The Henry Ford Museum

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan (part of metropolitan Detroit) probably ranks among the best history museums in the United States.  I have not been there since 2006, so it may have changed a bit since then. 

Born in 1863, Henry Ford became famous for pioneering the concept of an assembly line.  Using this concept, he created the Model T automobile, which became a bestseller.  He helped make the first automobile that was affordable to the general public.  His legacy continues today under the Ford Motor Company, which still makes Ford cars.

A Ford Model T at The Henry Ford Museum

Due to his interest in inventions and innovations, Ford began collecting items that represented this interest.  Eventually, his collection grew to become The Henry Ford Museum.  After his childhood home was almost demolished, he saved it and moved it to an area right outside the Museum.  This triggered an interest in moving and restoring other historically significant buildings from throughout the United States.  Ultimately, this collection of historic buildings became Greenfield Village.

Today, tourists can visit the main Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, and also take a Ford factory tour.  Each of these places have their own admission prices, none of which are cheap.  I have not done the factory tour, but have visited the other two locations.

The Henry Ford Museum is large, so I do not believe that I saw everything there.  However, two exhibits stood out to me the most.  The first was an automobile exhibit that contained a large variety of cars from throughout the 20th century, including some famous ones.  For instance, the Lincoln Continental limousine that President John F. Kennedy rode when he got shot on November 22, 1963 is on display there.

This is the limo that John F. Kennedy was shot in.

The second exhibit that I vividly remember was called “With Liberty and Justice for All.”  It provides a historical timeline of how people gained freedom in the United States, beginning with the American people gaining freedom from England during the Revolutionary War.  The exhibit then proceeds with other movements, such as the Woman’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement.  The former included a display about how women were often arrested for marching for their rights.  Then, while in prison, they often attempted to continue their protests by going on hunger strikes.  In response to this, the authorities would forcefully feed the women by using tubes to stuff food down their throats.  On August 18, 1920, it will be 100 years since women throughout the entire United States gained the right to vote.

The Chair That Abraham Lincoln Was Shot In

Another part of the “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibit featured the African American Civil Rights movement.  This exhibit included the chair from Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., which President Abraham Lincoln sat on when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.  However, in my opinion, the exhibit’s highlight was the Montgomery, Alabama bus that Rosa Parks famously rode.  On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white passenger.  This led to the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, in which African Americans decided to stop using the Montgomery buses as a form of protest to their unequal treatment.  Museum visitors can sit on the same seat that Rosa Parks sat on.

Rosa Parks’ Bus

As previously mentioned, Greenfield Village began with Henry Ford’s boyhood home, but eventually grew to become an entire village of historical homes.  It is a living history museum, meaning that it attempts to recreate the past by allowing visitors to enter its buildings of varying ages.  The famous buildings that Henry Ford relocated to Greenfield Village include Thomas Edison’s workshop, where he invented the light bulb; the cabin of George Washington Carver, who invented peanut butter; the home of Noah Webster, who compiled a famous dictionary; and the home of the Wright Brothers, who invented the first successful airplane.  Although moving buildings from their original locations somewhat detracts their historical significance, at least they are being well-preserved in their new location.

You can see this 1832 bridge in Greenfield Village. Ford saved the Ackley Covered Bridge from demolition in 1937.

The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village are definitely worth a visit, especially if you are interested in U.S. history.

Sources and Further Reading

American Experience: Henry Ford. Directed by Sarah Colt. Boston: WGBH, 2013.

“History and Mission.” The Henry Ford. https://www.thehenryford.org/history-and-mission/henry-ford-collector/ (accessed May 29, 2020).

Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago

One of the oldest cemeteries in Chicago is Oak Woods Cemetery, which was founded in 1854, but started burying people in 1860.  Located in the South Side of Chicago, it used to be outside of Chicago’s boundaries, but that changed as the city grew.  What I enjoyed most about my visit there was discovering the diverse range of people buried in it.

