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New exhibit explores Aurora’s African-American heritage

Donnell Collins (left) Ken Maurice check out gallery exhibit called Flavors Aurora: Stirred Not Shaken collectiphotos African-Americans from Civil War

Donnell Collins (left) and Ken Maurice check out the gallery exhibit called Flavors of Aurora: Stirred, Not Shaken, a collection of photos of African-Americans from the Civil War era to the present on display at the Pierce Art and History Center, 2013. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times MediaFlavors of Aurora: Stirred, Not Shaken is a collection of photos of African-Americans from the Civil War ear to the present on display at the Pierce Art and History Center, 2013. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 1, 2013 6:29AM

Even history aficionados were struck by an 1890 photograph of neighborhood children posing in front of New York Street School. The grade school was integrated with black and white youngsters from diverse cultures and part of Aurora’s fabric from 1887 to 1916.

“The mixed heritage is surprising to see for the time,” said Beverly Robinson, of Aurora.

African American Billy Holland, who played for the Colts, the earliest ball clubs in Aurora, is named in an 1890 photograph with his white teammates.

As stunning is a photograph of Alfred E. Lucas, born a slave in KY in 1857, who became the first African American to work in the Aurora police department driving the horse-drawn patrol wagon-ambulance from 1892 until his death in 1906.

Several hundred guests attended Friday’s opening reception for “Flavors of Aurora: Stirred, Not Shaken — African American” at the Pierce Art and History Center.

“I did not realize there were so many African Americans involved in the history of Aurora — I am proud,” Robinson said.

The exhibit is a chronological timeline of black-and-white photographs that tell the story of Aurora’s African American history through the lives of people who rose to prominence.

“We were interested in showing the inclusion of African Americans through history and what they did,” said John Jaros, Executive Director of the Aurora Historical Society.

The collection of photographs shows African Americans who lived through slavery, racial divide and discrimination, yet worked hard, raised families and became leaders creating political, religious and social organizations in the community.

African American history in Aurora began around 1850 with the arrival of a few individuals who might have been free blacks or indentured servants.

After the Civil War, former slaves arrived from the south and settled in neighborhoods, mostly along the river in the southeast and southwest corners of the city and worked as barbers, masons, porters and domestic servants.

The show features the works of photojournalist Donnell Collins known as “one of the leading lights” of Aurora. Collins, 56, offers photographs of young African American children and women from his previous show titled “Skillets,” that explores the issues of black identity and beauty.

Collins photographed Rosa Parks, Mamie Till Mobley and Marie Wilkinson after an educational lecture the mid-1990s when he worked full-time for The Beacon-News.

“It was like walking back in history,” Collins said of the photograph.

Collins said he, too, found it interesting to see the inter-racial involvement in Aurora. “Aurora seemed to be fairly integrated, even in 1890,” Collins said. “It wasn’t major league baseball, but Billy Holland was integrated before Jackie Robinson,” he said.

“Flavors of Aurora: Stirred, Not Shaken,” is co-curated by the Aurora Historical Society and Aurora’s African American Heritage Advisory Board.

It is a continuation of last year’s celebration of culture and diversity honoring the 175th anniversary of the city shown through the “lens of ethnicity.”

“We hope people will appreciate how Aurora’s culture has been enriched from an early time,” said Mary Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society.

Ormond said although some history was lost because early settlers did not see the need to record their lives, Aurora’s rich African American history is seen through the collection of photographs and information researched in recent years.

“We hope people will walk away with a panoply of faces in their mind,” Ormond said. The exhibit will run through March 8.

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