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Armchair Chicago historian gaining viral fame but that's not his mission

Armchair Chicago historian gaining viral fame but that's not his mission

TikTok, to those of a certain age or the uninitiated, is often thought of as an app where kids do dances and make funny videos. 

But there are lanes of TikTok, a video-sharing service with millions of users in the U.S. and more than a billion worldwide, that offer 60-second videos, or TikToks, on art, science, history and much more. 

And one man has gone viral making videos about Chicago history mostly from the comfort of an office in his bungalow-style home in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood of the city.  

Shermann "Dilla" Thomas, 39, has a seemingly unlimited knowledge of all things Chicago and Chicago extended. 

He started making TikTok videos to show his 8-year-old daughter Bayleigh there's more to the app than dancing and performing. 

Bayleigh attends Banneker Elementary at Marquette in Gary. She is one of seven children Thomas has ranging in ages from 22 to 1. Another daughter, Shemaiah, 17, is a Banneker graduate. 

"She really wants to be TikTok famous," Thomas said of Bayleigh. "I just tried to explain to her that you have to stand out. All these other kids are dancing. You have to do something different."

With Bayleigh unconvinced and a love for history since he was a kid, he decided to start making videos about Chicago with his own TikTok account under the handle @6figga_dilla.

He's in the process of making TikToks for all 77 official neighborhoods in Chicago. He also makes videos on anything from the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade to some of the more notorious figures and stories to come out of Chicago.

That passion for history comes from his late father, Lemar, who himself lived a life worthy of one of Thomas' TikToks.

"Primarily it comes from my father. Trying to be around him, under him," Thomas said of his love of history. 

Lemar Thomas was a Vietnam veteran who was in sharpshooting school in the military. He was a CTA bus driver before becoming a cop. 

"That's why he wanted to become a cop," Thomas said. "Some dude jumped on the bus one day with a sawed-off shotgun. He said 'I'm not going to be on that side anymore.'"

Lemar Thomas would go on to be a police officer in Chicago for 30 years and was part of the African American Police League.

Much like his father, Thomas has now packed several lifetimes into one. 

He works for Commonwealth Edison full time, is a husband to his wife, Lynette, and dedicated father on top of making videos.

He's also started a South Side tour company called Chicago Mahogany Tours where he explores the lesser known areas of the city. He has several other ventures in the works including plans to start a nonprofit. 

His love for Chicago and history only grew with jobs as a city beach lifeguard and after college as a driver for an airport shuttle service. 

Thomas said those two jobs, which took him to parts of the city he'd otherwise never go, caused his curiosity to explode. 

"As a black guy from Chicago I'd have no other reason to go to a lot of those places," Thomas said. "My curiosity was growing. I'd be driving down a block and wonder "Why do all these houses look alike?"

Then when he was hired by ComEd he saw every bit of the city as a meter reader. 

"That was the best Chicago awakening," Thomas said of his job. 

Thomas' notoriety is growing each day on social media. He's been drawn the attention of actors, comedians and politicians. 

He has more than 51,000 followers on TikTok and thousands more on Twitter and Snapchat. 

But that's not what drives Thomas. He has many aims but a big one is to educate young black and brown children across Chicago about where they come from and where they can go.

"I think people that look like me need to understand we're walking in these historic spaces. As a society we're terrible at connecting history to the present. Everything these kids are doing nowadays are making history. What would happen if these kids knew that they were making history every day?"

For Thomas it's about changing the narrative.

"With little black and brown boys in East Chicago and Gary and the South Side of Chicago and the West Side, you have people telling you every day that you're a gangster and you're a thug and you're a criminal or you gotta rap. And you don't know that these schools you go to are named after people. You go to Robert Lawrence because he was considered the first African American astronaut. Not because he went to the moon but because he took a fighter jet over whatever atmospheric line you cross that you're considered to be in space technically. He was the first black guy to do that."

With some ties to the Region, Thomas has a growing knowledge of the area. 

"I'm starting to better understand Chicago extended. A lot of the stuff that happened in Chicago somebody from Gary drove over and helped do it, Thomas said. "I just learned it was some Polish guys from Indiana that were the actual welders of the Picasso sculpture. A lot of the steel came from Gary that are erecting Chicago landmarks."

Thomas tries to keep his mission simple despite having so many irons on the fire. 

"I'm trying to just help (educate)," Thomas said. 

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