The Whitney Plantation

The Whitney Plantation

Wallace, LA ($22)

April 2, 2017

Official Website

I first read about the Whitney Plantation in a 2015 Los Angeles Times article, which I posted on my Facebook page and started strategizing how I might get there.   With two years of anticipation, I was not disappointed.  When we arrived, I was impressed by the crowds, the gift shop’s display panels offering an overview of the slave trades, and the diversely stocked gift shop.  We arrived around 12:30 on a Monday, and the 1:00 tour was fully booked.  Fortunately, a tour group from New Orleans was scheduled to arrive for a 1:15 tour, and we were able to join that group.  After Kathe Hambrick, the founder, and director of the River Road African-American Museum, complained of so few visitors and so little funding two days earlier, I considered why this plantation, about the same distance from New Orleans as the River Road Museum, is bursting with visitors willing to pay $22 admission.  The very different circumstances of its founding likely explain the disparity.  

The Whitney Plantation was purchased by John Cummings, a white New Orleans lawyer, in the 1990’s, and it is well-known for being the only Louisiana plantation with a focus on its enslaved residents.  I remember visiting plantations that were tourist destinations on a family vacation in the Caribbean and my mother’s grumbling about the lack of recognition of the enslaved people who lived there. Instead of opening that type of tourist destination, Cummings hired

Senegalese historian Ibrahim Seck and venture into this uncharted territory and as a result, the Whitney has gotten a wealth of publicity, including that full-page write-up in the Los Angeles Times, and NPR story.  Cummings was also able to invest millions of dollars of his own money into the Plantation, which is not an option for most small Black museum founders.

Yvonne from Chicago was our tour guide, and she explained the history of the plantation. The tour began in a church that had been brought onto the property, and she explained that Black churches founded around the middle of the 19th century labeled themselves “anti-yoke” to express their anti-slavery stance, which eventually became “Antioch.” In the church are statues, carved by Woodrow Nash, of enslaved children intended to honor the people interviewed during the WPA’s 1930s project where formerly enslaved individuals were interviewed.  Those subjects had all been children when those enslaved in America were emancipated.  

I was surprised to see that the plantation contains several sizeable monuments to enslaved people. The first one we visited was the one dedicated to the enslaved people who lived on the plantation, with the names of the over 350 enslaved people engraved into granite slabs.  Then, a much larger monument lists the names of 107,000 people held in bondage in Louisiana between 1719 and 1820. Then, the most heart-wrenching monument for me was the Field of Angels listing names of 2200 enslaved infants who died in St John the Baptist parish.

We also visited a few structures on the site including a slave cabin, a jail, a blacksmith shop, and the big house. Yvonne encouraged us to visit the “optional” exhibit on the property dedicated to the participants of the 1811 German Coast Uprising. The uprising was quelled and the participants were executed.  Many of them were decapitated and their heads placed on display on stakes as warnings to other slaves.  An artist’s rendering of the heads on stakes along with panels describing the uprising can be found in the back corner of the plantation available to interested visitors.

The Whitney Plantation is well-funded and impressive.  It fills a niche nicely and draws visitors from around the world to expose them, not just to the horrors of slavery, but also to the humanity of people who were enslaved.  I know that some in the Black museums community are frustrated by the fact that Cummings, because of his access to resources, has had the privilege to tell this part of “our” story while many of us, even those who are museum professionals, cannot have his reach.  


Check back to read about my visit to New Orleans’s George and Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art.


River Road African American Museum

River Road African American Museum

Donaldsonville, Louisiana ($7)

April 1, 2017

Official Website

I found Kathe Hambrick Jackson’s business card only a day or two before I was scheduled to leave for New Orleans for a colleague’s wedding.  We exchanged a couple of emails and settled on a time to meet at the River Road Museum, where she is the founder and director.  About an hour west of New Orleans, the museum is in the tiny town of Donaldsonville, which is 75% African-American.  Kathe had a vision of sorts and was inspired to honor the African-Americans in rural Louisiana by starting this museum in March of 1994 when she was working as a systems analyst in Los Angeles.  In this process, she went back to school to earn a master’s degree in Museum Studies.

One of the first things I noticed about this museum when I used the restroom when we first arrived was that even the wall space in the restroom was used to display items in the museum’s collection. The museum is small, housed in a converted old home, so every bit of space is taken with artifacts and documents.  Kathe is a wealth of information and passionate about African-American history, especially in Louisiana. As she toured us through the museum, she told us about the native Americans in Louisiana who risked their lives to help enslaved people escape.  My husband had not heard of this phenomenon, but every museum we visited in the area included it in the tour.  It seems to be a source of pride, leading to the Mardi gras Indian tradition, where Black New Orleans residents dress in elaborate beaded and feathered costumes to honor the historic relationships between the enslaved people and native American communities.


