African American History Museum expands outreach

Hires first executive director, who has a personal connection to Springfield's history

The Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum received a grant that allowed the museum to hire Nalo Mitchell as its first executive director.

Nalo Mitchell's "aha moment," after serving two months as the inaugural executive director of the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum, is the willingness of individuals to share their personal and familial histories, even if they are difficult or emotional, and how it has shaped them as individuals. These stories continually improve and expand her knowledge of the Black experience in central Illinois as Mitchell progresses in her role. "I have been learning as I go and as I grow," said Mitchell.

Interestingly, Mitchell's new role has also expanded her understanding of her own family history and personal story. An exhibition at the museum features Mitchell's family as one of Springfield's first Black families to settle in the area. However, when she took on her current position, a local historian who learned about her connection to Springfield informed her that historical records suggest her relatives were among the victims who lost their homes in the tragic Springfield riots of 1908.

"It's moving and shocking all at the same time, knowing that part of my blood or my lineage actually lost their homes in the 1908 race massacre," expressed Mitchell.

This revelation has fueled her desire to learn more about her family's history and has further strengthened her commitment to serving the community.

"My passion has grown since I have been here," said Mitchell. "There is an indebtedness in my heart to make sure these stories are shared broader than just our museum."

With Mitchell joining the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum and a committed board of directors and community partners, the museum has achieved a trifecta that guarantees a bright future full of potential. Together, they share a passion for the museum's success, ensuring its position in the community as a trusted source for collecting, interpreting and sharing stories that similar institutions and textbooks have neglected.

Additionally, Mitchell is focusing on creating an inclusive and welcoming museum environment that caters to all visitors, regardless of their age, background or abilities. Her priority is ensuring that everyone can access the museum, irrespective of their life's journey. "I want us to be known as a museum accessible for people of all walks of life," said Mitchell. She is working on improving the exhibitions to make them more accessible for those with visual impairments, low literacy skills and anyone who faces any obstacles that may hinder their museum experience.

A year from now, one of Mitchell's goals is to have a plan in place to expand the museum's gift shop and "even look into and explore maybe having an online gift shop," said Mitchell.

The Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum's board of directors hired Mitchell thanks to a successful award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services grant program called Museum Grants for African American History and Culture. The program's goal is to improve the capacity of African American museums and promote professional development for staff members. Moreover, the new award enables the museum to build a skilled team that can strengthen its operational functions and administrative practices. This, in turn, will put the institution in a place to increase revenue and secure the museum's long-term viability.

According to Mitchell, she has seen an increase in revenue just by making slight modifications to improve communication and remove any ambiguity around funding. "Memberships, grants and donations support our museum," said Mitchell. "We have made some minor adjustments to how we communicate our funding sources to visitors and supporters," said Mitchell.

Moreover, Mitchell invites everyone to visit the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum to meet her in person and learn about the latest news. Currently, the museum is showcasing the first phase of its "Our Footprints, Our Stories" exhibition, which explores the historical journey of African Americans across downstate Illinois. The exhibition showcases the significant influence of African Americans on the region's history and landscape. It features a mix of modern and historical images, including contemporary content that may appeal to younger audiences and helps them see how their footprints impact future generations.

Jamila Wicks has over 20 years of experience working in government and nonprofit organizations, with the last five years focused on arts and cultural institutions. She currently resides in Decatur while working in Springfield.

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