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Chicago historian Sherry Williams inspiring people to find their roots, tell their stories

Williams founded the Bronzeville Historical Society. She is being honored with the MOSAIC Award from the Chicago Cultural Alliance in the category of Outstanding Community Leader.

at 300 East 51st Street in Streeterville, Friday, June 4, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Founder of the Bronzevillle Historical Society Sherry Williams poses for a portrait inside the Bronzeville Historical Society mini shop in Boxville.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago historian Sherry Williams, the founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society, has a staunch belief that the people who’ve not seen themselves properly represented in history books have a duty to make sure they are the ones in charge of telling their stories.

That belief has garnered Williams the MOSAIC Award from the Chicago Cultural Alliance in the category of Outstanding Community Leader. MOSAIC is the Chicago Cultural Alliance’s annual benefit that celebrates its mission of equity and cultural inclusion. The award is given to worthy “community, institutional, and civic leaders who have invested in and engaged Chicago’s cultural communities in dynamic ways.”

Williams, the descendant of a Civil War veteran, will receive the award on June 15.

“I was elated,” said Williams. “The award signals that my colleagues and communities look at me as one of the many, many people who have been documenting and preserving Bronzeville history, or just history about the African American presence in Chicago. And most of the histories we’ve collected over the years [have been] via interviews of members of Bronzeville, community members and business leaders. And certainly that’s what drives us is to see how many people have rich stories to tell.”

 at 300 East 51st Street in Streeterville, Friday, June 4, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Bronzevillle Historical Society founder Sherry Williams shows an underground railroad quilt outside the Bronzeville Historical Society mini shop in Boxville.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Williams, who founded the Bronzeville Historical Society in 1999 amid a long career with the postal service, says her favorite area of neighborhood history pertains to the role of women in activism. She recalls meeting with Iberia Hampton, the mother of slain chairman of the Black Panthers’ Illinois chapter Fred Hampton, who told Williams she babysat Emmett Till. Till’s brutal murder in 1955 sparked the civil rights movement.

“I found it so fascinating that these phenomenal women [Hampton and Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley] had such courage and strength,” said Williams. “Globally, not just in Chicago, not just nationally, they had to deal with the grief and the loss of their sons — the murder of their sons. I would say that was one surprising fact that I learned by having a conversation with a then-elder.”

The organization, which is known for utilizing archival research and technology and fostering collaborations, was founded after Williams participated in an event at her daughters’ school showing the humanity of the people who work at the postal service. The experience spurred her desire to showcase the role of women in Black communities.

The historical society has hosted exhibits including “ReIMAGINE Aunt Jemima,” seminars on finding ancestors who fought in the Civil War, and quilt-making classes, among many other community services provided over time.

Williams’ impact is felt in Bronzeville and beyond as she continues to be a sought-after voice on the lecture circuit when it comes to discovering — and preserving — history.

Jim Parker, a lifetime member of the Bronzeville Historical Society, donated neighborhood photos from the 1930s through the 1970s to Williams. He became aware of Williams’ work when he read about her archival research in “100 Notable People & Places in Bronzeville.”

“I could start crying when I start thinking about all [Williams] has done,” said Parker when speaking of Williams’ legacy. “She’s the Harriet Tubman of the modern day. She does so much for that neighborhood and is so unappreciated by the government. ... She’s nonstop, like the Energizer Bunny.”

Williams also is a member of the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago. “The real people who respond to so many things that happen in our communities are our mothers,” she said, “and then second to our mothers certainly those who are male figures are certainly getting their share of having to roll up their sleeves as well.”

at 300 East 51st Street in Streeterville, Friday, June 4, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago members Desiree Booker (from left), Nettie Nesbary, Sherry Williams and Lettie Sabbs are photographed outside the Bronzeville Historical Society mini shop in the Boxville Marketplace in Streeterville.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Williams sees hope in inclusive storytelling via technology and retired educators stepping up to bridge the learning gap created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I haven’t met or talked to anyone that hasn’t been impacted by COVID-19, in addition to being impacted by gun violence,” said Williams. “Parents after parents told me they didn’t have internet service; they couldn’t afford [it]. I’ve found myself buying computers for people and supporting them as best as I can with what they might need.

“An enormous number of retired professors, teachers and counselors are in Chicago. I not only call upon them to not just teach Black history, but also be active in history. And, certainly, to look at ways that they can give their time to helping our children who are having these severe learning losses as we return to some normalcy.”

And what advice does Williams give to people who want to document their own family history?

“Begin a timeline of your important history, your important family history, or even your role in society by starting with documenting yourself,” said Williams. “And as you begin to look behind yourself and your mother or your grandmother, your great-grandmother, you realize if you’ve been operating with courage, resilience, and tenacity, likely your mom had that same tenacity as your grandmother, and your great-grandmother and so forth.”