The museum is divided into three rooms, the first focusing on the history of slavery in Louisiana. One of Kathe’s many sources of pride in the museum is the list of names of enslaved people in Louisiana.  She has a list of 5,000 names, and she welcomes Louisianans to use her list as they conduct their genealogical research.  She also talked about Louisiana’s Code Noir (Black Code), a code of conduct established by Louis XV in 1685 to help maintain the caste system in the area.  One of the rules was that slave children could not be separated from their parents until they were at least ten years old.  She also explained the large population of Monde de Colour Libre (free people of color) in the area using exhibits in this room


The second room is dedicated to Louisiana cuisine, and the third to the rural roots of jazz and the political accomplishments of African-Americans in Louisiana.  She told us about P.B.S. Pinchback, who had an extensive political career in addition to being the first African-American to become governor of a state in the US, even if it was just for a short time. She also talked about musicians who claimed New Orleans as their hometown even if they were actually from lesser-known rural areas in the state. In the museum’s collection are several musical instruments including a banjo, a guitar, and an organ.  


The museum extends beyond the old house on Charles Street.  The non-profit (501c3) also owns several properties around town, including the Rosenwald school building that Kathe had brought across the Mississippi river to be an extension of the museum.

Throughout our tour, Kathe expressed her concerns about small Black museums around the nation.  She observed that they are in danger and she is afraid that the founders of most of the museums are aging and dying off.  She said that the River Road Museum needs about $250,000 annually to operate in addition to a lump sum of about $4 million for renovations and conservation.

Despite Kathe’s clear passion for the history and for the museum, she is ready to move on and do something else with her life, so she is retiring from her role as museum director later this year. If you can, visit the museum before she goes. Kathe’s enthusiasm will surely inspire you to support African-American museums in your own community.


Click here to donate to the museum.


Check back to read about my visit to the Whitney Plantation.


Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry at MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art

Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry at MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art

Los Angeles, CA ($15 or two for one with a Tap card)

March 17, 2017

Official Website

I had planned to stop blogging about museums after 2016.  But when I went to see Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry, I was inspired to write.  

I first heard of Kerry James Marshall at the 2016 Association for African-American Museums Conference in Riverside, California where I met Amina Dickerson, a quasi-celebrity in the world of African-American museums. When she found out I live in LA, she told me to keep an eye out for Marshall’s exhibition at MOCA, and she even knew the opening date off the top of her head.

My husband and I visited the exhibit the Friday after it opened, and we were surprised by the scope and diversity of Marshall’s work.  The earliest work in the exhibit, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self” is from 1980, and while most of the works are large paintings, many include some element of collage, and there is even a photographic piece.

We probably spent the longest time standing in front of “They Know that I Know,” a painting of a couple lying under three trees labeled with the traditional racial distinctions of “Negroid,” “Mongoloid,” and the central one, presumably, “Caucasoid,” has been painted over (or is fading) to match the painting’s white background. Photographic images of white female faces appear to be growing or blooming from the branches, which are labeled with ethnic or cultural groups that fit within each racial group. The symbols in this piece clearly allude to Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge. We noticed recurring depictions of birds, serpents, red crosses, hearts, and religious imagery in many of his pieces from this time period.

I also spent some time in the room dedicated to his works depicting public housing developments and some of their residents. I heard an NPR story about the exhibit some days later, which focused on these pieces. The reporter, Susan Stamberg, noted how these paintings depict joy and celebration in a setting that is often associated with tragedy and despair.  Marshall, who once lived in public housing, stressed that the paintings are intended to depict something other than those negative stereotypes.  Stamberg asked about one painting in particular, which had drawn my attention too. She asked about the central figure, a man, reclining in the grass with the housing development in the background.  I, too, wondered who he was and what he was thinking and feeling.  According to the story, Marshall’s intent was that we see him as content.

The piece we agreed was our favorite in the exhibition was “Black Painting” in which Marshall uses predominantly black with varying shades of grey and silver paint subtly outlining items in a dark bedroom including a Black Panther flag, jewelry and watches hanging on a black power fist jewelry display stand, and the books If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance by Angela Davis stacked atop The Spook Who Sat by the Door share the nightstand with a miniature pyramid. According to many sources, this painting depicts the bedroom of Black Panther Party leader, Fred Hampton, just before he was shot by Chicago police while sleeping next to his pregnant wife in 1969.

Mastry is at MOCA through July 3, 2017, and I plan to go back.  The seventy-two-piece exhibition is rich with material, so on a second visit I will see things I missed the first time.


Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

Tuskegee, Alabama (Free)

August 12, 2016

Official Website


20160812_161407I visited Tuskegee, Alabama with my mom in June 2015, and we visited The Oaks, the George Washington Carver Museum, the Legacy Museum, and the Tuskegee History Center, but we ran out of time to visit the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.  I was glad to be back in the area this summer with time to stop for a visit.20160812_153606


My parents had visited the site before, so they pointed out some of the upgrades.  For example, when they last visited, only one hangar was open to visitors, but now there are two. One is obviously new, outfitted with multiple videos playing on flat screens, many of interviews with Tuskegee Airmen, as well as up-to-date exhibits. The hangar with the older displays contains several outdated exhibits with audio elements that have gone quiet.

20160812_15485520160812_155640One thing that stands out about this site is the recognition of the civilian laborers who participated in this project.  There are full multi-panelled displays dedicated to maintenance crews, including women, and members of the civilian staff, all tasked with supporting the pilots. Some of the exhibits include hands-on elements designed to be touched to give visitors a sensory experience of some element of the airmen’s experiences. A layered segment of a wing is available for visitors to touch and examine.  A parachute is also out on display for visitors to practice folding and feel its weight.