When visiting an American cemetery, one of the most valuable websites is Findagrave.com.  It is basically a cemetery database.  Anybody with an account can add graves to it.  Some people actually add graves to it for fun, since it is an invaluable resource for genealogical research.  The more famous the cemetery, the more likely most, if not all, of its graves have been added to it.  What is even more amazing is that for famous graves, people often add photos and coordinate locations, so that you can easily find a specific grave using your GPS.  Before visiting Oak Woods Cemetery, I researched which famous people were buried there, and then used Findagrave and my phone’s GPS to find them.

Perhaps what makes Oak Woods Cemetery most unique is that, according to Rick Kogan’s May 31, 2013 article in the Chicago Tribune, it contains the largest known mass grave in the Western Hemisphere.  Known as the Confederate Mound, this mass grave contains the bodies of approximately 4,200 Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War.  The reason why these Southern troops were buried in the North is because they were prisoners of war living in a military prison in Chicago called Camp Douglas.  The conditions at the camp were terrible, however, a smallpox epidemic caused the deaths of most of the Confederate soldiers buried in the mass grave.  These soldiers’ bodies were actually relocated to Oak Woods Cemetery after the Civil War, because, according to the National Park Service, the U.S. Government had to close their original burial place, due to flooding.

Oak Woods Cemetery’s Confederate Mound

In 1895, an ex-Confederate group in Chicago erected a monument over Oak Woods’ Confederate mass grave.  In response, the following year, a Southern abolitionist erected a cenotaph (empty tomb in honor of a person or group) at Oak Woods in honor of Southern abolitionists.  Oak Woods also has a smaller monument over a mass grave of Union soldiers.

The Abolitionist Cenotaph at Oak Woods Cemetery
Oak Woods Cemetery’s Monument over the Graves of Union Soldiers

Ironically, Oak Woods not only houses dead Confederate troops, but also some famous African Americans.  My favorite person buried at Oak Woods is the Olympic running champion, Jesse Owens.  He famously represented the United States in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, where he beat a German runner, and thus disproved Hitler’s belief in the superiority of the “Aryan” race.  Other famous African Americans buried at Oak Woods include Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor, and Ida B. Wells, a journalist and civil rights activist.

The diversity of Oak Woods Cemetery does not end with Confederate soldiers and Civil Rights activists.  Not far from the Confederate Mound is a separate Jewish cemetery.  However, it is maintained by several synagogues instead of by Dignity Memorial, which maintains the rest of the cemetery.  Sadly, because of the huge expense of maintaining graves, and because the Jewish cemetery is older, the graves are in poor condition.

Oak Woods Cemetery’s Jewish Section

Last but not least, another famous person buried at Oak Woods Cemetery is Enrico Fermi.  He is the Italian scientist who created the first nuclear reactor, meaning that he helped create the atomic bomb.

Oak Woods Cemetery clearly shows that once we are dead, we are all truly equal, no matter what notions we may have about it while we are still alive. If only people could get along in life as they do in death.

You may also be interested in my post about Graceland Cemetery.

Sources and Further Reading

“Confederate Mound at Oak Woods Cemetery Chicago, Illinois.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/Illinois/Confederate_Mound_Oak_Woods_Cemetery.html (accessed May 29, 2020).

“It Tells His Life Story: Abolitionist Shaft in Oakwoods Erected by T.D. Lowther”. Chicago Tribune. June 9, 1896.

American Experience: Jesse Owens. Directed by Laurens Grant. Boston: WGBH, 2012. 

Kogan, Rick. “Camp Douglas Effort Stirs Ghosts of the Civil War.” Chicago Tribune. May 31, 2013. https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-xpm-2013-05-31-ct-ae-0602-kogan-sidewalks-20130531-story.html (accessed May 29, 2020).

“Oak Woods Cemetery.” Dignity Memorial. https://www.dignitymemorial.com/funeral-homes/chicago-il/oak-woods-cemetery/6248 (accessed May 29, 2020).

“Oak Woods Cemetery.” Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/173554/oak-woods-cemetery (accessed May 29, 2020).

“Oakwoods Cemetery.” Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois. https://jgsi.org/OakOakwoods-Cemeterywoods-Cemetery (accessed May 29, 2020).

