Work is already well underway on the renovation of the former Lincoln School, but Aurora held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the project this week anyway.
And ceremony was truly part of the day.
Ronnie Preston, of the American Indian Center in Chicago, was on hand Thursday to give a formal Native American blessing of the property, a nod to Oak Brook-based Visionary Ventures, the company redeveloping both the former Lincoln and Todd schools.
Visionary Ventures develops projects for underserved and low-income communities nationwide, specializing in housing for disadvantaged Native Americans. They are remodeling 47 workforce housing units into the former Lincoln School, on South Lake Street, and the former Todd School on Oak Street, both closed West Aurora School District elementary schools.
Pam Silas, a member of the Menomenee and Oneida tribes and Visionary Ventures board chair, said it is her “big dream” to “build and develop affordable housing.”
“It’s our mission to work with community leaders to bring affordable housing and economic development to Native Americans” as well as to “all underserved communities,” she said. “We’re honored to be entrusted to do this work.”
That’s part of what brought Preston to Aurora, to do what is called a “grass dance,” in which tribes would have young men dance on the tall prairie grasses to knock them down to build villages.
The prairie grasses that might have once been along Lake Street are long gone, tamped down when Lincoln School was built in the late 1800s as one of the city’s first schools.
Preston pointed out that when those settlers came to Aurora to build such schools, “they were not alone.”
“This was indigenous peoples’ lands,” he said. And he pointed out that the very fact that he still has the dress of his people, and speaks the language, shows that attempts in the past to take that native culture away “did not succeed.”
“Equality should be about being with one another, and being together,” he said.
Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said that the development of the workforce housing, which will be known as Fox Valley Apartments, is “the epitome of Aurora pride.”
He pointed to the city being involved in the redevelopment, along with a number of partners like the West Aurora School District and VNA Health of Aurora, which is putting a clinic for West Aurora students and their families in the Todd School development.
“These are partnerships that make these projects possible,” he said.
Another partner that was part of the financing for the projects was the Illinois Housing Development Authority, or IHDA.
Adam Moore, IHDA liaison, said most projects he sees take five to 10 years to get started. He said the fact that Aurora’s project is underway in less than a year after approval “is amazing.”
The ceremony not only honored Native American past, but the Lincoln School past as well. Cynthia Latimer served as a teacher and principal at the school, and was around in 2009 for the closing ceremony of the building.
At the time, she was presented with the last flag to fly over the school, which she immediately took steps to preserve and store. She presented the flag this week to Visionary Ventures to put on display in the remodeled apartments.
“I wanted to offer the flag to return it to its rightful place,” she said.
When summer school ended in 2009, the last teacher to leave was James Stahlman, who taught fourth grade at the school for 20 years. After that summer school session, Stahlman and his granddaughter closed the door for the last time and locked up.
“I’m so happy this is going to be used for something,” Stahlman said at Thursday’s festivities.
He was joined by former students, one of whom, Laura Carrera, remembered burying a time capsule at the school in the 1980s. Stahlman said they are trying to arrange to find the time capsule sometime later.
And Stahlman also remembered one of Lincoln School’s iconic stories, that of Mrs. Thompson, who was a principal at the school in the 1940s. It was said that her ghost roamed the school’s halls, the story reinforced by those who claimed to hear her walking the halls at night, ringing the school bell as she went.
Stahlman admitted to trying to hear it himself at times when he worked weekends or late, once even up to 11 p.m.
“People have been saying that forever,” he said, “but I never heard the ghost.”
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October 14, 2022 at 08:20PM