It seemed a simple act, as the ambassador of France to the United States, Philippe Etienne, pinned the asterisk-shaped, green-enameled medal onto the lapel of Perri Irmer, president and CEO of Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History.
Considering The Order of Arts and Letters is France’s highest honor in the arts — doled annually to only a few hundred people worldwide — it was so much more.
“The Order of Arts and Letters was established in 1957 to recognize eminent artists and writers, as well as people who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts and culture in France and throughout the world,” Etienne said at the small, intimate ceremony of family, friends and luminaries Monday night at the museum in Washington Park.
“Perri Irmer is the very embodiment of these qualities, for her commitment to the relationship between France and Chicago,” said Etienne, in Chicago as part of a three-day Midwestern tour primarily to promote trade, with stops in Illinois and Wisconsin.
In Illinois, some $4.9 billion in trade is shared with France annually. France ranks fourth among job creation by foreign companies in Illinois, and French companies — from Bel and Capgemini to Sodexo and Thales — currently are responsible for 33,700 Illinois jobs.
Irmer, who has helmed the iconic museum since 2015, was one of two African American leaders the French ambassador would visit here, to talk French medals of honor.
The ambassador planned a visit Tuesday to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who next month will travel to Paris to receive the Order of the Legion of Honor — France’s highest military and civilian award — for lifetime commitment to civil rights and human rights.
Irmer was honored for DuSable programs highlighting the relationship between African Americans and the French, many held in collaboration with Chicago’s French Consulate.
They include efforts like the museum’s hosting of the first U.S. exhibit of Palais de Tokyo-Paris in 2017, which brought French and Chicago artists together, Etienne enumerated.
The museum also brought French artist Nicolas Henry to work with South Side youth there in 2017, creating a photo project about Jean-Baptiste Point DuSable — the Haitian fur trader who became the first permanent, non-Indigenous settler of Chicago and the city’s founder.
Lake Shore Drive was recently renamed for DuSable after a cantankerous City Council battle and the renaming received praise from the French.
“We’re very excited about it. It’s putting the record straight. We’re really very, very grateful in a way, because I think it projects a different narrative about Chicago and about the Midwest,” said Guillaume Lacroix, consul general of France in Chicago.
“At the time of DuSable, Haiti was a French colony. DuSable, to the best of my knowledge, was a member of the French community here. Although it’s none of my business, I think that for Chicago to recognize the man, his marriage to Kitihawa, a Potawatomi, and what it means in the world of the 21st century, that’s very, very good.”
The DuSable museum, the oldest such museum in the U.S., was founded as a house museum in 1961 in the home of Margaret and Charles Burroughs. It was renamed for the city’s founder in 1968.
Other programs cited by the ambassador include the 2018 exhibit on the African American 370th Infantry Regiment of Illinois, which was forced to fight under French command during World War I because white officers refused to lead African American troops in a segregated U.S. Army. The regiment ended up that war’s most decorated American unit.
The exhibit remains on display.
And this month, a Bessie Coleman Centennial Exhibit celebrates the achievements of the African American woman who was one of only two female pilots of her era. On display is her original pilot’s license, earned in France because she was barred from U.S. flight schools.
“Through all these initiatives and projects, you have contributed in an exceptional way to highlighting the cultural and historic relationships as well as the strong mutual respect between African Americans and France,” Etienne said as he pinned the medal on Irmer.
Recent American recipients of the prestigious award include Leonardo di Caprio, Jonathan Franzen, David Lynch, Wynton Marsalis, Quentin Tarantino, Meryl Streep, Forest Whitaker, and Kehinde Wiley, who painted the official portrait of President Barack Obama, currently on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“It is with such humility that I accept this. And to understand the people upon whom this has been bestowed over the years — especially those who are Black — I’m in such great company with this wonderful honor. But this is a group effort. I couldn’t do any of this without my DuSable family,” Irmer said.
“DuSable is this nation’s oldest independent Black history museum, a world-class, global institution. From the very beginning, I made it a point to expand our profile internationally, because there’s no story in any culture that we don’t overlap with as Black people,” she said.
“Whether it’s through the Diaspora or on the continent of Africa, throughout the world, we have a presence, and we’re part of that history and a part of those stories.”