Lloyd L. Gaines was an African-American man who rocked the civil rights movement when the Supreme Court case, Gaines v. Canada, allowed him to enroll in the University of Missouri School of Law. One night in March 1939, he walked out of his Chicago fraternity house and was never heard from again.
“It’s an interesting story, even today. They have not located any trace of his body or belongings to this day,” said Dr. Leonard Porter, of St. Anne.
A framed photograph of Gaines is one of the first artifacts featured in Porter’s exhibit of Alkebulan history.
“When I have students here, I have them start [at this photograph],” he said, “and it usually sets the tone.”
Porter’s free exhibit, which resides in a section of the Trinity Lutheran Church building at 1501 E. Merchant St. in Kankakee, is a collection of pieces by and/or about African-Americans.
Works featured in the exhibit are meant to teach visitors the history of Africa and its people, back when the continent was named “Alkebulan,” and of more recent history, all the way up to Barack Obama’s presidency.
The exhibit calls attention to local people who have made history, such as Chasity Wells-Armstrong, the first black mayor of Kankakee, and Robert Hudson Jr., the first black male nurse to work in the Kankakee area, who was employed by St. Mary’s Hospital in 1977.
The exhibit’s local roots are also apparent in several of the paintings and other art pieces Porter displays. Paintings by the late Leon Savage, former art teacher at St. Anne Community High School, and local artists Willie Dixon and Milton Murphy depict historical figures in African-American culture such as civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
Porter began collecting paintings, historical documents and other artifacts related to black history when King was killed in 1968.
Once Porter rounded up a small collection of his own King memorabilia, people in the community started gifting him with similar items.
One item in the exhibit gifted to Porter is from former Kankakee High School teacher Bill Stuart. A sculpture of King’s head created by one of Stuart’s former students in the 1970s is the focal point of Porter’s memorial to the minister.
The sculpture is displayed behind a sign that once stood at King Drive in Chicago, which features Dr. King’s namesake.
Other interesting items in Porter’s collection include books, DVDs, magazine covers, photos and other unique pieces of local art and Chicago-based art.
In short shelves pushed against a wall, Porter fanned out countless print issues of Ebony and Jet, both successful magazines aimed at African-American readers, founded by John H. Johnson in Chicago.
“Ebony magazine was just about in every African-American home,” Porter remembered. “They would buy them off the stand or have them sent to their house because it covered history and current history, which is now real history.”
Porter’s collection dates back all the way to 1955.
He also has many first or early editions of books by black authors such as Richard Wright, Dick Gregory and Haki R. Madhubuti. He has “Roots” by Alex Haley, as well as the autobiography of Malcolm X written by himself and Haley.
One of Porter’s most special books is “Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans,” written by the late Wallace Terry, a reporter who wrote for print media such as the Washington Post newspaper and Time magazine.
“Bloods” is a biographical novel which includes a section on Porter, a Vietnam combat veteran who is still actively involved in veterans’ affairs.
“Bloods” was the inspiration behind the 1995 crime thriller film “Dead Presidents.”
Amid all the memorabilia of the civil rights era, the shines to local sports heroes and the baskets of black Cabbage Patch Kids featured especially for the young visitors, one of Porter’s favorite spots in the exhibit is the wall dedicated to Alkebulan artifacts.
“This is my signature,” Porter said. “This is what it’s all about.”
Porter owns hundreds of items — and many in his most personal collections are not on display in the exhibit.
“I have more books on African-American history than any place between here and Chicago. Guaranteed,” he said. “I have a huge collection of [paintings and other items] on John F. Kennedy – he was quite a president – and then I have another collection on Barack Obama. I have enough to fill this whole building.”
Porter is a retired professor who taught psychology at Kankakee Community College and was also employed at Good Shepherd Manor in Momence.
His days of teaching and caretaking might be over in the professional sense, but step into Porter’s exclusive Alkebulan exhibit during Black History Month and you are guaranteed to leave the building with more knowledge than you had beforehand.
During the month of February, the exhibit is free to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday; and Sunday by appointment only. For more information or to set up an appointment, contact Porter at 815-573-1488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the sports corner of Porter’s exhibit includes some photographs and memorabilia of Andrew “Rube” Foster, who organized the Negro National League, the first professional African-American baseball league, in 1920.
“He died in Kankakee and he was world-known,” Porter explained. “And I’ll bet you, you go out on the street and find 20 people and stop all 20 of them and not one would have heard of him.”
Porter’s exhibit begs us to remember our history, to understand our roots and to reclaim our ancestry.