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Historical marker honors the first African American families that settled in Normal

 Six people stand alongside historical marker that honors the first African American settlers in Normal.
Megan Spoerlein
The McLean County Museum of History on Thursday unveiled a historical marker that honors the first African American settlers in Normal.

The McLean County Museum of History dedicated a new historical marker on Thursday that shares the story of Normal’s early African American residents.

The marker is across the street from where Simon Malone, one of the first African American residents in Normal, settled around 1867 after fleeing his native Mississippi as a fugitive slave. He was freed during a Union Army raid and later joined the Union Army during the Civil War.

Malone’s house burned down in a 1981 fire, and the site was memorialized. A year later, changes in Illinois Department of Transportation regulations led to the marker’s removal.

With the help of donors, the marker that represents early African American residents was revived four decades later. It stands on the southeast corner of Kingsley Junior High School, 303 Kingsley St.

The marker tells the story of Malone’s life in Normal and the challenges of fighting for freedom of enslaved persons. Museum director Julie Emig told the gathering it’s taken some detective work over the years to piece together Malone’s story, such as whether he actually built the home (he did not) or bought the home, and how many children lived there (nine).

“What is undisputed is that this was the Malone family home for decades and the first documented home that belonged to a Black family," said Emig. "This is relevant and immediate for today. Redlining and zoning challenges remain (for Black residents.”

The marker also names several other Black families in Normal and noted the town had more than 100 African American residents by 1870. Malone died in 1925.

Norris Porter, the museum’s director of development, said it's important to reflect history in a way that's unbiased and accurate.

“In the early days, we didn’t tell the story of those groups that weren’t white Anglo-Saxons,” Porter said. “It was important, and it remains important, to tell the entire story so that we have a complete picture of history, not a slanted view of history.”

Illinois State Historical Society board member Bob Sampson said the new marker is a symbol of how history is not carved in stone by any one generation.

“It is rather a painting, revised and enhanced by other artists that succeeding generations whose work is to widen perspective, add missing details, and to create a more representative picture of the past,” Sampson said.

The Simon Malone marker is the seventh marker to be refurbished through the historic marker matching gift initiative. The next marker the McLean County Museum of History plans to dedicate will be on Aug. 3 at the McLean County Home for Colored Children, later named for educator and reformer Booker T. Washington.

Megan Spoerlein was a reporting intern at WGLT.