What Historical Treasures Are Housed In Chicago Public Libraries?

These seven “treasures” bear witness to Chicago history, from the Civil War to the election of the first African-American mayor of Chicago.

In one of the most famous scenes in National Treasure, Nicolas Cage’s character visits the National Archives to warn archivist Abigail Chase that someone is going to steal the Declaration of Independence. Why would they do that? Because there’s a map on the back of the document, he tells her. “A map of what?” Abigail asks. “The location of hidden items,” Cage’s character explains carefully, clearing his throat, “of historic and intrinsic value.”

Curious City listener and high school history teacher Cynthia Leung has watched this scene many times. “I love Nicolas Cage,” she admits. As a U.S. and world history teacher at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, she also loves history. And while Cage uses the Declaration of Independence to find a pile of gold and silver, the document itself, of course, is also a historic treasure. Seeing Cage dash between the National Archives and the Library of Congress got Cynthia thinking about what items of “historic and intrinsic value” might be hidden in her own backyard. So she asked Curious City:

What historical treasures are housed in our city's public libraries?

To find out, we crisscrossed the city and visited all four major Chicago Public Library archives — Special Collections (Harold Washington Library Center), the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection (Woodson Regional Library), the Municipal Reference Collection (HWLC), and the Northside Neighborhood Collection (Sulzer Regional Library) — to ask CPL archivists and librarians about what kinds of things Chicago chooses to hold onto in its expansive archives. They dug up items that help solve mysteries about Chicago, tell stories about war, and take us back to important moments in the city’s history. From those, we picked seven to share with you. These seven “treasures” span the period from soon after Chicago’s incorporation as a city to the early 1980s, and bear witness to the lives and deaths of Illinois soldiers during the Civil War, scandals in Chicago politics, major movements in the city’s arts and cultural scenes, and the racism that brought hundreds of thousands of African-Americans to Chicago during the Great Migration.

(Photo by Chicago Public Library | Special Collections, Harold Washington Library Center)

Civil War Sword

(Photo by Maggie Sivit | Special Collections, Harold Washington Library Center)

Civil War sword, 1865

Archive: Special Collections, Harold Washington Library Center

“I have to confess, I had no interest in the Civil War for the longest time,” says Morag Walsh, senior archivist at the Special Collections Research Center of the Harold Washington Library. “Dead white guys, not really my thing. But then I had to do research on the swords — we have about 40 or 50 edged weapons in the collection — … and I ended up loving them.”

This particular sword, a Model 1850 Foot Officer Sword, was carried by Lt. Zina G. Ward of the 153rd Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Army. Grooves running down the blade, called blood lines, allowed blood to drain out of the body and prevented the sword from creating a vacuum. The handle is covered in sharkskin, to keep one’s grip from slipping when the handle became slick with sweat, rain, or blood. “It’s really quite a gruesome thing,” says Walsh, “but they are so well-engineered. … They’re really good for what they’re designed to do.”

The 153rd Regiment organized in Chicago in 1865 for a one-year enlistment, and was assigned to defend the line at Nashville and Chattanooga. Over 250,000 Union soldiers came from Illinois, placing it fourth among the states in terms of total manpower.

“Knowing that this was carried by a man called Zina Ward brings it to life a bit more. It’s so easy to be detached from something like the Civil War. Especially for me; I’m not from the States,” says Walsh, who is originally from Scotland. But seeing the stains on the handle, the scratches on the blade, and knowing what Ward looked like and where he was from (from his discharge papers), “You just know that this was real,” she says. “It’s not charming, because it’s a weapon, but it’s important to keep this stuff alive.”

Diary of Elsie F. Dable

Elsie F. Dable diary entry, opening day at Wrigley Field, 1914

Archive: Northside Neighborhood History Collection, Sulzer Regional Library

Chicago has had a long, erstwhile cursed love affair with the Chicago Cubs, much of which has played out at Wrigley Field. But what would it have been like to be at the legendary ballpark on April 23, 1914, when the stadium first opened?

“I’ve never seen such crowds in my life,” writes Elsie Dable in her diary entry for April 23, 1914. “ ... Before the game, the[y] shot some kind of things in the air, and a little parachute came out of them.”

Dable, an 18-year-old from the Lake View neighborhood, went to Weeghman Park (now Wrigley Field) on opening day with her mother and wrote about it in her diary. That diary was donated by her family to the Ravenswood-Lake View Historical Association, and now resides in the Northside Neighborhood Collection at the Sulzer Regional Library. It’s full of quotidian moments like the one above.

