said he hopes the grant will help the museum find additional funding in the next year to keep the collection specialist position after Mangurten finishes her work.
“What museums do is, it changes your perception,” Hernandez said. “I don’t have to impose my own views. People come in, they feel it, they touch it, they see it. The grant will help make my culture and Haiti more accessible to the public. Now they can feel, touch and see it in a digital space.”
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