Sheldon Peck Homestead and the Underground Railroad

In United States history, a person became a member of the “Underground Railroad” if he or she assisted slaves from the Southern states to escape to free areas where slavery was illegal (often the Northern states or Canada).  Nobody had to formally join an organization called the Underground Railroad to become a member.  The phrase was more of an allegorical term for the many people who assisted runaway slaves until 1863.  Members of the Underground Railroad did not solely consist of white abolitionists, but also included former slaves.  For example, the most famous “conductor” of the Underground Railroad was runaway slave Harriet Tubman, who in ten years, repeatedly returned South to help bring approximately 300 slaves to freedom.  (The new 2019 film Harriet is about this, and is worth watching.)

In 1998, the United States National Park Service began the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, which requires them to identify and preserve sites throughout the United States that were involved in the Underground Railroad.  However, since participation in the Underground Railroad was a clandestine activity, it is not easy to find documentation of who was involved.  This was especially the case after the Fugitive Slave Acts were passed in 1793, and then further enforced in 1850.  These laws punished those who assisted runaway slaves, and allowed Southerners to search for and recapture their runaway slaves in the free North.

The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom has documented 626 Underground Railroad sites in the United States so far (as of the end of 2019).  A map depicting how many sites are currently documented in each state can be found here: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/about-the-network-to-freedom.htm

Ohio and Maryland currently tie for the most sites: 83.  Next comes New York with 66, Pennsylvania with 54, and Virginia with 41.  Illinois ranks at number 9 with 24 sites.  I have visited two Illinois sites so far, the Sheldon Peck Homestead and Wheaton College.  Both are in the western suburbs of Chicago in Du Page County, which also has a few other sites. 

Sheldon Peck was a farmer and folk artist.  He built his home in rural Lombard, Illinois in 1839, and eventually opened up his home to be used as the first school in the area.  He was also a radical abolitionist (meaning that he wanted the immediate rather than gradual cessation of slavery) and worked as a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad.  The evidence of his involvement comes from his son’s oral testimony and diary.  Historians currently believe that the runaway slaves hid in his barn, which no longer stands, and not in his home, which does still stand.  This home is currently owned by the Lombard Historical Society.  It is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-4 and Saturdays from 10-2 (however, it is closed in December and January).  Admission is free.

Sheldon Peck Homestead located at 355 E Parkside Ave. Lombard, IL 60148.

Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois was founded by Wesleyan Methodist abolitionists in 1860.  Its first president was a staunch abolitionist named Jonathan Blanchard, who was also the College’s first president.  According to a sign about Wheaton College’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, located in the campus’ oldest building, Blanchard Hall, Wheaton became the first college in Illinois to graduate African Americans.  Blanchard Hall was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Wheaton College’s Blanchard Hall located at 501 College Ave. Wheaton, IL 60187.

Bonus Photo

Scotsman, Allan Pinkerton, is known as the founder of one of the first detective agencies in the United States. He helped prevent an assassination plot on Abraham Lincoln. However, his home was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, as is attested by his wonderful tombstone at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

Sources and Further Reading

“About the Network to Freedom.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/undergroundrailroad/about-the-network-to-freedom.htm (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Blanchard Hall.” Wheaton College. https://www.wheaton.edu/about-wheaton/visit-wheaton/campus-buildings/blanchard-hall/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Harriet Tubman.” PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1535.html (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Path to Freedom on Illinois’ Underground Railroad.” Enjoy Illinois. https://www.enjoyillinois.com/travel-illinois/illinois-underground-railroad/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

“The Pinkertons.” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/august-25/ (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1281.html (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Lombard Historical Society. https://www.lombardhistory.org/ugrr (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Underground%20Railroad (accessed November 28, 2019).

“Underground Railroad.” Wheaton College. http://a2z.my.wheaton.edu/underground-railroad (accessed November 28, 2019).

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Smithsonian is a network of 20 museums (as of January, 2020), that are run by the U.S. government.  The newest museum on the list opened in 2016, and is the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Like most of the Smithsonian museums, it is located in the Nation’s capital, Washington D.C. Since it’s Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, it seemed like a good week to describe this museum.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture was designed by a Ghanaian man named David Adjaye.