“They had two bands there which kept playing ‘This is the Life,’” Dable continues in the entry, “a very appropriate song for the occasion. ... There was an awful cute pendant guy there who kept fancying us. We bought a pendant for a quarter. We certainly had a fine time but I was wishing I could have gone in.”

Today, the 14,000-seat capacity stadium, known for its ivy-covered outfield wall and manual scoreboard, is the only remaining Federal League ballpark. While Dable and her mother couldn’t get in to see the game on opening day (“it was sold out,” explains Julie Lynch, a librarian at Sulzer), her diary entry details various people they met and things they saw near and around the field. “We don’t have a lot of diaries, and certainly to have the voice of a young woman, in the mid-1910s, is kind of a unique window,” says Lynch.

Weeghman Park became home to the Chicago Cubs in 1916 and was renamed Wrigley Field in 1926. Even back in 1914, it seems clear that baseball at Weeghman Park was a big deal — at least in the eyes of Dable, says Lynch. Her entries for the following two days read simply: “No ball game today,” and “We went to the ball game today, but there wasn’t near the crowd there was on Thursday.”

(Photo by Maggie Sivit | Northside Neighborhood History Collection, Sulzer Regional Library)

Arthur Family,
Chicago Defender

(Photo by Maggie Sivit | Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Woodson Regional Library)

Arthur family, pictured in Chicago Defender clipping, 1920

Archive: Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Woodson Regional Library

The Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, the largest African-American history and literature collection in the Midwest, is home to the Abbott-Sengstacke Family Papers, which includes the archives of the Chicago Defender. Over a decade ago, that collection helped solve a mystery behind a photo that had long been associated with the Great Migration. This particular photo, which depicts an African-American family standing at a Chicago train station with suitcases, frequently appears on book jackets and in documentaries about the black Exodus from the South in the early 20th century, says Beverly Cook, senior archivist at the Collection. “It’s an iconic image,” she explains. “But for the longest time, we knew they were part of the Migration story, but we didn’t know who they were.”

Vernon Jarrett, a former columnist for the Defender, was curious — so he started coming to the library to look through the paper’s archives, says Cook, explaining that Jarrett suspected the photo might have appeared in the Defender. After more than a year of searching through back issues of the newspaper, Jarrett found the original article that had accompanied the photo. The mystery was solved. The article described how the Arthur family pictured in the photo was fleeing Paris, Texas, where their two eldest sons had been lynched after a dispute with a white farmer over money and their daughters had been raped trying to defend them. “Somehow, the story spread,” says Cook, “long before the internet,” and the Defender helped raise funds to bring the family to Chicago and arranged to pick them up from the 12th Street train station. “The clothes, empty suitcases, were all staged [by the photographer],” says Cook. So while the image seems to suggest a certain story — “the typical migration story,” says Cook, “this family all set for their new life” — in reality, “they were shell-shocked. They had just gone through this horrible trauma.”

Started by Robert Sengstacke Abbott in 1905, the Chicago Defender was the nation’s foremost African-American newspaper for much of the 20th century. According to Cook, the Defender openly criticized the injustices of the Jim Crow South, and offered a “new vision, a new hope” for African-Americans in northern cities like Chicago. “Robert Abbott is the main reason a lot of people say that half a million blacks migrated from the South to the North,” says Cook. Consequently, the Defender was made illegal in many southern states. “If you got caught reading the paper or distributing it, you could be thrown in jail, or fined — or worse,” she says. To get around that, Abbott developed a loose relationship with the Pullman porters, who threw stacks of the paper out the train cars as they traveled south.

Among other things, Cook says the Arthur family photo is a good example of the importance of historical research and not taking things at face value. It’s also an example of the kind of activism the Defender was committed to, in addition to reporting the news. “It shows them being participatory in the news,” says Cook. “I don’t see that a lot today. They went beyond just telling the story. They went down there and brought these people north. They found them a place to stay. … It was a kind of courage booster. [It told people] you could count on the Defender.”

