Central alumna to be honored for lifetime of trailblazing art and education

Apr. 3—Honor roll The Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation's 2024 honorees, who'll be recognized at a ceremony Friday at the I Hotel:

Distinguished Alumni Award

* Stacy Walton Long, Centennial Class of 1997 Barbara Suggs Mason, Central Class of 1970 Angela Rivers, Central Class of 1970 Will Patterson, Urbana Class of 1984

Local Hero Award

* Shandra Summerville, Central Class of 1993

Community Impact Award

The Music Shoppe, owner Jonathon Breen

CHAMPAIGN — Angela Rivers remembers learning about museum studies before it was museum studies, and organizing dance recitals at the Art Institute of Chicago at a time it only ever showcased staid items.

The artist, educator, museum professional and designer of one of Champaign's most venerable murals will be honored Friday at the I Hotel, one of four recipients of distinguished alumni awards from the CU Schools Foundation.

The 1970 Champaign Central alumna was born in 1952 on the now-decommissioned Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul. When her father returned from fighting in the Korean War, she moved with her parents to the south side of Champaign.

Growing up, she recalled playing with friends in Douglass Park and outside Bethel AME Church, exploring the area — riding bikes along Boneyard Creek, up and down the railroad tracks, clambering over the huge mounds of coal that used to sit outside the Abbott Power Plant.

As Rivers grew older, she had to walk through the White neighborhoods to get to Lincoln Elementary School. She remembers adults along the way yelling at her, siccing their dogs at her and calling her the "n-word" on a daily basis.

In class, Rivers said she had altercations with teachers who doubted she had done her own homework, and in junior high, she became less close to the White friends she grew up with because their parents told them they couldn't interact with her anymore.

"Basically, they weren't necessarily evil, but some of them did not believe that African American kids could aspire to be anything," Rivers said of her grade school teachers.

"I wouldn't consider it a traumatic childhood because, you know, the time and the place, you knew that there was certain prejudices that was throughout the town," she added.

While studying art at University of Illinois, she recalls butting heads with faculty who questioned why she wanted to paint Black people — in one instance getting a dean to intervene when a professor gave her the wrong grade solely because he disliked the subjects of her work.

After graduating from the UI, she started a master's program in art education in Dallas, but ultimately received her degrees later at Eastern Illinois University due to a lack of support from a school instructor at a Texas university.

Regardless of these experiences, Rivers continued to work in the art realm because she knew from a very young age she wanted to be an artist.

One of the main influences to that aspiration was her uncle Cecil, a professional artist and illustrator who fashioned a studio in the storage room of her grandmother's building. When her uncle moved away, she would stand in his studio, "captivated" by all his left-behind-materials.

Her family's neighbor was the artist and late UI Professor Billy Morrow Jackson. Starting at age six, if she stayed quiet, Jackson would allow her to sit in his studio for hours and watch him paint.

"Between the two of them, it told me that (being an artist) wasn't just something that I can pretend that I wanted to be," Rivers said. "So when people said you couldn't be that, that didn't mean anything to me. I knew I could be it because I knew people who were artists."

Making history

Rivers landed her first museum job working for the African American Museum of Dallas, and assembled a group of other Black artists, dancers and musicians in the city. When she eventually returned home to Champaign, she said the Black art mural movement was at its height.

A group of Black artists was organizing then in 1978 to create a mural in Champaign. While some of those involved wanted the project to represent Black power, Rivers knew that the people they were looking to fund its construction would find that type of image too radical.

The mural on Fifth and Park streets that she designed and won funding for from the Champaign Park District aimed at showing how African Americans are part of the county's history.

It included an image of the middle passage, a plantation, the great migration, a railroad and a cornfield with a setting sun.

A farmer pictured in the mural spoke to Rivers' family history, which dates back to 1867 in Champaign County. Relatives on her mother's side were former slaves who settled in the southeastern region of the county after the Civil War.

The mural's focus on local Black history also links to Rivers' work on the Champaign County African American Heritage trail, which she co-chairs with fellow CUSF award winner and Central classmate Barbara Suggs-Mason.

'Moving forward'

After completing what became a popular Champaign landmark, Rivers went on to Chicago, where she built up the youth and art education programs for numerous institutions, including the DuSable Black History Museum, Field Museum, Brookfield Zoo and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Her focus in many of those roles was on how to bring in the outside community. One year, she worked as a consultant for the Art Institute of Chicago, which wanted to build programming around expanding the gallery's collection of art made by African Americans.

The project was "exhilarating," Rivers said, as it involved showcasing art, music and dance recitals that the museum, in its historically eurocentric scope, had never seen before.

But here too she encountered a "resistance to the Black presence," as not every person working for the Art Institute wanted to see its culture change or open up to include others.

"I always had to navigate resistance," Rivers said. "My entire professional life was knowing how, learning how and knowing when to navigate."

"You have to keep an open mind. You have to be sensitive to maybe some of the reasons behind the resistance, but you don't succumb to them and you don't allow them to dictate which direction you're trying to go."

Looking back, Rivers said she's proud of the important work she has done, even if she's perturbed by seeing young people having to mobilize against issues — like police brutality — that she remembers mobilizing against in the '60s and '70s.

While American society has hardly advanced in some respects, Rivers said she does believe it has moved forward a lot in other ways, toward building a multicultural society.

"When you're working in it, you don't always feel like you're moving at the forefront of some things that's happening," Rivers said of her life's work.

"You're just thinking about moving forward and that's pretty much the way that I saw it — as just moving forward something new, something different, something challenging."