Dist. 220's first Black teacher discovers her great-great-uncle was a trailblazer in Arlington Heights
Sharon LeCompte was a college student at Illinois State University in 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated -- a time when her history professor believed Black people weren't known for being anything other than slaves.
"When I was raised and I was in school, I always felt that there was something that somebody had done in my family besides being a slave," said LeCompte, daughter of a Tuskegee airman. "I started doing research on my own. I wanted to find out about Black history."
She already knew about her family's ancestral link to John Anthony Copeland Jr., a free man who joined abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 -- an event that served as a precursor to the Civil War.
Later, thanks to handwritten family histories, documents and other genealogical records -- and a blue glass sugar bowl she had long admired in her grandmother's china cabinet -- LeCompte learned about someone else.
"My grandmother had told me it belonged to Frank White," said LeCompte, 75, who lives near Elgin.
LeCompte heard stories about the man growing up but didn't have much interest in what her grandmother and other family members had to say at the time.
It was only in her adult years -- at the time she was the first Black teacher in Barrington Area Unit District 220 -- that she began to realize the trail her great-great-uncle Frank blazed at the turn of the century in nearby Arlington Heights.
White, a charter member and president of the first all-volunteer fire department in Arlington Heights in 1894 and owner of five successful barbershops, was among the first Black residents in Arlington Heights in the late 19th century. He and his wife, Fannie, a talented artist who specialized in oil paintings, arrived in town in 1888, when Frank answered the call for a local barber in the growing community.
Their arrival was preceded only by Balaam Lee, a former slave who came to what was then known as the town of Dunton with a Union soldier returning after the war. Lee worked at Klehm's Nursery and did other odd jobs around town, according to Arlington Heights Museum Administrator Dan Schoeneberg.
LeCompte connected with Schoeneberg last fall while he was leading the research effort for a local history project on White, who is being recognized by the village on its 2022 vehicle sticker.
About 15 years ago, a librarian at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library found LeCompte and her mother and invited them on a tour to see a three-panel mural featuring the likeness of White and other early figures of Arlington Heights' history.
The son of that librarian contacted LeCompte after reading about the village's latest effort to honor White last year in the Daily Herald.
After exchanging emails, Schoeneberg invited LeCompte to visit the museum to see some of the old black-and-white photos, news clippings and other documents he and staff members had dug up from the archives about White. In October, Village Manager Randy Recklaus presented LeCompte with vehicle sticker 00001, in which White is pictured in his fire department uniform, complete with medals, buttons and a captain's hat.
LeCompte brought with her a gift of her own: the glass bowl that long sat in her grandmother's china cabinet. It turns out the decorative piece -- colored cobalt blue and set into a silver-plated framework of floral designs and birds -- was gifted to White upon his retirement from the fire department in 1934.
"My grandmother gave it to me before I got married because she knew it was something that I admired," LeCompte said. "When this whole story came out about Frank White, I knew that there would really be nobody else that would want this piece, so I gave it to the museum."
She says she was thrilled to find out the village was honoring White, who left his Arlington Heights bungalow at 19 S. Dunton Ave. in 1948 after his wife's death. He died five years later at the age of 90 and is buried in downstate Geneseo, where his grandparents settled in 1854 after their freedom was purchased by a Quaker.
LeCompte says the importance of education always was emphasized during her childhood in Geneseo, inspiring her to become a teacher. Her mother, who now is 95, often would be invited to speak to schools and clubs about their family history.
"I'm very proud of our family," LeCompte said. "It was just passed onto our family that this is the way we're supposed to be, and I think that helps to remember about your past, to know that this is what these people would've expected of us. I'm very thankful for what I have because of the fact that somebody instilled in me some important values."