Exploring a hidden treasure: Maywood’s West Town Museum of Cultural History

MAYWOOD, Ill. — The West Town Museum of Cultural History is something like a hidden treasure tucked away in Maywood at the corner of St. Charles Road and 5th Avenue. While you are there you will definitely learn a lot about national history, but the small but mighty museum makes a point to highlight people with roots and connections to Maywood and Proviso Township, like scientist Percy Julian, Black Panther Fred Hampton, NBA coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers and pilot Bessie Coleman.

Dorothy Hall, the Acting Curator for the West Town Museum of Cultural History, is a lively storyteller.

“Rosa Parks paid the same money to get on the bus to have a seat and she sat down then somebody else came and they said get up and she didn’t want to get up,” Hall recently told a group of fourth graders from Emerson Elementary School.

During the tour she shares the wealth of history filling the walls and rooms of museum to life for the students. Her goal is to inspire and educate them about Black history.

“We came from wealth and kings and queens,” Hall said.

Eighty percent of the West Town Museum of Cultural History focuses on African American history. The tightly packed walls inside shed light on stories most history books don’t tell.

“Black history is American history. You can’t separate them,” the museum’s executive director George Stone II said.

From exhibits on local military heroes, politicians and Maywood’s first Black families, Stone wants visitors to appreciate the sacrifices and leadership of local everyday people.

“It’s a self-esteem booster for youth in this community,” Stone said.

One of the local lessons on the wall comes from the Suburban Echo-Reporter. In 1967, Fred Hampton, the Deputy Chairman of the National Black Panther Party, led a student walkout at Proviso East High School after black students were treated unfairly. Two-hundred students were suspended and the U.S. Department of Justice and the NAACP stepped in to get students back to class.

Each year, lessons like this attract Emerson Elementary School fourth grade teacher Rebecca Dunkle back for a field trip.

“There are so many resources and information here that the kids always leave and they write these great thank you notes about what they learn and what they didn’t know,” she said.

The West Town Museum of Cultural History is in operation thanks to the dedication of Stone’s mother, Northica Hillery-Stone who died in 2018. If the last name Hillery rings a bell, that’s because Northica and her son are WGN-TV reporter Jewell Hillery’s cousins.

Hillery-Stone was highly respected as a community pillar and worked tirelessly for decades helping minorities access jobs and training through Operation Uplift Inc., the non-profit she led with her husband George Stone Sr. The museum opened inside of the Operation Uplift headquarters in 1995. Soon after, Hillery-Stone and the museum’s first curator Laurietta Stenson, affectionately called “Jeri,” came across a significant find.

“She discovered along with my mother’s research the Underground Railroad and received the Studs Terkel award for her research,” Stone said.

According to that research, a 10-Mile Freedom House, used to hide freedom seekers running from slavery, stood on the land where the McDonald’s is at 1st Avenue and Lake Street at the Des Plaines River in Maywood.

“It was part of the freedom quest for folks in the 1850’s and 60’s,” Mike Rogers, an architect who serves as Advisory Council for West Town, said.

Rogers has created a model of the Freedom House as an exhibit and also designed a memorial for the Underground Railroad location outside of McDonald’s.

“To stand there and realize this was a part of the land where people were starting to taste this thing that we now know as freedom,” Rogers said.

Before her Hillery-Stone tried to have the site nationally recognized by the National Park Service Registry. That designation requires gathering a load of historical documents as proof and submitting a lengthy application. George is now leading the effort, but it’s a challenge with two staff members and volunteers.

“The actual structure was a known structure a very mysterious structure but known to see negro bodies cowering in the bushes at night, a lot of rumor about that.” Stone said.

Along with securing National Underground Railroad Designation, Stone also wants to fulfill another one of his mom’s dreams and that’s to build a brand-new museum next door.

“She wanted an African Quonset hut type structure multi level with a gallery and such,” he said.

A larger space will allow more students and visitors to experience the rich history inside of the West Town Museum of Cultural History, each piece placed over the years with precision and love.

“What it’s all about is shedding light onto things that might otherwise be in darkness and the Operation Uplift and the West Town Museum becomes the shedding of that light on things that might be completely lost,” Rogers said.

If you’d like to learn more about the West Town Museum of Cultural History you can call 708-343-3554.

Chicago News