Another revelation I had was that about 16,000 men have been able to call themselves Tuskegee Airmen.  I had no idea there were so many.  On display with the newer exhibits is a three ring binder containing a directory naming all of the Airmen.  Tuskegee University’s web site includes a page that lists the names of all of the men.






Check back to read about my visit to LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art to see Kerry James Marshall’s Mastery.


Hammonds House Museum

Hammonds House Museum

Atlanta, Georgia ($5)

August 11, 2016

20160811_152613Official Website

The Hammonds House Museum is a 19th Century two story Victorian home that was once owned by physician and art collector, Dr. Otis Thrash Hammonds.  The Fulton County Board of Commissioners acquired the house and Dr. Hammonds’s art collection in 1986.

When my dad and I visited, on display were two exhibitions: To Pass Through and Be Gone, which consisted of works from the collection of William Arnett, which included the self-taught artists, Thornton Dial, Thornton Dial, Jr., Richard Dial, Lonnie Holley, Ronald Lockett, Charles Lucus, and Joe Minter, mostly found object sculptures and Ealy Mays and Image Perceptions From the Collections of Kerry and C. Betty Davis, Greg Richardson, Larry and Brenda Thompson.

20160811_15083520160811_151551The found metal sculptures were my favorite.  My dad and I debated the merit of these abstract works.  He wrinkled his nose, and I shared, with pride, that visiting so many museums had really increased my appreciation for abstract art.  We discussed Lonnie Holley’s metal and wire sculpture, “Looking Like a Bird,” and I pointed out the head and beak.  He also explained to me that Joe Minter’s piece, “Drive Shaft” is actually made with something called a drive shaft.

20160811_152412The museum staff members we met both urged us to be sure to see the Ealy Mays exhibit with its provocative works.  We went room to room in the big old house until we finally found the exhibit in a back room on the ground floor.  The most provocative paintings and mixed media pieces touched on issues like police violence and stereotypes of Black women.  20160811_152313The one that stood out most to me was an ironic, hopeful piece called, “No More Mammies in the White House Now” featuring a photo of Michelle Obama’s face wearing a content expression superimposed on a painting of her body holding an American flag with a quilt and a framed painting of six faceless, stereotypical Black “Mammies” in the background.  This piece compliments Mays’s ongoing Mammy series and suggests that Mrs. Obama, while honoring her ancestors and the legacy of Black women’s primary occupation in this country being domestic work, her presence in the white house is a powerful symbol challenging lingering stereotypes of African-American women.

Check back to read about my visit to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Moton Field.

The Apex Museum

The Apex Museum

Atlanta, Georgia ($6)

August 11, 2016

Official Website

In February when I first visited Atlanta with Our Museums in mind, I had not heard of the APEX (African-American Panoramic Experience) Museum.  I was glad to have a chance to return after an Atlanta-native museum professional at the August Association for African American Museums Conference said it was a must-see.  

20160811_105908A visit to the APEX, “Where every month is Black History Month,” starts with a screening of two ten-minute films, the first titled The Journey of Africa and narrated by Ossie Davis, uses mostly a slideshow of paintings to chronicle a somewhat selective history of African peoples from Ancient Egypt to video footage of President Obama accepting the 2008 nomination.  Like the museum’s exhibits, the video shows an alternative view of Black history by including powerful Ancient Egyptians along with other known pre-colonial African leaders like Queen Nzinga and Sundiata Keita and highlighting slave rebellions rather than simply describing the horrors of slavery. The video ends with a drawing of a redesigned, updated, and rebuilt Apex museum with a dramatic, high-ceilinged glass entry and many visitors milling about.

The second video intends to educate viewers about the Sweet Auburn neighborhood in downtown Atlanta.  It is narrated by Cicely Tyson and Julian Bond and opens with a voiceover of Tyson reading a poem of rhyming couplets whose speaker is Sweet Auburn itself.  The image on the screen is of a woman doing a modern dance on an old-timey set.

20160811_122135The history of the neighborhood read by Bond begins with James Tate, a Black business owner in the area in the late 19th Century.  The businesses that sprout up as the area becomes populated with more and more African-Americans like insurance companies, banks, and the ironically named European Hotel, the first hotel to serve Black guests in Atlanta.  This growth in the Black population and boom in successful Black businesses led to the 1906 Atlanta riots.  After that, Atlanta was strictly segregated until the 1950s.  Bond, of course, explains that some of the civil rights movement activity started in Sweet Auburn where Martin Luther King Jr. was born and raised, where the SCLC started, and where busses were desegregated in 1959 because of the Love, Law, Liberation Movement, led by a group of Black pastors.  The video ends as it begins with the dancer celebrating Sweet Auburn through her body as Tyson reads the closing of the poem honoring the resilience of this historic neighborhood.

1024px-african-civilizations-map-pre-colonial-svgThe first film really captures the theme of the museum exhibits, which is apparent in this quote from renowned African-American scholar, Asa Hilliard: “Whatever you do, . . . don’t let them begin our history with slavery.”  Our tour guide began our tour by introducing us to a Black History Timeline.  Like the film, the timeline starts again in ancient Egypt. One item on display hanging above the timeline that I had never seen is a map of pre-colonial Africa,followed by another map of Africa post-Berlin Conference.  Opposite the timeline stand two black male mannequins, and Zema, our tour guide, asked the children in our group to identify the differences between them.  One was missing some fingers and was more restrictively chained.  She discussed these differences with the kiddos before she gave everyone in our group the chance to walk through the recreated “Door of no return,” which she’d explained earlier.  

