Since opening its doors to the public in August 2010, the Robbins History Museum has shone a light on the stories of aviators, actresses, and other residents of the all-Black town of Robbins, Illinois. Founded in 1917 by formerly enslaved people and their descendants who migrated North during the Great Migration, Robbins is the oldest primarily Black town in the Chicago region. The town’s earliest residents migrated in search of stable employment through the industrial and factory jobs offered along the CalumetRiver.
Located on a floodplain, Robbins was viewed by outsiders as a boggy hazard. However, its founders and residents experienced the town as a haven from the white vigilantism and discrimination that many Black Southerners encountered as they entered the neighborhoods and workplaces of Chicago. Robbins residents pursued homeownership, worked the land into gardens and livestock farms, and established a tight-knit infrastructure of churches, grocery stores, and social spaces along the central street of Claire Boulevard.
Founded by historian and curator Tyrone Haymore, the Robbins History Museum focuses centrally on Robbins Airport. The airport was the first to be owned and operated by African Americans. After being denied access to airstrips near Chicago, aviation mechanics Cornelius Coffey, John Robinson, and several additional mechanics and pilots formed the Challenger Air Pilots Association and bought a half-mile-wide tract of land in Robbins in 1931. The group’s campaign to spur a Black aviation movement was derailed a year later when a thunderstorm demolished their hangar. However, the association revived its efforts by founding the Coffey Flying School a few miles north in an unincorporated Worth Township near Oak Lawn. The school trained several of the pilots who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen for their service during World War II.
The town’s ethos of Black autonomy and ingenuity can be traced not only through the stories of Tuskegee Airmen, actresses like Star Trek star Nicholle Nichols, and NBA basketball player Dwayne Wade, but also through the efforts of residents like Director Tyrone Haymore to preserve its history.