Riding Back in Time to Learn Today

The DuSable Museum, with the support of PNC Bank, teaches Chicago youths about the importance of African-American history and saving money. If students cannot get to the museum, then exhibits are brought to them -- on four wheels.

CHICAGO – When Kenwood Academy High School student Tia Smith arrived at the DuSable Museum of African American History, she had no idea she would meet Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor. Even though Washington passed away in 1987, the museum preserves his legacy through an animatronic version of him.

“Although my favorite display is the World Wars exhibit, I have always been intrigued by African-American history. It was cool to learn about Harold Washington’s life, story and his amazing accomplishments,” Smith said. 

Founded in 1961 by teacher and art historian Dr. Margaret Burroughs, the DuSable Museum holds more than 15,000 pieces of African-American history, including paintings, sculpture, print works and historic memorabilia. Today it plays an important role in community and educational development initiatives.

With the help of PNC Bank, DuSable Museum has not only created a long-term financial and community engagement strategy, but a true collaboration with the bank. The 10-year relationship has led to collaboration on Black History Month, Financial Literacy and PNC Grow Up Great, the bank's early childhood education initiative.

Cultural and Artistic History

Since 1973 the DuSable Museum, located in historic Washington Park, has become a popular community destination that teaches the African Diaspora and African American history and culture.

“It is an essential part of our mission to increase awareness and to educate our visitors about the African-American experience and our history,” said Perri Irmer, president and chief executive officer of The DuSable Museum. “Chicago’s African-American community has a rich cultural and artistic history, and it is our role to promote understanding and recognize our community’s achievements, contributions and experiences.”

Chicago’s South Side is comprised of mostly low- and moderate income residents. The DuSable Museum and six other museums formed Museum Campus South, a strategic effort to attract tourists and accelerate community revitalization.

“PNC is a consistent friend to the DuSable Museum. They give us dollars, but they also give us their time, which is really important,” Irmer said. “We can always count on seeing PNC representatives in attendance to support the programs and events at the museum.”

before and after shot
Student Tia Smith (left) has worked with PNC's Tony Smith and the DuSable Museum on financial literacy programs

Financial Literacy Treasure Hunt

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education reported only 40 percent of Chicago’s Public School 8th graders were grade-level proficient in reading and 24 percent in math.

To improve financial literacy, PNC and the Monroe Foundation created “Financial Exploration,” a financial education program hosted at the DuSable Museum for over 100 elementary and high school children and their parents. The program integrates budgeting, borrowing and saving with elements of African-American history.

The students answered quiz questions based on museum exhibits. More than 20 PNC volunteers were stationed throughout the museum as children went on the financial literacy treasure hunt.  

When an answer was located, the PNC volunteers would explain how the artifact related to banking, such as an introduction to small business concepts. 

The questions included: “Who was the first African-American millionaire and what was her business?” The answer is entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker. She founded her own beauty and hair care products manufacturing company. After saving for many years, she relied on friends, family and town members to start and grow the business. Her success illustrates why saving matters and why supporting local small businesses is vital to a local economy.

During the exploration, parents were also able to open savings accounts for their children with just $5, and the Monroe Foundation contributed up to $15.

“You could see the excitement on the kids’ faces realizing they can save money, and it helps the parents too,” said Thurman “Tony” Smith, regional head of PNC’s community development banking team in Chicago. “If parents are unsure of starting a savings account for their child, it puts the thought in their mind. If they start now, by the time the children are college age, they will have a nice nest egg.”

Driving Home History's Influence

These lessons also are delivered to Chicago Public Schools' students through the traveling museum, “Taking it to the Streets.”

Sponsored by PNC, the DuSable Mobile Museum is a high-tech RV that visits lower income communities and schools that can’t afford field trips. The van travels across the six collar counties that make up Chicagoland. It allows children, primarily pre-school through 6th grade, to touch exhibits and push buttons to learn about history, specifically the city of Chicago’s first permanent settler, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable.

“It lets the kids get up-close and personal for a class period and gives them a rich experience by exploring their own history and enriching vocabulary,” Irmer said.

The Mobile Museum is also popular in the summer at festivals and parades. Schools as well as churches can schedule a visit. Whether the students come to the museum or the museum goes to them, seeing things they’ve heard about makes it more real to them and sparks their interest in learning.

before and after shot
"Taking it to the Streets" is a mobile museum with an interactive exhibit on John Baptiste Pointe DuSable
(Photos courtesy of DuSable Museum)

Children from low-income vs. affluent families hear 30 million fewer vocabulary words by the time they reach 3rd grade. “Taking it to the streets” intentionally displays words such as “diaspora” or “disparate,” which are relevant to children of color, but uncommon in everyday conversation. 

“Low-income children are more likely to not finish high school or attend college. By storytelling and engaging children in historical discussions, we expand their vocabulary and the ability to connect their lives with studies. This improves the likelihood that the children will stay in school,” PNC's Smith said.

Student Tia Smith has also collaborated with PNC and the DuSable Museum on other literacy projects, including one with Chicago State University.

“I learn something new each time I come to the museum, but my favorite part has been learning about how skillful and brave African Americans were in the armed forces despite how they were treated," the student said. "It was also interesting to see the difference between weapons used back then compared to the weapons today.” 

Tia’s mother, Jakki Stancil-Smith, enjoys taking her to the museum to further her education outside of the classroom.

Tia's involvement at DuSable Museum educates her about the legacy and history of so many fascinating successful African-American inventors, scientists and historians. It has taught her that if you can see it and believe it, you can achieve it.

Larry Perlmutter portrait
Perri Irmer, president & CEO of the DuSable Museum

Tony Smith, community development banking, PNC

The DuSable Museum brings to the forefront history that children weren’t able to know before. Whether they come here or the museum goes to them, seeing things they’ve heard about makes it more real and sparks their interest in learning.

-Perri Irmer