20160811_115256Naturally,  the next phase of the exhibit is the middle passage. Zema explained the circumstances under which the captives were transported.  Next, she pointed out the advertisement for Negroes for Sale blown up wall sized. There is also a property record that lists the names of over 100 slaves from one property.

20160811_120303On the next wall is a display showing life in early 20th century Sweet Auburn.  A model pharmacy is set up where people socialized and got the latest news in addition to treatments for their ailments.  We next walked to the Hall of Inventions, which features dozens drawings and examples of items invented by African-Americans.  As you enter that hall, you see a kid-sized mailbox labeled “Open to see the next great inventor,” and of course, inside is a mirror.  One more item for visitors to see after they have been through the rest of the museum’s exhibits is an empty box that “remains empty in remembrance of the art stolen from Africa that now resides in museums in many countries around the world.”

20160811_121813Another point made on our tour was that the APEX Museum receives no state funding.  Later, I spoke with a few employees who lamented the museum’s ongoing financial struggles.  Black museum aficionados everywhere are hopeful that the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in September of 2016 will give other museums more visibility and support.  


As we left the museum heading to the Auburn Avenue Research Library next door, we were fortunate to encounter the APEX Museum’s founder and president, Dan Moore along with the museum’s storyteller-in-residence, Deborah Strahorn. I explained Our Museums to them, and they were enthusiastic and encouraging.  Mr. Moore even offered to help me publish a book as soon as I’m ready.  

What stands out most about the APEX Museum is that “Panoramic Experience” in the name. The museum seeks to accentuate the connection between today’s African-American culture and ancient African civilizations.  It offers a strengths-based version of Black History rather than focusing on Black folks as victims. With limited resources, it offers multi-dimensional exhibits and programming.  Amidst the state-of-the-art Museum for Civil and Human Rights and the internationally known King Center, the APEX is in a tough spot competing for visitors, but take the time to go when you are in Atlanta.  I assure you that you’ll get something new.

Check back to read about my visit to Hammonds House Museum, another Atlanta gem.


Westward to Canaan

Westward to Canaan: The Rise of Riverside’s African-American Community 1880-1980 in the Riverside Community College Quad Art Gallery

Riverside, California (Free)

Official Website

August 4, 2016

I attended the Association of African-American Museums Conference again this year, and for the first time in over 30 years, it took place west of the Mississippi, this year in my old stomping ground of Riverside, California.   At the conference, I presented a poster on my project, which was generously embraced, and I was delighted to receive many creative suggestions of ways to promote and fund my project along with endless invitations to visit museums all over the country.

20160804_190459The one exhibition that was featured during the conference that focused on local history was the Westward to Canaan exhibit on display at Riverside Community College that chronicles the migration of thousands of African-Americans from the South to Riverside in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I earned my undergraduate degree from UC Riverside, but I never learned anything about the history of African-American migration to the city. This exhibit recounts the migration of African-Americans starting at the end of 19th century pursuing opportunities outside of the Southern states where they had been enslaved.  Several prominent migrants are featured in exhibit like Robert Stokes who migrated in 1870 and was able to amass land, status, and wealth in Riverside.  He became a police officer and was an entrepreneur, owning a hog farm with his wife in what is now downtown Riverside.  The exhibit title came from Stokes’s invitations sent back to his family in Georgia to join him in the Western town, which he referred to as “Canaan,” the promised land.  Photos of Stokes and his family are on display in the exhibit.

As word spread of the opportunity and relative equality available in Riverside, the Black population there grew.  In response, many in Riverside’s White community started to feel threatened leading to increased visibility of the Klu Klux Klan. Eventually, the African-American residents were edged out of Riverside’s white communities and became segregated.  The exhibit shows them making the best of the circumstances, as Black people did all over the nation. The Black community solidified as churches, schools, and businesses sprouted up and expanded.  The exhibit includes photos showing Black church groups, school children and business owners.  It even includes a few artifacts from the era including a wedding gown and a fire hose.screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-9-55-38-pm

This exhibition gave me a new appreciation for the hidden history of a city where I spent three of my most formative adult years.  

Check back to read about my visit to the APEX Museum in Atlanta.

Association for African American Museums 2016 Conference

Association for African American Museums 2016 Conference


Riverside, California


August 3-6, 2016


Official Website


I have been fortunate enough to attend the last two AAAM Conferences.  The 2015 conference  was in Memphis where I met a lot of great people and visited a number of Black museums. Then, this year’s conference was in Riverside, California.   I visited several exhibits in Riverside, and I was honored to present a poster at that conference.  This video slideshow was an important element of my poster.  I had such a great time putting together the photos and recalling the whirlwind of the last 2 ½ years as I’ve visited over 50 African-American museums and exhibitions.  Enjoy!!


Check back to read about the Westward to Canaan exhibit n the Riverside Community College Quad Art Gallery.

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum

Joshua Tree, California

April 5, 2016

Official Website


I first saw an exhibition of Noah Purifoy’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Junk Dada exhibit in 2015.  There, I discovered that an outdoor museum existed featuring more of Purifoy’s artwork, so I added it to my list.  I finally created an opportunity to go to the relatively remote location of the museum in April with a friend.

