George Floyd’s death was a tragedy, causing pain, anger and fear in Chicago and cities across the nation. The Chicago History Museum acknowledges the seriousness of the challenges that face our city and impact us as individuals, communities and organizations. We stand with those in our city and across the nation who seek justice.
Floyd’s murder and the reactions it has inspired should not come as a shock to us. In fact, Chicago’s story cannot be told without referencing a host of violent encounters with law enforcement that have mostly impacted communities of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, immigrants and activists, such as the Race Riot of 1919, the Republic Steel Strike of 1937, intimidation and violence against the LGBTQIA+ community throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the police violence against demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the killing of Laquan McDonald in 2014 and the conviction of a police officer for his death. While we at CHM know this history well, our role is to help others see the death of George Floyd not as a single terrible event, but a part of a long, ugly, ongoing tragedy that runs through American life.
We are taking action as an institution. Our collecting effort in connection with the COVID-19 crisis – In This Together – is being redeveloped in the wake of the murder of George Floyd to collect stories from people who wish to share their own experiences with police violence and civil rights violations. We will also make available on our website our collection of resources that offer context, such as the Afro-American Police League archive. We will also highlight the work of our Andrew W. Mellon Director of Collections and Curatorial Affairs, Charles E. Bethea, who works through the Chicago Police Department to provide all recruits with a history of police engagement with communities of color that have fostered a crippling lack of trust.
As we stand together to demand change, we must not confuse the actions of those standing up for justice and systemic reform with the vicious and self-serving actions of looters and bullies. To confuse those narratives would be to add injustice to injustice and prevent all of us from recognizing this moment as part of a historical narrative that has shaped our country and needs to be confronted.
The tragic events that led to George Floyd’s death are deeply rooted in our country, and the Chicago History Museum recognizes that there is more work to be done. The crisis we face today is at least in part driven by a lack of understanding, knowledge and empathy. By collecting and sharing our city’s stories, we hope to serve our community in a critically important way. By educating each other, we can inspire action that can lead to a more equitable community.
Gary T. Johnson
Edgar D. and Deborah R. Jannotta President, Chicago History Museum