Hidden History: The Barton Family in Normal

Local News

During the month of February we pay respect to the heroes that have helped chip away at the racial divide we see here in the U.S.

So much of our praise is rightfully given to big names like Dr. Martin Luther king jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, but did you know that there were people, in this community, that we don’t talk about, but should be given appreciation for what they did.

“I think the Barton family is unique in some ways but they are also very typical in that they really represent the African American experience in the town of normal.,” said Bill Kemp, Librarian with the McLean County Museum of History.

The Bartons arrived in Normal in the late 1860’s, they were one of the first African American families in the area.

“They were attracted here because of jobs,” said Kemp. “There were plant nurseries, there was Illinois State Normal University which the Barton’s were connected to.”

That’s where we begin, Illinois State Normal University, or as we know it today, Illinois State University. However, to understand all the Barton did for ISU and it’s campus, you must know who Jesse Fell is.

“Jesse Fell is the founder of our institution,” said April Anderson-Zorn, Illinois State University Archivist. “Jesse liked trees and with Illinois state he wanted to decorate the grounds. In the board of director’s reports, he kept saying he wanted to have ornamental trees around campus.

So in 1868 Fell set out to plant roughly 700 trees, but he quickly realized he was going to need some help. 

“He brought African American men up from here to help him plant trees, both in the town of Normal and on the campus of the Illinois State University.”

Although planting trees may not break the headlines when compared to the other African American icons, The Normal Community has the Barton’s to thank for unique surroundings. 

“I think you cannot look at the history of the town of Normal or the history of the Normal University, what we now know today as Illinois State University, without looking at those early African American families, that were located here.”

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