After seeing the Junk Dada exhibit, I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the outdoor museum. I’ve mentioned before my lack of confidence with visual art.  Thus, walking onto the campus of this 10-acre museum was intimidating.  Fortunately, I was quickly able to recognize the sheer beauty of the diverse array of manipulated found objects against the clear blue desert sky and the contrast between the mostly metal and plastic discarded man made items and the desert sand, shrubs, and Joshua Trees.

20160405_153348Unlike traditional museums, which are built to preserve and protect their contents, the works of art in Purifoy’s outdoor museum are designed to interact with the elements and break down accordingly, perhaps reminding visitors of our insignificant role in the earth’s grand cycles. Stacks of familiar, factory-made items, are, in the long run, no match for desert wind and heat. In the short run, however, visitors can still see how Purifoy intertwined metal wires and cables with wooden stakes cassette players, metal folding chairs, motherboards, monitors, keyboards, and skis to explore the relationships between art and nature, man and machine.  He sorted, hung, stacked,and joined mirrors, pipes, windows, tiles, mannequins, cement blocks, hubcaps, doors, fences, toilet seats, boots, trays, paint cans, tires, televisions, and bowling balls. At this museum, the pieces are not labeled with title cards.  Visitors are left to make up our own titles.

20160405_152657One work that stood out was the fenced-in cemetery, each “grave” marked with a white cross or a transparent headstone.Then, there were the stacks of green and yellow lunch trays inside of Adrian’s Little Theater as well as the giant wave of metal trays.  Purifoy even pays homage to Jim Crow inequities with a water fountain piece demonstrating his creative use of seemingly innocuous objects.  Against a light colored wall is a familiar greenish, rectangular metal water fountain below a sign that reads“WHITE” next to a second water fountain made from a toilet below a sign that reads “COLORED”.

20160405_153604screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-4-10-17-amPurifoy includes several structures in the museum, including one constructed within a giant room-sized hole lined with corrugated iron, a few wooden beams laid over, and an unfinished bridge mounted atop. Looking down into the hole gave my legs a little quiver.  This type of potential hazard left us wondering about the liability associated with the museum and the maintenance of the museum, which I now know is the responsibility of the Noah Purifoy Foundation.  Even with that information, I am left with more questions about the museum: What type of maintenance does the foundation conduct? How do the foundation administrators determine what maintenance is appropriate and necessary? Who conducts the maintenance? Contractors? Artists?

Of course, visiting a museum should always evoke more questions, so I’m happy to continue to wonder and eager to learn.  I also hope to visit more outdoor museums, which might shed more light on how some of these challenges can be addressed.

Check back to read my next post about my experience at the Association for African-American Museums 2016 Conference in Riverside, California.



Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington, DC

September 17, 2016

Official Website

I realize this blog post is out of order; it has supplanted a museum visit from April and visits to  four more museums in August, but I simply could not wait to share with you my experience previewing the brand new National Museum of African-American History and Culture.


I have been thinking a lot about this museum for at least two years.  You’ll notice on the About page on the Our Museums web site is the photo of President and Mrs. Obama with Lonnie Bunch at the museum’s 2012 groundbreaking.  You’ll also see that photo on the Our Museums Facebook page, and it’s our header photo on Twitter.  Our Facebook cover photo is a picture of me in front of the museum’s construction site back in January of 2015.  Since I learned of the museum’s construction and eminent opening, I’d fantasized about getting an Our Museums press pass for a fancy opening gala, and that fantasy pretty much came true when my husband surprised me with tickets to the donor’s reception one week before the museum’s formal opening to the public!!

20160924_075000Being in that building on September 17th was thrilling in a way I had never experienced.  As the well-dressed crowd streamed into the museum’s main floor furnished with beautifully laid out buffet tables and bars, I felt a rush of joy and pride.  The short program opened with a rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” like I had never heard, played soulfully on the violin.  I spent the entire first hour managing my my emotions of deep gratitude and wonder, blinking back tears.20160917_202720

After the program, we headed downstairs to the History Galleries where everyone had instructed us to start.  Now this preview was so exclusive that it quickly became clear that the museum was truly not yet complete.  Some exhibits were closed off with yellow police tape; some had notes taped to them for changes to make before the opening.  There were stacks of construction materials stashed in corners, and some panels were still wrapped in plastic.

img_1106One thing I was not prepared for was the enormity of the museum.  I expected the subterranean history galleries to all be on one level, but they in fact start far below the museum’s main floor; visitors snake through the exhibitions and up ramps through three floors of galleries.

20160917_190318Visitors enter the history galleries through a hallway with images and artifacts from pre-colonial Africa on one wall and pre-colonial Europe on the opposite wall.  The rest of that floor is dedicated to exploring American slavery and its complexities, including a display connected to the Revolutionary war titled “The Paradox of Liberty,” a ten-foot-tall tower of bales of cotton on which hangs a whip encased in glass, and a statue of Thomas Jefferson standing in front of stacks of bricks, each engraved with the name of one of his slaves.   There is an extensive display along a wall on that floor exploring the economic impact of the slave trade.  Of course, there are the much-lauded artifacts like Harriet Tubman’s hymnal and Nat Turner’s bible.20160917_193036  In front of the Reconstruction display is a statue of Robert Smalls, one of my favorite Civil War era heroes. He is worth honoring for his brave escape and surrender of a confederate steamboat to the Union army and subsequent election to the US Congress. I thought to myself when I saw the statue despite his heroism and bravery, that this is likely the only place in the world where I would find a statue of this man.