Although the Smithsonian museums are free, until recently, visitors to the African American museum needed to obtain free entrance tickets far in advance, due to the Museum’s popularity.  Now, since the Museum is not as new as it used to be, visitors are only required to obtain tickets on the weekends.  I visited the Museum on a weekday in 2019 between Christmas and New Year’s, and although I did not have to obtain an advance ticket, I did have to wait in line for 45 minutes just to get into the building.  Once inside, I had to wait an additional 45 minutes to go see the three exhibits on the lower levels, which provide a chronological display of African American history.  The Museum’s other three floors did not have lines, but because I waited in so many, I did not have a chance to see them.  They focus on the cultural aspects of African American history, such as famous athletes, musicians, and actors.  The second floor also has a library, but visitors can only enter by appointment.

Although the 45-minute line to enter the Museum was boring, I did have the privilege of overhearing a thought-provoking conversation while waiting.  The conversation was between two African American men, one appearing to be middle-aged, and the other possibly in college.  It is based on my memory, so may not be 100% word-for-word.

College-Age Man: Where are we?

Middle-Age Man: Do you mean where are we physically, or where are we going?

College-Age Man: Where are we going now?

Middle-Age Man: This is the African American history museum.

College-Age Man: Oh.  [Pause]  I was going to say a white people joke, but maybe this is not the best time.  [Pause]  It’s not that funny, but I was going to say that for being an African American history museum, there are a lot of white people here. 

Middle-Age Man: That’s not a bad thing.

College-Age Man: I know.

Middle-Age Man: I used to work with the Smithsonian, and we analyzed what kind of visitors came in.  Even for the African art exhibits, more white people visited than black people. [Pause] It’s a good thing that they built this museum.  The Holocaust museum, which is nearby, always has as many visitors as here, or more, and that museum isn’t even about something that happened on our soil.  But the African American museum is about what happened here.  We needed this museum.  I think you’ll like it.

The college-age man’s comments made me analyze my surroundings, and despite his comments about the number of white people in line, the majority were not white.  This then made me come back to what the middle-age man said about how more white visitors tended to visit the Smithsonian museums than black people.  I am not an expert on this topic, but my guess is that this is because museums were not a part of African American culture for a long time, since they were enslaved, historically barred entrance into many cultural institutions, or were underpaid and needed to save their money for more important needs.  Perhaps, many museums are often not as relevant to African Americans (i.e. art museums in the U.S. tended to focus more on European art, and less on other types).  Regardless, I am thankful that, after several decades of trying to make it happen, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was finally created.  I have visited several of the main Smithsonian museums, and the African American one is definitely among the top 3.

This is a timeline of the slave trade in the Americas. Portugal brought the most African slaves to the Americas: 5.8 million people.

I spent several hours at the Museum, and probably only saw a third of it, so make sure you allot plenty of time if you ever visit.  Among the many things you will see are a slave cabin, a segregated train, Nat Turner’s Bible (he led a slave rebellion), a plane used by the Tuskegee Airmen (African American WWII pilots), and Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal.

This is a nineteenth-century slave auction block from Hagerstown, Maryland.

In addition to the 45-minute line to enter the Museum, and the other 45-minute line to enter the main history exhibit, I waited an additional 45-minutes to enter the Emmett Till Memorial.  This line was very confusing, because it wrapped around the segregated train, making me first think that the line was for entering the train.  However, I eventually learned that I was in the line for the Emmett Till Memorial.  The Memorial is important, especially if you do not know about Till, since this is the only place in the Museum that talks about him.  Nevertheless, I am still not sure why the line went so slowly.  It contains Emmet Till’s casket, but why he is no longer in it is a different story for a different blog post.

Sources and Further Reading

“The Building.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/building (accessed January 6 2019).

“Facts about the Smithsonian Institution.” Smithsonian. https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/factsheets/facts-about-smithsonian-institution (accessed January 6 2019).

“Museum Maps.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/visit/maps (accessed January 6 2019).

“The Building.” National Museum of African American History & Culture. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/building (accessed January 6 2019).

