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Owning Our Share of America’s Westward Expansion Story

Vickie Newton



America’s history is preserved by sharing the adventures of daring settlers who forged new lives for themselves and a new day for their country as they moved south and west fortified by a fierce quest for freedom and land. No doubt there were untold numbers of Blacks included on the journey, but most often the slaves are noticeably absent when the historical narrative is passed from generation to generation. Not so in Rockford, Illinois, a city of about 150-thousand residents located a little more than an hour from Chicago.

“Lewis Lemon? I know who he is. He was one of the founders of Rockford,” Wayne Turner says. Music from speakers blare the latest beats and the smell of hamburgers on the grill fill the air in the neighborhood park where Turner, a small group of adults and dozens of children gather.

Turner and Tarina Lister are members of a community outreach organization called Devine Divas and Dons. “There are a lot who do, but probably young and some old, who do not,” Lister explains when asked how many in the neighborhood were familiar with the name Lewis Lemon.

Less than three blocks from the park is Lewis Lemon Global Studies Academy, named for Lemon who moved to Rockford in the fall/winter 1833-1834 with Germanicus Kent, a northern businessman whose brother had relocated to Illinois and extolled the beauty of the area. Kent packed up his family, including Lemon and several other slaves he had purchased purportedly at the urging of his southern-born wife, and moved west. Along the way, Kent and Lemon agreed that Lemon would work for six years in exchange for his freedom. True to his word, Kent signed Lemon’s manumission document in 1839.

On the playground at Lewis Lemon Global Studies, children are playing basketball. Lemon is familiar for obvious reasons, but the man behind the name remains a mystery.

“I thought he was white…because of the name,” says Marquis. The other children, both black and white, also express surprise. And one mumbles it “is a good school, but I don’t like wearing a uniform.”

Back at the park more parents and children are mingling. “We are about giving children and families something safe and fun to do,” Lister says. The mother of two recalls how the summer program began eight years ago. “My children and I were in the park one Sunday, and we were eating. There were some children in the park, and one of my children noticed them and said, ‘Every time we eat, they look at us.’”

Concern for those children and others led Lister to organize Divine Divas and Dons. City budget cuts have threatened the program’s survival, but Lister and her band of committed helpers know how to marshal the spirit of one of their favorite founders and turn lemons into lemonade.


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