20160917_193946img_1130The next floor focuses on civil rights struggles from the end of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th century.  It includes panels and artifacts designed to illuminate the Jim Crow Era, the Great Migration, and the Civil Rights Movement.  It even has an Emmett Till Memorial and an elaborate set of shelves that contain artifacts depicting stereotypical images of Sambo and Mammies to demonstrate and explain the concepts of stereotypes.  One of the largest elements, central on that floor, is an interactive touch screen lunch counter, where visitors can explore ways to deal with injustices.

The third history gallery, covering 1968 through the present had the biggest impact on  me.  It included many video montages of events like the Rodney King beating, Hurricane Katrina, and President Obama’s election.  This is the first history gallery I have ever entered in which every event being recounted I remember clearly.  I was suddenly fully aware of my own place in African-American history.

20160917_21444620160917_212705We had less time to spend on the upper levels of the museum, so we took the escalator straight past the festivities on the main floor straight to the 4th floor Culture Galleries where our friend, Dr. Cheryl LaRoche, had worked on the central exhibit.  When we met for lunch earlier, she described that exhibit as the “heart of the museum” because of the nature of its contents, its oval shape, and its central location on the top floor.  That central exhibit contains panels on a wide range of cultural topics including fashion and style, language and literature, movement and gesture, hair, and food.  It even contains panels addressing difficult issues like colorism and the stigma against certain hair textures in the Black community.  Along the top of the wall is playing a panoramic video montage depicting these same cultural elements.

20160917_212432Branching off from that central oval are these three galleries: Visual Arts & the American Experience, Musical Crossroads, and Taking the Stage.  We spent the  most time in the music gallery, which contains countless artifacts including awards, clothing, instruments, and even a car from a long list of musicians from Chuck Berry and Odetta to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.  Technology is also well integrated into the exhibits in this gallery.  An entire room is dedicated to music production, where visitors can mix and create their own rudimentary tracks.  20160917_212441There is also a “Neighborhood Record Store” where album covers line the walls and are on display in traditional “record bins” and visitors can play songs using two giant touch screen panels in the center of the room.

20160917_213830What I remember most from the Taking the Stage gallery is the Oprah exhibit with a dress of hers and a few seats from her show and the 1964 Bill Cosby album cover under which the label, in one sentence, acknowledges the current scandal.  I sped through the Visual Arts & the American Experience gallery with the security guard on my heels announcing that the museum would close in 15 minutes, so I did not get to really enjoy the Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett and other works of art hanging on the walls.

We sprinted through the Community Galleries on the second floor lamenting the missed opportunity to read and learn about Black entrepreneurs, sports figures, and military heroes.

As we exited the museum at the end of the night surrounded by throngs of people equally passionate about Black history and culture, I felt exhilarated despite having stood and walked for five hours straight.  Before we got too far, we turned back for a view of the museum lit up against the night sky.



The Center for Civil and Human Rights

The Center for Civil and Human Rights

Atlanta, GA ($15)

February 27, 2016

Official Website


This new museum, opened in June 2014, is housed in Centennial Olympic Park along with the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola.  I visited with my cousin on a beautiful sunny Saturday.  Visitors enter the museum’s permanent exhibit on the ground floor, Rolls Down Like Water: The American Civil Rights Movement gallery, between two walls, each decorated with a collage of black and white photos.  Up on the left the wall is a neon sign that reads in cursive “White” and the right wall holds the “Colored” sign, mimicking signs pervasive in the Jim Crow South.  The photos covering the walls, however, portray a different reality.  Every photo depicts some element of wholesome southern life like ballet class, debutante balls, motorcycle riding, weddings, church choirs, and picnics. 20160227_125350 My cousin, who lived through the civil rights movement, immediately understood the point of these collages to use powerful images to demonstrate the commonalities of two racial groups, even during a period when they were so divided.  This is a creative effective use of these images, but it left me wondering about issues of social class.

20160227_130325Just beyond these two walls at the entrance is an exhibit featuring photographs and quotations from the most prominent segregationists of the movement including George Wallace, Strom Thurman, and Jim Clark.  To enhance this exhibit, the museum has a unique display featuring  four archaic televisions stacked atop one another each playing a disturbing sound byte from one of the well-known racists.

20160227_140831The rest of the gallery is filled with state-of-the art exhibits and panels offering insights into the American Civil Rights Movement.  A giant portrait of Emmitt Till and his mother hang on one wall, panels introducing prominent figures in school and bus desegregation, Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, and Claudette Colvin sit in the middle of the room, and walls featuring Jim Crow Laws and Brown versus Board of Education line the perimeter. 20160227_131424 Like the other Civil Rights museums I have visited, this museum houses a replica of a bus to honor the Freedom Riders, but this exhibit is different.  This bus is wallpapered with the photographs of the Freedom Riders, Black and White young adults from all over the nation.  My cousin recognized at least one classmate from UCLA, and she appreciated this depiction of these young activists, that included many Whites willing to risk their lives too for the movement.

