Barbara Suggs Mason and her cousin, Angela Rivers, 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 preserve and share the long history of Black residents in Champaign County, The News-Gazette reports.
They’re co-chairing Champaign County’s African American Heritage Trail project, a massive undertaking launched by Visit Champaign County and its foundation.
“Historically in Champaign County, we have had a vibrant Black community,” said Suggs Mason, a retired 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 throughout the county to help share the untold stories of the county’s Black community. More stories about significant events and contributors will also become available to read online.
“This gives us an opportunity to not only recognize, but to engage and create dialogue 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 museum 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 belong here,” she said.
Rivers said she’s also found there’s an incorrect assumption 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 families.
For Suggs Mason, the African American Heritage Trail will be more than a tour. She hopes it will be an opportunity to create a project that will sustain itself and continue, she said.
Those early Black Champaign County settlers were building a legacy, she said. They were people who built a community here and overcame great obstacles of segregation and a lack of opportunities 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 working with others in the local community on the collection of stories from 1850 to the present, how they’ll be communicated and where the historical markers will be placed.
There will soon be a webpage 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.