Charles Box made Rockford history when he was elected the city’s first black mayor, serving three terms and becoming a household name.
Box, the Rev. Eldridge Gilbert and librarian Estelle Black are headliners, but local black history also includes shoeshine man Larnell Malone and others with less recognizable names.
Creating a more complete portrait of black history is the goal of “Black Rockfordians: Their Journey Through the Forest City,” a 145-page book and companion DVD compiled by the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society Inc.”You learn things from those unsung heroes about persevering in Rockford that you wouldn’t hear in the news,” said Deborah Hempstead, the society’s recording secretary. “They remember Camp Grant, The Flats neighborhood, the different hangouts. You hear stories about education, housing and when they first came here — just everyday life at the time.”
Work for the project started in 2005 at the Black Family Reunion. The climax is May 5, when the completed written and oral history project debuts with a dinner, program and exhibits.
The 66 sources featured in “Black Rockfordians” are people ages 50 to 96, all of whom have lived here at least 25 years. In short chapters divided by source and in videotaped interviews on the DVD, conducted by students in the YMCA’s Black Achievers program, they share family stories and personal experiences of life here.
“It was very inspiring to hear these people’s stories, and they were honored to have someone listen,” said society President Joyce D. Higgins, who conducted some of the interviews.
Lloyd Hawks, 75, talks about his father, Papa Hawks, owner of the legendary El Dorado club. He also spoke about the Booker Washington Community Center.
“Booker Washington is close to my heart,” said Hawks, president of Friends of Booker. “That’s where I met my wife of 56 years, and a lot of my friends from there went on to do great things.”
Although the book/DVD focuses on black people, “Black Rockfordians” is significant for the entire community, said local historian John Molyneaux, who contributed to the project.
“These are African-Americans speaking, and there’s that perspective, but the fact is that the Rockford community does not have very much oral history readily available,” Molyneaux said.
“Fifty years from now, all of these people will be gone. This is an important window into the heart of the community.”
Black Rockfordians: Their Journey Through the Forest City is made possible in part by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Illinois General Assembly