20160227_132650The most unique and powerful exhibit in this gallery is, by far, the Lunch Counter Simulator where I sat on a stool wearing headphones through which I heard abusive shouts and felt strikes against the stool and counter where I’d been directed to place my hands.  In all my museum visits, this exhibit is the first I’ve seen engage senses beyond sight in recreating this type of historical experience for visitors.  Note how emotional an experience it can be from this video:   

From those exhibits in the rear of the first room in the gallery, we moved into a long room featuring an extensive timeline chronicling the March on Washington along with panoramic video footage.  In this exhibit, I heard for the first time of Odetta, a folk singer known, according to the timeline, as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” who performed at the March.

The next rooms include remembrances dedicated to the four girls killed at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. and other martyrs of the Movement.

20160227_144509From the upper level of the museum, we were fortunate to catch an Atlanta Music Project children’s choral concert held in the lobby below. Then, we moved on to view the Spark of Conviction: Global Human Rights Movement gallery. This gallery is clearly meant to inform visitors like the Civil Rights Movement gallery below but also to call folks to action.  The gallery includes a wall where visitors are invited to learn more 20160227_153043about a variety of contemporary human rights issues. There are handouts for visitors to take and use to discuss the issues with others.  The gallery also includes photographs and profiles of well-known human rights abusers as well as human rights defenders.  The gallery also includes panels featuring bios and videos of everyday individuals who have fought for human rights designed to inspire the rest of us to step up and take action.

This is the newest museum I’ve visited; it had been open only 20 months at the time, and the  seamless integration of up-to-date technology makes it extremely user friendly.  I also found it more manageable and less crammed with information than other Civil Rights museums, some of which I left feeling like I needed at least three more days to cover fully.

Check back to read my post about my visit to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum in Joshua Tree, California.


Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries

Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries

Atlanta, GA (Free)

February 26, 2016

Official Website

I left the Spellman Museum, and after being directed to the shortcut to Clark, strolled over to Clark’s Art Galleries in about six minutes.  My phone’s battery succumbed while I was out that day, so unfortunately, I only managed a couple of photos, especially since just outside the Clark galleries, are beautiful murals painted by Hale Woodruff, whom, you may remember I discovered last year when I saw the Rising Up exhibit at the Birmingham Art Museum.

20160226_141406Inside of the gallery was a temporary exhibit, This Postman Collects: The Rapture of Kerry and C. Betty Davis. This exhibition was made up of fine art pieces collected by Mr. and Mrs. Davis over a 30-year span.  The collection is special because Mr. Davis was not a professional athlete like Elliot Perry, who collects African-American fine art in Memphis. Mr. Davis worked as a mail carrier in Atlanta, and he and his wife amassed their extensive collection on their middle-class salaries.

The Davises’ collection includes pieces by Samella Lewis, Kojo Griffin, Hale Woodrff, Claude Clark, Ron Adams, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, Calvin Burnett, Elizabeth Catlett, Rose Piper, Gregory Ridley, and Benny Andrews.  

One piece in the gallery’s permanent collection that stood out was the “Fantasy Coffin in memory of Richard A. Long” This piece was commissioned by gallery director, Tina Dunkley to honor her friend and an advisor to the gallery, Richard Long. It was created in Ghana in the tradition of elaborate fantasy coffins honoring the deceased in the shape of something meaningful to them. The one in the exhibit is a miniature version of Long’s 1974 Datsun.  

Not only was the art stunning, but the employees were helpful in Clark’s galleries.  With a dead phone, I got directions for transportation back to my hotel and an invitation to an upcoming campus production starring the young student actress and gallery employee.  After seeing art exhibitions at Clark and Spellman, I’m eager to make future discoveries at more university galleries.

Check out this talk given by Kerry Davis at the Clark Galleries:



Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts

Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts

Atlanta, Georgia (Free)

February 26, 2016

Official Website

20160226_131953As far as I can remember, this was my first visit to Spelman College, and I must admit that I felt a thrill when, as I navigated the campus asking for help from the usual student employees, they were all young Black women.

The museum is small, 4,500 square feet, on the ground floor of the Camille Cosby Academic Center.  I was impressed by the signs posted indicating that someone came up with the brilliant idea to offer Yoga in the Museum on Mondays during the Spring 2016 semester.

The visiting exhibition through May 14, 2016, Black Chronicles II, features late 19th Century British photographs, the first ever known to feature subjects of African descent.

The first series of photographs in this exhibit features members of the African choir from South Africa, who, according to this article from The Guardian, toured England from 1891-1893.This series includes some of the most stunning in the entire installation.  The choir members are posed alone, in small groups, or as a full, large group.  