DuSable Museum of African American History

After the American Civil War, freed slaves began migrating to the northern United States.  This trend continued into the beginning of the twentieth century, as the Ku Klux Klan revived in 1915, and as African Americans in the South sought better job opportunities in the North.  The migration of African Americans to the North between 1910 to 1960 is known as the “Great Migration.”  Because of the Great Migration, the two cities with the largest African American populations are located in the North: New York City and Chicago, respectively.

Because Chicago has a rich African American history, the DuSable Museum of African American History opened up in Chicago in 1961.  The museum originally began in the home of its founder, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, but in 1971, moved to its current home, which is a beautiful building that used to be an administration and police lockup facility.  Located on the South Side of Chicago, where most African Americans live, the museum is named after Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a Hatian trader who is considered the first permanent non-Native American resident of Chicago.

The main exhibit of the museum provides a timeline of African American history, beginning with the slave trade, but then eventually narrows down to Chicago’s African American history.  One aspect of Chicago’s African American history that the museum highlights is the Pullman Car Company, which used to hire African Americans as porters on its trains, and paid them better than many other jobs that hired African Americans at the time.  The museum also mentions the story of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who was lynched when he went to visit relatives in Mississippi, because he allegedly whistled at a white woman.  This tragedy, which occurred in 1955, was one of the many injustices of the South that helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. actually visited Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement.  In 1965, he was invited to Chicago to address the segregation there, and started what became the Chicago Freedom Movement.  If you would like to learn more about Chicago’s unfair housing situation during that time, read or watch Lorraine Hansberry’s famous 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun.  Unfortunately, the violence and poverty of Chicago’s South Side would probably not be in such a sad state if African Americans had been integrated equally in Chicago when they first arrived.  Chicago’s historic practice of housing segregation is why such a large number of African Americans live south of the Chicago River in the first place.

In 1965, the northern Chicago suburb of Winnetka invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak there, because it had segregated housing rules at the time. You can see this plaque at the Winnetka Village Green.

Chicago is considered by some to be the birthplace of modern gospel music. The first gospel choir was begun in 1931 in an African American church called Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, which is still an active church today.

4501 S. Vincennes Ave. Chicago, IL 60653

This church attests to how the South Side has historically been the home of Chicago’s immigrants. Before being an African American neighborhood, Bronzeville was a Jewish immigrant neighborhood. Note that the Church’s cornerstone is using the Jewish year (which is based on rabbinic calculations of the Bible’s genealogies) rather than the Gregorian calendar.  It used to be a synagogue called Temple Isaiah. In case you’re wondering, 5659 is 1898.

Some famous African American jazz musicians lived in Chicago for a while. Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood has the homes of Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. They are still lived in, and not open to the public.

Nat King Cole’s Chicago home: 4023 S. Vincennes Ave. Chicago, IL 60653
Louis Armstrong’s Chicago home: 421 E. 44th St. Chicago, IL 60653

One final exhibit at the DuSable Museum that I thought was kind of fun was an animatronic of Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, who served from 1983 to 1987.  The exhibit has Harold Washington talking to you.

If you want to learn more about Chicago’s African American history, then the DuSable Museum is a great place to start.

Sources and Further Reading

Bada, Ferdinand. “Cities with the Largest African-American Populations.” WorldAtlas. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/cities-with-the-largest-african-american-populations.html (accessed October 26, 2019). 

“DuSable Museum of African-American History.” The New York Times, January 30, 2013. https://archive.is/20130130235748/http://travel.nytimes.com/travel/guides/north-america/united-states/illinois/chicago/attraction-detail.html?vid=1154654606497#selection-1415.0-1415.42  (accessed October 26, 2019).

“The Great Migration.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. http://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/The-Great-Migration.pdf (accessed October 26, 2019).

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Modern Library, 1995.

Landers, Betsy. “Martin Luther King, Jr. in Winnetka.” Winnetka Historical Society. http://www.winnetkahistory.org/gazette/martin-luther-king-jr-in-winnetka/ (accessed October 26, 2019).

“Museum History.” The DuSable Museum of African American History. https://www.dusablemuseum.org/museum-history/ (accessed October 26, 2019).

Ralph, James. “Martin Luther King, Jr., in Chicago.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1438.html (accessed October 26, 2019).