Election Return Cards

Election Return Card from Kennedy-Nixon Presidential race, 1960

Archive: Municipal Reference Collection, Harold Washington Library Center

“Vote early, vote often” is a tongue-in-cheek phrase that’s come to stand for Chicago’s (sometimes mythologized, but often merited) reputation for political corruption. The election return cards from 1960 (seen above on microfilm) are a relic of a particularly infamous case in which the Democratic machine under Richard J. Daley was accused of stuffing ballot boxes to swing the presidential vote for John F. Kennedy. Columns break down votes by office (president, vice president) and precinct. In a city known for its strongarm politics, “You always have people looking at [election returns] to see who stole the election,” says Sarah Erekson, a librarian at the Municipal Reference Collection. That year, there were rampant rumors that Democrats walked the cemeteries looking for names of the dead to vote, “helped” elderly voters at nursing homes cast their ballots, or enlisted the Mafia to give gunpoint voting advice. But anyone who wants to see how things shook out after the votes were counted can check the election return cards. “If you systematically look at it, nothing’s going to stand out,” Erekson says. While this particular ballot box myth has been mostly debunked, political patronage can take other forms, and election return cards from the 1950s and ‘60s are often used by researchers “who want to study how the ‘Democratic machine’ was working,” says Erekson.

(Photo by Maggie Sivit | Municipal Reference Collection, Harold Washington Library Center)

Poem by Gwendolyn Brooks

(Photo by Maggie Sivit | Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Woodson Regional Library)

(Photo by Maggie Sivit | Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Woodson Regional Library)

Poem by Gwendolyn Brooks for CPL librarian Charlemae Hill Rollins, 1963

Archive: Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Woodson Regional Library

During the 1930s, a young Gwendolyn Brooks attended workshops, readings, and writers’ forums at CPL’s George Cleveland Hall Branch in Bronzeville — in large part because of a woman named Charlemae Hill Rollins. Rollins was Brooks’ mentor at the time, says archivist Beverly Cook. Rollins served as the head of the children’s department of the George Cleveland Hall library from 1932 until 1963. Brooks wrote this poem for her mentor and presented it at Rollins’ retirement party in May 1963. “[Rollins] was, by all accounts, an awesome storyteller,” says Cook. “I know this for a fact, because [Hall] was my library.” Rollins, whom Cook says was known for her melodic voice, spent much of her time reading stories to children and inspiring in them a love of learning. But she also served as a mentor to many of the biggest names in the Chicago Black Renaissance, people like Gwendolyn Brooks. “When you read the letters between her and Langston Hughes, or her and Gwendolyn Brooks, you see how much of an impact she had on these young developing writers,” Cook says.

Beyond storytelling, mentoring young writers, and performing her everyday duties as a librarian, Rollins also found time to advocate for library reform. When she started working as a librarian, there simply weren’t that many books about black folks for children, and the ones that existed often used racist stereotypes and caricatures. Cook says Rollins began “weeding books off the shelves” and replacing them with positive books and clippings from newspapers like the Chicago Defender, the Broad Ax, and the Chicago Whip — “anything that talked about black folks and what they were doing in a positive way,” says Cook — so that children who came into the library could be surrounded by images of heroes who looked like themselves. Later on, Rollins received a grant to write a book called We Build Together: A Reader’s Guide to Negro Life and Literature for Elementary and High School Use, which provides a bibliography of texts by and about African-Americans to help build library collections around the country and world.

“More people know about Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks today than they do on Charlemae Hill Rollins,” says Cook. “But I beg the question: Would there be a Gwendolyn Brooks, a Langston Hughes, or Richard Wright, if there had not been a Charlemae Hill Rollins?”

Original Score to Grease

(Photo by Maggie Sivit | Special Collections, Harold Washington Library Center)

Original score to Grease, 1971

Archive: Special Collections, Harold Washington Library Center

This version of Grease isn’t the one you know from the movie with Olivia Newton John and John Travolta. But the original score, written by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs, is reflective of life at a Chicago high school as well as Chicago’s theater culture in the early 1970s. Rydell High was based on Taft High School, where Jacobs went to school. Casey pulled some of his own high school experiences into the film (Eugene Florczyk was the name of his real-life valedictorian), but most of the story is modelled after Taft. In fact, “The Pink Ladies” was the name of a real gang at Taft, whose members were seniors while Jacobs was a freshman. “So there’s lots of Chicago references,” says Morag Walsh, senior archivist at Special Collections. “Some are loving, some are — ” she winces.

After Casey died in 1988, Chicago Public Library got a call from his partner, who asked if the library wanted Casey’s papers. “He called us because he knew that we had archives from theater companies,” Walsh says. “We went to pick it up, and we really didn’t know what to expect. There was a big, black garbage bag.” Inside the garbage bag was a nondescript binder, covered in water stains and coffee rings. “We opened it up, and then we found this — the original score to Grease.”

