Mattie Robinson, a retired high school teacher, takes a tour of the West Town Museum of Cultural History, 104 S. 5th Ave. in Maywood. Below, attendees at an April 30 reunion fundraising kickoff hosted at the museum. | Michael Romain/VFP
Thursday, May 12, 2016 || By Michael Romain
Mattie Robinson, a retired District 209 teacher, peered at an exhibition inside the West Town Museum of Cultural History that featured some of her former students — familiar names like Michael Finley, Dee Brown and Shannon Brown.
“I had Michael when he was in 8th grade,” Robinson said, smiling at the reminiscence. “My son used to love him.”
“You taught them everything they know right?” quipped Michael Rogers, a Maywood trustee and a member of the museum’s advisory board. “Even the cross-over dribble!”
“No, I didn’t teach them that! I was in history,” Robinson said, still captivated by the old pictures as the past seemed to blanket her.
Inside the museum, located at 104 S. 5th Ave., are photos of local luminaries in Maywood and Proviso Township — including mayors, educators, politicians, doctors and police chiefs. There are actual slave manacles and photos of the first African-American family to own a home in the village.
If you’re a lifelong Maywoodian, with generations rooted in this place, there is likely a piece of your past on those walls or in one of the small facility’s rooms.
The museum is the outgrowth of Operation Uplift, Inc., a Maywood nonprofit that was founded in 1968 as a community wellness resource center by local activist and labor organizer George Stone. When he died in 1988, his wife Northica Stone, and the nonprofit’s board of directors, hatched the idea to form a museum.
“We saw that Maywood was under-served and the history that Maywood had was being lost,” Stone said in a 2013 Village Free Press interview.
Stone and her board also started putting on annual luncheons to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.
“This would’ve been our 28th year of holding the luncheon,” said the museum’s curator Jeri Stenson, during an April 30 reunion bash.
Stenson said that, since Stone, the nonprofit’s CEO and president, had been ill, planning for this year’s luncheon had stalled. Stone was typically the person who picked the luncheon’s speaker, Stenson said.
Instead of jettison the idea of convening something altogether, the organization decided to host a reunion and fundraiser at its facility.
“We’ve had over 20,000 people come through our doors over the years,” said Stenson.
Since its founding in 1968, Operation Uplift would grow to offer job training, job counseling, pre-employment skills and GED assistance, among other services, to minorities seeking entry into the country’s burgeoning information economy.
Uplift would eventually supply well-trained minority employees for, and implement some of the first affirmative action programs at, companies such as Illinois Bell (now At&T), Jewel’s and Nicor.
Stenson said the idea was to reunite some of those people the organization has assisted in the past during a fundraising event. Both the nonprofit and the museum that it spawned are desperately in need of funding, she said.
It’s a small favor to ask of an institution that, if it were to go away, would greatly diminish the fiber of this town, said Rogers.
“If you come through here three or four times, you won’t catch everything,” said Rogers, a retired corporate architect who, in 2000, designed an Underground Railroad memorial at the Maywood McDonald’s on Lake Street after the organization’s efforts produced evidence that the iconic route to freedom likely coursed through the village.
“We have a lot of things in Maywood that people just drive by and have no idea about,” Rogers said. “These are things that people would’ve never known were here, but if this is how it was before, we can get back to that or make this place even better.” VFP
To become a member, or to give to West Town and/or Operation Uplift:
Individuals | $25.00 Yearly
Family | $50.00 Yearly
Business | $100.00 Yearly
For additional details, call 708.343.3554 or 708.516.0628
Make all checks payable to:
Operation UpLift, Inc.
104 South 5th Avenue
Maywood, IL 60153
For more information, click here.
U P C O M I N G E V E N T S
Safe Summer art contest for grades 6th through 8th
A press conference to announce the launch of this year’s Safe Summer program will be held outside of 125 S. 5thAvenue on Saturday, May 14, 2 p.m. To access more information on the art contest, or the form to fill out, click the document above or click here.