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Woodford County Museum Project Fundraising To Commemorate Illinois' First Black Voter, And The Struggle That Followed

David Strother moved to El Paso from Peoria in 1864 where he operated a barbershop for 40 years. He was the first Black man to vote in Illinois following certification of the 15th Amendment.
Tory Dahlhoff
David Strother moved to El Paso from Peoria in 1864 where he operated a barbershop for 40 years. He was the first Black man to vote in Illinois following certification of the 15th Amendment.

Efforts are underway to create a museum in Woodford County dedicated to the first Black man in Illinois to cast a ballot after the ratification of the 15th Amendment.

Tim Shelley spoke with Michael Melick, a board member of the Project XV Museum in El Paso.

TIM SHELLEY: So first, I guess just for people who are not familiar with this, tell me a little bit about what you're trying to do.

MICHAEL MELICK: So I'm one of the social studies teachers at El Paso-Gridley High School. And through our "Investigating History" class, we discovered that there was the first Black voter in the state of Illinois from our town here in El Paso. And then, through some additional discovery, we found out that the place where he had his barber shop for several decades, is still in existence. And then through a little bit more research, we found out that the building owners of that building were interested in preserving his legacy by turning the space into a museum.

So I had my Investigating History class, do some research and create eight different proposals for exhibits that we could place into this museum. And the building owners are like, 'Alright, let's do it.' And I'm like, 'Wait, what?' And they're like, 'let's actually open the museum.'

I mean, this was just a, a thought experiment, hypothetical. And they're like, no, let's do it. Let's open the museum. And so here we are. We started a not-for-profit, Project XV. And our goal is to tell this story, this history that belongs in El Paso of David Strother, being the first Black man in the state of Illinois to vote after the certification of the 15th Amendment. And then to expand on that legacy by continuing to advocate for voters and voting rights and election security.

TIM SHELLEY: So let's talk a little bit about the building itself. So this building, you're hoping, will actually house this museum talking about David Strother and voting rights?

MICHAEL MELICK: Yeah, so the building is located at 1 West Front Street, right in downtown El Paso at the corner of Front Street and Central Street.

And he actually had a subterranean barber shop, it was underground. And there was a staircase right off the central street that you could take down to his his barber shop. And that still existed actually, even after David passed in the early 20th century, other barbers continued to operate, and they were still giving haircuts well into the late 1900s. Several people in town have stories recalling how they used to go to that barber shop to get haircuts when they were younger.

Since that time, the city has closed up that subterranean access and put a sidewalk over it. So one of our first, and unfortunately, more expensive projects is going to be reopening that sidewalk to get subterranean access to the location of his barber shop, and then we'll also have to renovate it. And we're going to try and get it as close to the 1870s style, 1890s style that we can.

TIM SHELLEY: And you talked about a little bit about your students kind of brainstorming some ideas for exhibits. What kind of exhibits would somebody see when the museum's complete?

MICHAEL MELICK: Sure, the space is kind of split into two separate areas. And when we had the class, the Investigating History class, we kind of call it the David Strother room or the 1870 room. And then we had the the Civil Rights movement room.

As we discovered in our Investigating History class, the 15th Amendment was great in the sense that it forbids states to deny someone the right to vote based on race or previous condition of servitude. But that did not stop states from finding other ways to prevent people from exercising their right to vote. They came up with a myriad of blockages to actually exercising the franchise things like grandfather clauses, literacy tests, poll taxes, and other discriminatory means, just straight up terrorism through the Ku Klux Klan, and ways that they tried to prevent people from exercising their constitutional right to vote.

And so if we just looked at the 15th Amendment in our museum, we would be doing a huge disservice. Because the 15th amendment, while it was an excellent starting point, and gave a constitutional basis for future advocacy, it was not the be all, end all. And it took a lot of effort through the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed that went even a step further in securing what the 15th Amendment set out to do 100 years earlier.

And so the first room is going to start by trying to put you in the timeframe of what 1870 would be like we're gonna have some things that will be like, this is what it was like in 1870. Here's what the headlines were. Here's what people would learn in school, if they had schools at that point, then we're going to tell the story of the 15th Amendment who brought it up, who advocated for it, who were some people that were against the passage of the 15th Amendment, and ultimately how it got ratified and certified by Congress.

Then we're going to do a little bit on David Strother himself. He was a Black business owner for several decades. He was a voter. He was a pioneer. Him and his brother Charles both worked in that barber shop, and were well respected El Paso residents for a long time. So we also have the obligation to tell his personal story.

And then we have to, unfortunately, tell the story of how the 15th Amendment was not the, you know, savior piece of legislation that everyone kind of hoped it would be, we have to tell the dark side about how, you know, certain governments work to prevent that right to vote from actually being actualized. But then we're going to continue on in the next room and talk about those who fought against those who fought against the 15th Amendment. It's kind of this cycle of legislation gets passed that expands rights. People resist that legislation, to other ways. And so people have to fight that. And it's this struggle of Americans fighting for the better actualization of our constitutional rights.

TIM SHELLEY: Where exactly are you at in the timeline here? I know the the first fundraiser is tomorrow night, correct?

MICHAEL MELICK: Yeah, so the class that I taught that kind of came up with a lot of these ideas, I taught in 2019. And so it's been kind of a slow roll these first couple years, kind of getting things going, getting things in place, talking about, can we do this? Do we have enough support from our community and from the region? And once we decided that, you know, what, whether we have the support or not, we've got to make an effort to make this happen. We're like, alright, let's get organized. And let's welcome people to our journey.

And that's kind of what tomorrow is going to be. It's going to be hey, here's who we are. Here's what we're celebrating. Who wants to join us in this, this endeavor of making voting rights a permanent thing, of helping people exercise their right to vote. And so tomorrow is kind of the launch. It's the... here's who we are, here's what we are planning on doing. Here's some things we need your help on. And let's all go on a journey.

TIM SHELLEY: Do you have a fundraising goal you're trying to hit?

MICHAEL MELICK: Really more than the money at this point, we need allies. We need people who support our cause who want to see this come about. And it's not a one-off, let's get this pile of money thing. It's a, we're starting a long journey. This is a single step. Who would like to walk beside us? And so that's kind of what tomorrow is, more than setting any goals. Obviously, it would be nice to get enough money raised that we can start some of the the brick and mortar renovations to get this space ready. But I don't think we have a set number in mind.

TIM SHELLEY: So hoping for a strong turnout tomorrow?

MICHAEL MELICK: Honestly, people are everything. You know, dollars will be there if the people support it. And so we're looking to get people, more than money.

TIM SHELLEY: Anything else you want to add or you'd like to tell people about this?

MICHAEL MELICK: Come ready for a good time. Be ready to dance party. You know, David Strother's story is an amazing one. It very easily could have been a heartbreaking one. But it's not. It's a celebration. He was able to exercise his right to vote, as was his brother a couple hours later, and that needs to be celebrated. So we'll be singing, we'll be dancing. We'll be making plans to tell this story to a much larger audience and we'll be gearing up to fight for those whose right to vote is still being compromised. So we've got a lot of work to do, but it's great work and it's work that, you know, makes us a great country.

The "David Strother Birthday Bash" starts at 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14 at 1 W. Front St., El Paso. Nikita Richards will give the keynote address. Live music will be performed by Dennis Stroughmatt and the Creole Stomp. Tickets are $15. Click here for more details.

Click here to learn more about the Project XV Museum and David Strother.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.