NPR from Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

History Museum Shines Light On Dark Moments Of McLean County's Past

Bloomington police stand guard
McLean County Museum of History
Bloomington Police stand guard at Bloomington High School after several fights between white and African-American students in 1970.

Local history can be light. A barbershop that has been in business for 90 years. That time a sitting president stopped in town and had breakfast at a diner.

But a new exhibit opening Saturday at the McLean County Museum of History aims to prove that the dark moments in the community’s past can be quite illuminating. Curator Sarah Hartzold said the museum needed to address some of the less positive episodes in our history.

“Those events in our history represent a lot of what has happened in our community and can really inform people of the differences people had, and those are stories that are as important to tell as the stories of what we felt positive about,” Hartzold said.

“Challenges, Choices, & Change: A Community in Conflict” is the fifth and final permanent exhibit created using funds from the museum’s Extending Excellence capital campaign. Hartzold said the museum has never taken a direct look at the topic of how various groups and individuals behaved toward each other and how who holds the power plays into the outcome of conflicts.

Credit Jet Magazine
Merlin Kennedy, dressed as Santa Claus, walked along the 1966 Bloomington Christmas Parade route when police would not allow his NAACP float into the parade.

“By looking into this,” Hartzold said, “it will really inform us more about how we treated each other in the past, how things have changed or maybe not changed, and I think there are really important stories to share.”

One of those discussed is the Rev. Levi Spencer, who came to Bloomington in 1844 and started the first abolitionist society in a town populated mostly by southern transplants who felt African-Americans were property and slavery was lawful. Hartzold said the reaction to Spencer’s views was not positive. There was a $100 reward out for anyone who would tar and feather the man.

“Spencer’s home was attacked with eggs, and as it got dark that evening, they began to throw bricks as well. Can you imagine the fear and terror that he felt while this was happening?”

The exhibit will also reference more recent episodes, such as racial tensions at Bloomington High School in the early 1970s, and when the late Marlin Kennedy famously and defiantly portrayed a black Santa Claus in the 1966 Christmas parade. His Santa suit is actually part of the exhibit.

You can learn many more stories like Spencer’s at the “Challenges, Choices, & Change: A Community in Conflict” exhibit. It opens at the McLean County Museum of History at 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 9.

People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.

New Exhibit - Full Story

Sean Newgent is a senior journalism major at Illinois State University. He's an intern for the GLT newsroom.
Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.