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1850s Casseday Mansion in Chicago suburb being turned into Black history museum

Converting a historic Joliet home into a Black history museum
Converting a historic Joliet home into a Black history museum 03:31

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Preservationists fought to save a home from the 1850's in Joliet, and then it sat empty for years. Now one man is hoping to convert the building into Will County's first African American history museum. 

Rain, shine, or frigid cold, work at the Casseday Mansion needs to stay on track for its second shot at life.

Luther Johnson got himself into a massive undertaking with the support of his family. The limestone building in Joliet is 173 years old, and will take more than half a million dollars to renovate.

Just getting to this point caused plenty of drama in 2019, when the fight to save the Casseday Mansion from getting torn down was a success.

To make room for a gas station, the 1.5-million-pound structure built with original Will County limestone was shuttled down the street.

The 14-hour move happened just before COVID-19 hit.

"My heart was singing because we did it. We saved it. And my heart was sunk because now what are we going to do?" said Sandy Vasko, director of the Will County Historical Museum and Research Center.

Because of the pandemic and a lack of funding, Vasko said the Casseday Mansion sat empty at its new location.

Then Johnson walked into the museum. He was looking for a place to host a Black History Month event using his mobile exhibit. For years, the Civil Car re-enacter has been showing off his collection of military artifacts at schools.

"I said, 'Gee, a museum on wheels? Wouldn't you rather have a building?'" Vasko said.

Johnson seized the opportunity to own a piece of history, even though the cost to renovate it all would fall to him.

"Right away, I saw what it could be," Johnson said. "Open it all up and people can flow through that it could become a museum. … It's gonna be a resource center. We're gonna have a bookstore, a gift shop."

All dedicated to teaching the public about the role Black people have played in American military conflicts.

"America necessarily has not treated African American people fairly, but yet we still bled for this country," he said. "There is nothing like this in Will County. So that just made it … made it come home."

Designing the inside is a way down the to-do list. First, Johnson is looking for any safety issues that cropped up during the building's moved, and he's on a bit of a hunt for treasure hiding in the walls.

"I said let's just strip it down to the bones, see what we have, and hope we find that one million-dollar penny," he said.

That and donations would help his grand plan to make history about history within history.

Johnson and his team already found a scrap of wallpaper and original crown moulding in the building. It had been remodeled several times since the 1850's.

He's hosting a black-tie fundraising event in March.

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