The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) is celebrating Black History Month throughout February to honor the accomplishments of local African American history makers. MWRD Vice President Barbara McGowan and staff are bringing together speakers throughout the month to offer overviews in advancing diversity. They will also discuss the challenges and rewards related to their achievements. The events are being held at the MWRD’s main office building, 100 E. Erie St., Chicago, IL. McGowan made history in her own right when she became the first African-American female vice president of the MWRD. Now she and the MWRD staff are honoring other local African-American trailblazers. “We decided to dedicate the entire month to recognizing and applauding the contributions of African American history makers,” said Vice President McGowan. “This will also be the first time we raise the African American flag to honor this significant month.” The events have included, honoring other state elected officials: Former U.S. Senator and Illinois State Comptroller Roland Burris, Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton (invited), Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Secretary of State Jesse White. MWRD’s first African American department heads were also honored.
Part of the MWRD programming was paying homage to American abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman. Between 1850 and 1860, Harriet Tubman, a former slave, made between 13-19 trips (sources differ) from the South to the North and guided more than 300 people from slavery to freedom, all while a bounty was placed on her head. Tubman used a network known as the Underground Railroad to escape slavery in 1849 and subsequently used that same network to rescue people who were enslaved. Retired librarian and historian Kathryn Harris, a resident of Springfield, IL, is well known for her one-woman show in which she portrays Harriet Tubman. Harris served as the first Director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum when it opened in 2004, and she is a vocal advocate for the library and Illinois history.
Harris presented a first-person historical program as Harriet Tubman in front of a packed boardroom, which included CPS students, commissioners, and the general public. She linked the past to the present by remaining in character. At the same time, the students were allowed to ask her questions about Tubman’s life and her trips on the Underground Railroad. One student asked, “Did anyone ever want to turn back?” To which Tubman (Harris’s portrayal) answers, “If you were with her and thought you were too cold or too scared or you wanted to go back, she would pull a little persuasion out of her bag and say, ‘Live free or die.’ She never had to kill anyone, but she probably did some intimidating things. Because if you turned back, then the railroad was no longer secret.” Harris taught the students and the rest of the audience to follow their faith and to be steadfast in their convictions. MWRD will conclude this month’s events by honoring members of the Montford Point Marines, which includes Sharon Stokes-Parry, President of the Chicago-based Montford Point Marine Association (MPMA). The MPMA is a veterans’ organization whose founding members were part of the first segregated unit of Marines during WWII. Their organization and bravery led the charge in the desegregation of the United States Marine Corps.