Museum quality

Life's adventures prepared Nell Clay for leadership now

click to enlarge Nell Clay - PHOTO BY RICH SAAL
Photo by Rich Saal
Nell Clay

When they hear the name Nell Clay, many in Springfield think of the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum. And they should. "I want to make our museum a must-see," Nell says delightedly.

While COVID-19 has closed the museum for now, work doesn't stop. Nell is busy updating the museum's webpage and posting motivational writings and poetry.

Appointed to the board of directors in 2015 and elected board president in 2016, Nell's leadership role is busy but rewarding. She directs the day-to-day operations of the museum; schedules, attends and oversees planning sessions and board meetings; builds relationships with businesses, school districts and churches; organizes fundraisers; and secures and manages new exhibits.

"I am passionate about our role in the community and the opportunity to tell our history our way, while highlighting the awesome contributions of African Americans – especially those from Illinois. It's incredibly hard work, but worth every exhausting day."

Childhood

Nell Clay described her childhood as the best experience of a city kid ever.

"We went fruit-picking; mostly apples and peaches. We'd sell them or my mother would make applesauce, preserves or pies. When we picked grapes, Daddy made wine."

click to enlarge Bruce and Nell Clay have been married for 51 years. - PHOTO COURTESY NELL CLAY
Photo courtesy Nell Clay
Bruce and Nell Clay have been married for 51 years.

She remembers growing up as a constant adventure.

"We went camping and fishing. Other times of the year we'd go smelting. No poles, no hooks, just leaning over and catching little-bitty fish in a big net. Now that was fun!" She laughed.

Both Nell and her older brother, Shelva, Jr., were raised to have great work ethics and entrepreneurial spirits.

"We learned to study, work hard and have our own businesses. My dad never graduated from high school, but he could figure out anything. He worked at the steel mill, but learned to make candy as a kid. He'd make the candy, I'd help, and we'd sell it all over Chicago."

The Washingtons exposed their children to all the city had to offer. Nell remembers taking the bus to the Art Institute, museums, plays and concerts. She specifically remembers The Regal Theater and seeing the Motown Review.

As was the custom with many black families in the North, Nell spent summers in the green grass, fruit orchards, fields and ponds of the South.

"My parents owned land in Mississippi. So we ran wild there all summer."

Lula Mae and Shelva retired, sold their Chicago home and returned to Silver Creek, Mississippi, before their deaths in 1999 and 2005 respectively.

High school, college and marriage

As Nell grew older and gained more freedom, she learned to navigate the city, learning everything from street-smarts to science and history. And she could still make it back on the porch before the streetlights came on each night.

Nell credits her mother with making her the strong woman she is today.

"I miss her dearly now, but I thought my mother was the meanest woman in the world. And I often told her so. She was strict on me. But I needed it. If it weren't for Mom's love, guidance and tight reins, I would have been barefoot and pregnant at 16. I thank God for her."

click to enlarge Thanksgiving 2018 with 23 members of the extended Clay family at Nell’s home in Springfield. - PHOTO COURTESY NELL CLAY
Photo courtesy Nell Clay
Thanksgiving 2018 with 23 members of the extended Clay family at Nell’s home in Springfield.

Nell graduated from Englewood High School and earned a bachelor's degree in Business Education from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Two of the best memories from SIU-C were working with a speech pathologist for an entire semester to correct a horrible stuttering problem and meeting Bruce Clay. She and Bruce would marry in 1969, making her a wife and stepmother to his daughter, Theresa.

After graduation, Nell taught GED courses in Carbondale, later working at Illinois Bell. After marriage, she and Bruce moved several times due to his job until finally settling in Springfield in the mid-70s. She worked as a sales rep at Horace Mann while working on her master's degree from Sangamon State University (now UIS).

Professional career

Nell became a high school teacher. She taught typing, shorthand, business law, general studies and record keeping for 10 years, first at Lanphier then at Springfield High.

By now she and Bruce had two young sons active in sports. "I clearly remember being in graduate school and doing my homework during baseball games. Parents would come get me when my sons were ready to play."

After obtaining a master's degree in human resources while working full time, Nell left education for the Illinois Department of Revenue as director of civil rights around 1987.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY RICH SAAL
Photo by Rich Saal

"I was fortunate to have a great staff. We investigated discrimination and harassment complaints as well as developed affirmative action plans and training programs statewide. I loved the job, but missed my summers off." She laughs.

Nell later become the director of civil rights at the Illinois Department of Transportation. It was the same job, but triple the number of employees as before.

Retirement years

After retiring from IDOT in 2005, Nell really got busy. Besides the museum, here's what she's doing nowadays:

Real estate: "I became a licensed agent in 2006 and later elevated to broker until 2017. It was selling houses, changing lives and making dreams come true."

Jewelry making: "I make and sell jewelry at functions, conferences and events."

Creative Travel: "I ran this company for several years. Unfortunately, the internet and do-it-yourself travel arrangements make it no longer financially beneficial."

Positive Creations: "This is where I sell my jewelry and creative items."

click to enlarge rtist Preston Jackson’s depiction of care being given at St. John’s - Hospital to victims of the 1908 Springfield race riot, a project of the African American History Museum and HSHS St. John’s Hospital. From left to right are Ken Page, Patricia Harris, Preston Jackson, Nell Clay, Catie Sheehan and Erica Johnson. - PHOTO COURTESY NELL CLAY
Photo courtesy Nell Clay
rtist Preston Jackson’s depiction of care being given at St. John’s Hospital to victims of the 1908 Springfield race riot, a project of the African American History Museum and HSHS St. John’s Hospital. From left to right are Ken Page, Patricia Harris, Preston Jackson, Nell Clay, Catie Sheehan and Erica Johnson.

Writing: "I've written a book of poetry. I love expressing myself."

Church: "I volunteer with Abundant Faith Christian Center's Senior Praise and at the Information/Welcome Desk."

Gardening: "I really love the feeling of digging in the earth. But it's just a hobby."

Acrylic paint pouring: "My newfound love is acrylic paint pouring. It allows me to be artistic. While I've messed up a lot, I've created some really nice paintings."

Family: Retired or not, Nell's utmost important, greatest, hardest and most satisfying position is still wife of one, mother of three, grandmother of four and great-grandma to seven.

Dr. Pamela Woodson of Springfield is an entrepreneur, author, freelance writer and former professor at Benedictine University at Springfield. She is the owner and lead consultant of Pamela Speaks Training and Consulting.

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