CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Barbara Suggs Mason and her cousin, Angela Riv- ers, grew up hearing about their family’s long history in Champaign County.
Suggs Mason remembers the sense of pride she felt in hearing those family stories and how important it was for her not to let her ancestors down.
For Rivers, those family stories “gave me a sense of identity,” she recalled.
It’s important to Rivers and Suggs Mason to pre- serve and share the long history of Black residents in Champaign County, The News-Gazette reports.
They’re co-chairing Cham- paign County’s African American Heritage Trail project, a massive undertak- ing launched by Visit Cham- paign County and its foun- dation.
“Historically in Cham- paign County, we have had a vibrant Black community,” said Suggs Mason, a re- tired educator who grew up in Champaign. “People just don’t realize that.”
Visit Champaign County’s plans to establish the African American Heritage Trail are progressing, according to the tourism agency’s president and CEO, Jayne DeLuce.
DeLuce said this project will include the placement of historical markers in
various locations through- out the county to help share the untold stories of the county’s Black community. More stories about signifi- cant events and contributors will also become available to read online.
“This gives us an oppor- tunity to not only recognize, but to engage and create dia- logue about it,” DeLuce said.
Suggs Mason and Rivers
are also hoping to develop an educational component to help share the history of Black Champaign County residents in local schools.
“I retired out of the mu- seum profession, and a lot of what I found is when you talk to African American
kids about their history and ask them what they know about their history
is very little, except for Dr. Martin Luther King,” Rivers said.
It’s important for kids to not only learn more about the history of where they live, but “to know they be- long here,” she said.
Rivers said she’s also found there’s an incorrect as- sumption that there wasn’t a vibrant Black community in Champaign County until
after World War II, when in fact, it dates back to prior to the Civil War.
Suggs Mason said she’d love to see the educational piece for schools include having young people collect stories from their own fami- lies.
For Suggs Mason, the Afri- can American Heritage Trail will be more than a tour. She hopes it will be an opportu- nity to create a project that will sustain itself and con- tinue, she said.
Those early Black Cham- paign County settlers were building a legacy, she said. They were people who built a community here and over- came great obstacles of seg- regation and a lack of op- portunities to uplift the next generation.
“I think it’s important for our young people, to instill that in the possibilities for their lives,” Suggs Mason said.
She and Rivers are work- ing with others in the local community on the collection of stories from 1850 to the present, how they’ll be com- municated and where the historical markers will be placed.
There will soon be a web- page available where more stories can be shared, Suggs Mason said.
“I think if we don’t tell this history, it will be lost and forgotten,” she said.