Documentary chronicles history of African Americans in Elgin

Posted2/26/2014 5:30 AM
  • Phil Broxham, president of Elgin-based Grindstone Video Productions, left, is working with longtime Elgin resident Ernie Broadnax on a documentary about the history of blacks in Elgin.

      Phil Broxham, president of Elgin-based Grindstone Video Productions, left, is working with longtime Elgin resident Ernie Broadnax on a documentary about the history of blacks in Elgin. Rick West/rwest@

Lifelong Elgin resident Ernie Broadnax dreamed for a decade about finding a way to tell the story of African Americans in Elgin.

Now his goal is becoming reality after partnering with Phil Broxham, president of Elgin-based Grindstone Video Productions, to film the documentary "Project 2-3-1: 2 Boxcars. 3 Blocks. 1 City."

"When (Broxham) said 'yes,' it made my heart do some flip-flops," said Broadnax, the executive producer. "It was one of the best days of my life."

The documentary will be released by the end of the year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

The documentary features 15 interviews, including descendants of Elgin's first African-American families, and notable figures like former Elgin Police Deputy Chief Cecil Smith, Pastor Paul Rouse, formerly of St. James AME Church, and Carolyn O'Neal, the widow of the first black principal in Elgin Area School District U-46.

The first African-Americans in Elgin were 110 Civil War refugees, known as "contrabands," who arrived in two boxcars in 1862.

The group included 28 women, 77 children and only five men, whose trip from Mississippi was arranged by a pastor from First Baptist Church in Elgin who served in the Union Army.

"They came with nothing but the clothes on their back," said Broxham, who wants to shoot a re-enactment of the arrival, possibly at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union.

"It's not like your classic European (immigrants) rags-to-riches story. They were really held in place by the color of their skin."

First Baptist members helped the refugees with everything from clothes to lodging and schooling, often suffering backlash from the larger community for it, Broxham said. Many refugees, especially women, ended up working in the homes of local residents.

For decades, the descendants of the first refugees, including Broadnax's family, lived near the city dump in the east side, on the 400 blocks of Fremont Place, Hickory Street and Gifford Street, Broadnax said.

"We were relegated to living there before Elgin became integrated," said Broadnax, whose father was a cobbler.

Over the years, the descendants who lived in the so-called "settlement" faced obstacles including KKK activity in the 1920s and discrimination in the workforce. "There were no blacks in trade unions, no black police, firemen, politicians, no black schoolteachers, for a long time," he said.

The Elgin Police Department, for example, hired its first black sworn officer in 1968.

The neighborhood where Broadnax grew up began to change in the 1970s, as Laotian immigrants, and then Mexican immigrants, moved in, he said.

Elgin's African American population is now 7.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Broadnax said he first thought of writing a book but decided a documentary would be a much more engaging medium, especially for the younger generation, he said.

"They need to know the heritage of people that can inform them, and did a lot of things here in Elgin so those kids could be enjoying the things they are enjoying today," he said.

The documentary isn't just for African-Americans, but for anyone who's curious about the history of Elgin, he added.

Broxham and Broadnax have known each other for about eight years, but the project came to life only when the two ran into each other in an elevator about a year ago.

"The timing was right, plus with the 50th anniversary (of the Civil Rights Act), it was kismet," Broxham said.

The pair have partnered with the Elgin Area Historical Society, whose members have lent guidance and expertise. Also, the documentary can benefit from grants, such as from the Elgin Cultural Arts Commission, through the society's nonprofit status, they said.

Most of Broxham's work is in TV commercials and website videos, but this project really speaks to his passion, he said.

"This kind of documentary work is really rich in storytelling," he said. "I very much see it as Ernie's story."

The pair have raised about $25,000 toward their $75,000 budget. Donors include Advocate Sherman Hospital and the Seigle Family Foundation. For donations, visit

The goal is to produce a two-part documentary of 30 minutes each, a multimedia traveling exhibit appropriate for schools and colleges, and an educational curriculum component, they said.

"When this is finished," Broadnax said, "this will be an extremely important part of Elgin's black history."

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