Naperville honors its first female black resident with grave marker

 
 
Updated 5/28/2015 9:59 PM
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  • Bryan Ogg, curator of research for the Naper Settlement, speaks Thursday at Naperville Cemetery during the dedication of a commemorative grave marker in honor of Sybil Dunbar, the city's first known black female resident.

      Bryan Ogg, curator of research for the Naper Settlement, speaks Thursday at Naperville Cemetery during the dedication of a commemorative grave marker in honor of Sybil Dunbar, the city's first known black female resident. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • This new commemorative plaque marks the grave of Sybil Dunbar, the first known black woman to have lived in Naperville. Officials dedicated the plaque on Thursday.

      This new commemorative plaque marks the grave of Sybil Dunbar, the first known black woman to have lived in Naperville. Officials dedicated the plaque on Thursday. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, President and CEO of the Naper Settlement, says the story of Sybil Dunbar, Naperville's first known black female resident, is one example of how Naperville's background is relevant in the broader context of American history.

      Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, President and CEO of the Naper Settlement, says the story of Sybil Dunbar, Naperville's first known black female resident, is one example of how Naperville's background is relevant in the broader context of American history. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Bryan Ogg prepares to unveil a commemorative marker Thursday in Naperville Cemetery at the grave of Sybil Dunbar, the city's first known black female resident.

      Bryan Ogg prepares to unveil a commemorative marker Thursday in Naperville Cemetery at the grave of Sybil Dunbar, the city's first known black female resident. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

There are plenty of unknowns about Naperville's first recorded black female resident, but a new commemorative marker dedicated Thursday ensures the known facts about the life of Sybil Dunbar will not be forgotten.

Dunbar came to Naperville by 1855 from Vermont, and when she died in 1868, she was buried in Naperville Cemetery on Washington Street.

That's where about 40 people gathered Thursday to celebrate Dunbar's life and hear the story of how her gravestone was saved from vanishing under the grass, leaving her presence a mystery.

"What an important piece of Naperville history to have found and to have preserved," Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico said. "It's really a blessing that we did find it ... Had this not been discovered when it was, it was literally sinking into the ground."

The stone marker would have crumbled if Bryan Ogg, curator of research for the Naper Settlement historical museum, moved it when he originally discovered it in December 2013, he said. He was on a quest to find the identity of the city's first black resident after the son of a former city council member asked who it was and he couldn't answer.

A 1960s newspaper column mentioned an 1863 letter passed down within a Naperville family that listed Sybil Dunbar as a resident. That letter -- along with research from more than a dozen genealogical societies, census records and property records -- eventually led Ogg to Dunbar's grave.

He discovered she lived between two merchant families who came to Naperville from Vermont. She was the daughter of a free man and, according to the 1860 census, she was an "independent," wealthy enough not to be working, with $2,000 to her name. But Ogg's research couldn't confirm her birth date -- it's listed as 1799 and 1802 -- or if Dunbar worked for the merchant families she lived between before 1860.

"What you see on the plaque today is what we know, but this stone also represents what we don't know about Sybil," Ogg said. "If we would have let that stone sink away into oblivion, it would have been harder for someone like myself to find the real story."

Juan Thomas, first vice president of the DuPage County NAACP, called Dunbar a "pioneer" for being the first black woman in Naperville at a time when "she had no rights that a white man was bound to respect."

John Koranda, a Naperville Heritage Society board member who made a donation toward the $5,200 it cost to stabilize Dunbar's gravestone and add the commemorative marker, said her presence proves "Naperville has always been a very progressive and accepting town."

The telling of Dunbar's story as a free black woman in Illinois in the 1850s and 1860s is just one example of how Naperville's past can be relevant within a larger context, said Rena Tamayo-Calabrese, Naper Settlement president and CEO.

"We seek to discover who we are and why we're here," Tamayo-Calabrese said. "We tell the American story through the eyes of Naperville."

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