Rockford’s Rich Black History Being Buried

Rockford’s rich black history began in 1834 when a young 22 year old slave by the name of Lewis Lemon, made the journey from what is now Galena Illinois to what is now Rockford Illinois via the Rock River with his then master Germanicus Kent and a fellow explorer, later turned school teacher/farmer Thatcher Blake. It is also known that approximately 4 plus years later, Lewis Lemon was able to purchases his freedom from Germanicus Kent but that is about as far as it goes.  Very little else is really known about Rockford’s first black founder except the little that can be found about him in some of the old journals and books carefully secured in certain places and of course the fact that he was buried in what is now referred to as Greenwood Cemetery with an inscription on his gravestone that reads “Born slave–Died Free”. Now there are none left to help us discover more about the beginning of this city’s black history regarding this man.

Other point of interest that encompasses our rich history is dates and events listed below;
1875: First Black graduates from Rockford Central High School. David Sumner goes on to become a podiatrist.  1891: Peter Blakely founds Allen Chapel A.M.E., Rockford's first black church.  1893: Daniel Hale Williams, a former Rockford resident and prominent Chicago Surgeon, conducts the first successful closure of an open heart wound.  1925: E.W. Williamson, the first black to run for public office, loses his independent bid for 5th ward alderman.  1954: Constance Lane becomes the first African American to teach public school in Rockford.  1971: Victory Bell wins a seat on the city council and in doing so becomes the first black to hold municipal office.  1971: After a 20-year run, the weekly black newspaper, Crusader, folds.  1973: Ralph Lee appointed the city's first black firefighter and 1989: The city's first African American mayor, Charles Box receives 63 percent of the vote and wins re-election four years later with 71 percent, but when and where are these milestones celebrated?  Maybe we stop to take stock during the month of February but not so much at any other time.

I suggest, we celebrate nothing that gives us pride of ownership and helps us to consider that our limitations are not those placed upon us but those we place upon ourselves.  We construct nothing that will help those coming after us see how all races, creed, ethnicity, sex, religion and nationality is what builds a city, instead we resign ourselves to sit firmly and waddle in self-pity seeking nothing but destruction.  I say, if it is our intention to raise a nation of seekers and finders, we need to first provide them with the roadmap which has led them here.  And lest we forget, the most important lesson that we can teach our children is not to ever devalue to contribution of any race when it comes to our city’s history of those who toiled and sacrificed to establish and build this city and the surrounding areas we enjoy today. 

It may be whispered that the reason we know little about our history is because those who hold the pens and controls the paper do not want us to but the real truth is today is different than it was years ago and those who now holds the pens and the papers are us.  So excuses for failing to educate our youth do not rest firmly with those who are now gone, it rests as neatly upon all of our shoulders as well.  It may have started with them but it ends with us. We know about those previously mentioned events and dates because they have been recorded but what about other prominent events and occurrences that has shaped our city and enriched our history?

I ask this question because a recent event has allowed me an opportunity to learn a little bit more about this rich history of which I speak and write about today.  Something that I believe should inspire our youth to see that celebrated success, if graded strictly upon money, can be reached in other fashions outside of becoming a rap star and playing collegiate and professional sports.  It can be achieved by a little hard work and a lot of perseverance.  That achievement of success, if judged by one’s personal drive, is truly obtainable as in the example of things that are often never heard about and seldom, if ever, realized. 

Case and point, recently a lady by the name of Evelyn Barmore received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the City of Rockford for over 20 years of service to the Rockford Area.  Now for many that may not sound like much and if you ask her she will humbly agree but this kind of legacy ads greatly to our rich black history and deserves nothing less than respect and reverence of her accomplishments.  She opened Evelyn’s Hair Studio on Friday, September 10, 1993 at 2205 South Central Avenue, here in Rockford, Illinois and has been a staple in that community ever since.  She brings with her about 26 years of service in hair artistry and trust me when I say that there are very few greater at this craft than her.  Evelyn begin her journey to becoming a hair artistry icon some 4 years before she opened her shop and it was there she truly learned how to sculpture hair to not only fit that persons personality but their face as well.  Leaving her hair salon means that you will step outside of that door looking better than you have ever looked before and it seems like only she has the magic in her fingers to turn anyone ugly duckling into a beautiful swan.  Now this giant in the Hair Industry has extended her reach by bringing to Rockford a new line of hair care products that really does elevate hair care to a much higher level.  A level that many try desperately to achieve but few ever come close.  She is there now, waiting on others to catch up and the real beauty behind this lady is she has made it a point to reach back and help as many as she can obtain that level of success.  Stop by or call to see for yourself, you will be amazed, delighted and blessed to be in her presence.

She is but one who has expanded the measure of our true richness of our history and like her others have achieved a level of success that is never revealed to our youth.  A youth that desperately needs something to believe in besides despair.  I, myself, have been blessed to possibly be the first black owned Freight Transportation and Brokerage Company as well as possibly the first black owned Financial and Consulting Service Company in Rockford but make no mistake; we are not the only ones.  There are so many blacks who have contributed to our rich history and many more making their way to place their flag on this mountaintop.  These are the stories we should be sharing with our young folks.  Not the ones of how we were bonded in slavery because a form of slavery will always exist and it does nothing but makes us resign ourselves to accept a less than status.  Tell them about Evelyn Barmore, how she came from little to achieve so great.  Tell them about Lewis Lemon who was born a slave but died a free man.  Tell them about any of the names mentioned above and watch as you transform them from a person who seems to think all hope is lost to a person whose shoulders are now straight and spine strong.

Realize that just simply blaming others for your failures is now not enough, you have to step up, stand up to be counted and what you have to say really is important.  Know that for every good dream you have, a bad one disappears forever.  Keep our children believing in themselves as this is the first one of only two things that those of us who knows better have to do.  The last and final thing of those two is to teach our children that even the smallest of positive contributions will lead to a larger success.  Educate yourself in our rich history because it is not up to strangers to teach our children about our history, that task falls strictly and squarely upon us.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS OF SOURCES:
A Tinker Cottage Blog located www.tinkercottagemuseum.wordpress.com

Rockford’s Black History located at www.rockfordillinois.com/black1.htm

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