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El Paso's Project XV Museum shares voting rights stories, including their own—but it's not open yet

A historic storefront with Project XV Museum above its windows in block lettering.
Lauren Warnecke
Project XV and the adjacent Legacy Building are owned by El Paso resident Tabitha Nowark. The Legacy Building once housed an opera house and barber shop owned by David Strother, the first Black man to vote in Illinois after the 15th Amendment of the Constitution was ratified in 1870.

A new museum in El Paso had hoped to be open by now. But Project XV is making steady progress converting a 19th century barber shop into a series of exhibits on voting rights.

The centerpiece of the future Project XV Museum, named for the 15th Amendment of the Constitution granting Black men the right to vote, is a subterranean barber shop on Front Street owned and operated by El Paso resident David Strother for 40 years.

Strother was the first Black man in Illinois to cast a ballot. His brother Charlie was the second.

The impetus to create a voting rights museum came in 2019 from a group of El Paso-Gridley high schoolers in Michael Melick's history class. They were excited to learn about El Paso's prominent place in voting rights history and visited his then-dilapidated barber shop.

But a hypothetical class project is on its way to becoming the real deal, thanks in large part to founding board chair Tabitha Nowark.

“That’s what you get for bringing hypotheticals to Tabitha,” said Melick.

Nowark owns the corner lot now called the Legacy Building containing Strother's shop and a former opera house-turned event space and Airbnb. She heard the students’ proposal and vowed to make it happen.

“Here we are; promise fulfilled,” Melick said. “It’s happening.”

Those high schoolers graduated and moved on. Some have kids of their own. But Project XV is not just for them.

“All kids can benefit,” Melick said. “Even adults can learn lessons here. There’s a lot of the story of voting history that we just never bother to look because it’s easy for you and I to get registered. We just hop online, click a button and boom—registered to vote. We’ve taken a lot of the challenges out of it but it wasn’t always that way.”

‘History forced our hand’

Strother was born a free man in Missouri. His mother bought her way out of slavery and moved the family to Peoria. He worked on river boats and served as a cook in Ulysses S. Grant's campaign at the Battle of Vicksburg. An army buddy persuaded him to settle in El Paso in 1864.

Strother's restored barber shop forms the centerpiece of Project XV, but it’s not all of it. They could have stopped there but didn't; the museum winds 4,000 square feet through the Legacy Building’s basement, presenting a semi-chronological journey from pre- to post-colonial America, and including voting rights among Black and indigenous people, women and immigrants. Much of the museum will be narrative-driven, with select artifacts on display. An interactive VR exhibit recreates Strother in his shop, allowing visitors to get a virtual haircut from him and experience life in 19th century El Paso.

Melick said history unfolding in real time as the board formed in 2020 convinced them to take a broader approach.

“History kind of forced our hand and said, you’ve got to do better than this. And we listened,” Melick said.

Listening drew additional stakeholders to Project XV. Board members include Bloomington-Normal NAACP president Linda Foster, former District 11 superintendent of schools Jim Miller and State of Illinois Communications and Legislative Affairs Officer Nikita Richards, who lobbied state Rep. Cyril Nichols to sponsor a bill enshrining Strother’s legacy as one of the first Black men in America to cast a ballot in a U.S. election.

“We made history,” Melick said. “It was wired through the AP. There were newspapers across the country reporting on this. It’s our story and we need to tell it. And this is a great jumping off point to tell the story of people who might not be represented in this town. Their history matters, too.”

Gala fundraiser

Casey Sepich is an audiologist at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington. She and her husband moved to El Paso with their two kids about five years ago. Sepich was not aware of Strother’s story but saw a notice on Facebook about Project XV’s gala a few years ago.

“Who doesn’t love to dress up and go to a gala?” she said.

Sepich gradually stepped up by volunteering with Project XV, then became a full-fledged board member.

“I was blown away by the story,” she said. “I could not believe that this was here in a tiny town. My husband and I both grew up in a tiny town and always wanted to live in one. We weren’t always impressed by what happens in tiny towns, but this blew me away. I knew from the very first moment that I wanted to be involved.”

Two people stand in front of a red wall with blue, white and black dots and text reading to those preserving history and empowering citizens to vote.
Lauren Warnecke
Project XV board members Michael Melick, left, and Casey Sepich.

Saturday’s gala is a fundraiser to continue the build out, including a costly elevator needed to make the exhibits accessible to everyone. The evening includes a cocktail hour and desserts with performances by Star Lyht and Devin Williams—plus tours of the museum in progress.

“Every bit of progress you’ll see has come from the community buy-in,” Sepich said. “We have volunteers from high school to adults coming in and helping, and hundreds of hours’ worth of research help from ISU.”

Grant dollars have helped the nonprofit, but most of Project XV's progress is locally-sourced. Of all its features, Melick is most excited about the museum's classroom, including a big conference table for post-field trip discussions, plus art projects sponsored by Illinois Art Station.

“This is where we get to answer those questions and interact with them so it’s not a museum and then leave,” Melick said. “It’s a museum and then let’s discuss.”

A reason to stop and stay awhile

In addition to haircuts, David Strother’s clientele could get a shower and shave at his barber shop, conveniently located just across the street from a train depot serving two intersecting lines.

“Kind of like our restaurants off by I-39 now, we don’t know who they are—they stop, they grab a meal and they go—I think a lot his clientele were people who would stop, hop on the train and go. But we also know that the mayor frequented here. When he passed, his obituary said everyone in town loved him and used to come here to get their hair cut."

The only trains going through El Paso these days are freight trains. And they don't stop. At the I-39 onramp, a sign points east to "beautiful parks." Before you reach those parks, downtown El Paso is showing signs of life that can only get more vibrant once Project XV opens. In addition to local and regional visitors, Project XV will likely coincide with an uptick in tourism to El Paso, making it a destination rather than a place to simply pass through on the way to somewhere else.

The board won't say when that is, though. For a while, April 4, 2024 was on the books—to mark the 154th anniversary of David Strother casting his ballot in a municipal election. As most things do, it's taking longer and is more expensive than they hoped. But Project XV knew they'd only get one shot at doing this—and they want to do it right.

As a nonprofit, the museum does not weigh in on candidates or causes, aiming to present stories which have previously been ignored or erased. But Melick has encountered folks who are skeptical of Project XV and the uncomfortable truths it lays bare.

“We’re not here to indoctrinate one way or the other,” he said. “We’re not here to say this is what you should feel. We’re here to say: Here’s how to vote. Here’s some issues that are being discussed. Vote however you want, but we want you informed. We want you to know how to continue to be informed, and we want you to be active in your community.”

“We all love our country,” Sepich said. “Nobody loves it less than anybody else. The more you know about it, the more you can love it.”

The Project XV Museum Gala takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Legacy Building, 1 W. Front Street, El Paso. Tickets are $75, available at projectxvmuseum.com.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.