“With,” she adds, “probably the best copyright notice I’ve ever seen.”

Casey began writing the musical on a typewriter he purchased in 1970 after getting fired from his job as a lingerie salesman. “Everybody thinks New York for theater, but Chicago’s theater scene is a bit more raunchy, a bit more edgy, and a bit less polished, if you like,” says Walsh. Which means that this version is quite a bit different than the one you may be familiar with from the stage or movie theater. “The lyrics are very different. Very raunchy, very adult stuff,” says Walsh. We can’t produce the original version because it’s protected by copyright, but Walsh says simply, “They cleaned it up a lot for Olivia Newton John and John Travolta.” Sex, profanity, the whole nine yards. Chicagoans got a kick out of the bawdy lines, but in the words of Rizzo, “Some people are just so touchy.”

Speech by Harold Washington

Harold Washington speech announcing mayoral candidacy, 1982

Archive: Special Collections, Harold Washington Library Center

This speech by Mayor Harold Washington announcing his candidacy marks a landmark moment in the city’s political history and shines a light on Washington’s thought process in choosing how to present his message. “He had to be kind of cajoled into running,” says Morag Walsh, senior archivist at Special Collections, of Washington’s mayoral campaign. “At the time, turnout at elections was just abysmal, and it was just the same 20 percent voting for the mayor every time.” Washington made it a condition that if he was going to run for mayor, there had to be 50,000 new black voters registered. Instead, they registered over 100,000 first-time black voters. So on Nov. 10, 1982, Washington gave this speech announcing his run for mayor. “He was very much an underdog,” says Walsh. “Nobody gave him much chance.” The first line of his speech that evening was: “Chicago is a city divided.”

“What is pretty cool about this [document],” says Walsh, “quite apart from the fact that he won and was the first black mayor, is it’s annotated, and it shows ... the evolution of his thought.” In one part of the speech, Washington adds a marginal note to a section in which he addresses various folks — women, Latinos, blacks, youth, and progressive whites — who have all been left out of Chicago government. In the page margin, Washington writes, “power to the unempowered.” For Walsh, this shows Washington’s rhetorical skill (“It’s just a more powerful statement,” she says) as well as his assumed role as a unifier. “The thing about Harold Washington that everybody knows is he tried to bring people together,” says Walsh.

The seed of the spirit Washington would embody as mayor was visible in this speech he gave announcing his candidacy. “Chicago was very segregated, in lots of ways,” Walsh says, “and [after he won] he really tried to be the mayor for all of Chicago.”

(Photo by Maggie Sivit | Special Collections, Harold Washington Library Center)

(Photo by Maggie Sivit | Special Collections, Harold Washington Library Center)

Questioner Cynthia Leung is a 10th and 11th grade history teacher at Kenwood Academy. (Courtesy Cynthia Leung)

Curious City coordinated a special classroom visit for questioner Cynthia's high school history class. CPL archivist Beverly Cook (center) presented pieces from the Vivian Harsh collection, the largest African-American history and literature collection in the Midwest. (WBEZ/Katherine Nagasawa)

More about our questioner

Originally from South America (her parents migrated from China), Cynthia Leung has lived in Chicago for 30 years. “So I feel like I was born and raised here, even though I wasn’t,” says Cynthia. She has two young sons and lives near the Daley Library. “So we visit the library quite often,” she says. At 5 and 1, her sons are not yet old enough to enjoy the National Treasure movies that inspired Cynthia’s question.

As a 10th and 11th grade history teacher, Cynthia has the sometimes formidable task of getting teenagers to care about things like the Battle of Ticonderoga and the effects of industrialization. But learning about some of the historic treasures housed in Chicago’s public libraries inspired her to make use of the city’s resources. “I feel so renewed in how I want to teach history,” she says. “I don’t want to just teach out of textbooks anymore. I really want to make it more visual and dynamic.”

When we started reporting this story, Cynthia mentioned that she’d love to have a Chicago Public Library archivist visit her classroom at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park. So we arranged for Beverly Cook, senior archivist at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, to visit Kenwood and present some of the collection’s “treasures” to Cynthia’s class. The visit was a success. “They were like, ‘I never knew you could find all this stuff in a library!’” says Cynthia, who thinks her students most enjoyed seeing items from Addie Wyatt, an African-American labor organizer who advocated for gender and racial equality. “Anything that connects them to this bigger group of people here who are engaged in that type of work, they find very cool.”