20160226_132623Because this exhibit is British, it comes very much from a colonialist perspective.  The Africans in the African Choir are admired in a way they never would’ve been in the post-Reconstruction 1890s United States.  The British camera captures the beauty emanating from the subjects that an American camera would have likely missed entirely.  This portrait of a young woman, Eleanor Xiniwe, is one of the most stunningly beautiful in the series, enlarged to poster size and placed at the entrance to Spelman’s exhibit. When Sean O’Hagan says in his article, “some of the women look like they could be modelling for Vogue,” he is surely referring to that portrait.  There are portraits of other of choir members including the two children who traveled with the choir.  Surprising to me was the amount of detail visible in the enlarged photos.  I would never have expected 100+-year-old negatives to produce such clear, vivid images.  As Felicia Feaster says in her review, this detail makes the images more contemporary, familiar, and relevant

Another noteworthy subject in the exhibition is British boxing champion, Peter Jackson, sometimes called the “Black Prince.”  1888 photographs of him include one in formal attire, a full tuxedo, top hat and tails to boot, and another bare chested.  

20160226_131933The exhibit also includes photographs of Ashantee warriors known for taming lions; an Ethiopian prince, Dejaz Alamaieo; conjoined twins, Millie and Christine McCoy; Blind Tom Wiggins; Kalulu, the “companion” of Sir Henry Morton Stanley; and even some South Asian subjects from the Salvation Army. Their inclusion reminds the viewer that “blackness” is defined differently around  the world.  Again, in the US a South Asian man in a turban would never be included in an exhibit chronicling “Blackness,” even in the 19th century.

Since this exhibit is not African American per se, it offered a unique point of comparison with American exhibitions I’ve seen and likely will see and offered a taste of the British gaze.  That rare point of comparison will motivate me to keep an eye out for late nineteenth century photography exhibits depicting African Americans.  If you know of one, be sure to tweet it to me, message me on Facebook or Instagram, or send me an email. I wouldn’t want to miss it!

Check back for my next post about my visit to the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries.


The King Center: Martin Luther King Jr. Birth Home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Freedom Hall

The King Center: Martin Luther King Jr. Birth Home, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Freedom Hall

Atlanta, GA (Free)

February 26, 2016

Official Website

20160226_100437The King Birth Home is about a block from the Visitors Center, and as we’d predicted when we left the Visitors Center, there was a line snaking out the door, down the walkway to the sidewalk, and a class of third graders got in line right behind my colleagues and me. Most days, visitors must sign up for a tour of the home, but on Fridays the home is staffed by six or seven guides, only one of whom appeared to be a ranger, each one standing at a station as a continuous line of visitors streams past.  The home, where King lived until he was twelve years old, is clearly a very popular destination where guests get an intimate glimpse of King’s youth.  

Because the house is such a popular destination, the ranger manning the door when we visited used a military-style demeanor to manage the crowd, repeating the “No photography. No exceptions.” rule again and again in the tone of a drill sergeant.  He also shuttled people into and through the house shouting, “Keep it moving! Keep it moving! Keep it moving!” Once we got inside, I attempted to take notes on my phone, and while the first volunteer was understanding and explained that the King family still has rights to any images taken of the inside of the home, so the National Parks Service was bound to forbid and prevent any photography from taking place, the next one, even when I showed her my notes, insisted that I put my cell phone away.

The house was purchased in 1909 by Dr. King’s maternal grandfather. Inside, it looks like any other middle class home of the 1930s when King lived there. “Approximately 20% of the furniture in the home is original” was a factoid repeated by several of the guides, but when I asked about specific pieces of furniture, besides the piano and icebox, which are original, no one seemed to know.  We saw the bedroom where Dr. King and his siblings were born, the girl’s room decorated all in pink, and the boys’ room upstairs in disarray the way Christine, Dr. King’s sister, told the curators the boys’ typically kept it.  

20160226_105815From the Birth Home, we headed to Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, passing through the King Center stopping to take photos of the reflecting pool, the tomb, and the eternal flame.  The church sanctuary has been restored to its 1960s appearance.  We also visited the fellowship hall where banners recounting the history of the church are on display.  Dr. King’s grandfather became pastor at Ebenezer in 1894, and his son-in-law, Martin Sr. worked as his assistant pastor and succeeded him when he died in 1931. The church already had a history of social activism, so when Martin Luther King Jr. became assistant pastor to his father and the SCLC was formed in 1957 out of meetings held at Ebenezer, no one was surprised.

20160226_111233The biggest treat from our visit to the church was walking into a group of children, probably first graders, peppering a ranger with questions.  One child asked her how King died, and another piped up chanting “James Earl Ray”.  One boy got fixated on what type of gun was used in King’s assassination, but the best question was this asked by a little girl: “Why did they kill him?” When I was disappointed that the ranger simply avoided the question, I began to wonder how I would answer that question.  I thought of an episode of This American Life I’d heard about a father answering the same question from his daughter about Jesus, which later led to her perceptive response to learning about Martin Luther King.

20160226_113038We left the church, and my colleagues went to catch their flight, so I went on to Freedom Hall in The King Center, wondering what more I could learn that day about Dr. King.  On display in the foyer and along the hallways of the Hall are beautiful works of contemporary art.  One installation was made up of socially conscious mixed media pieces by Robert Claiborne Morris, some from his series Slavery by Another Name.

20160226_113557The historical exhibits are on the second floor, and one room features two detailed timelines of King and Coretta Scott King’s lives.  Before I learned how involved she was  in the planning and building of the King Center, I was surprised to see so much detail about Mrs. King’s life.  I was especially surprised to learn that in 1941 when she was just in eighth grade, she heard Bayard Rustin speak about India’s struggle for freedom, and the nonviolent strategies used by Gandhi.  King first heard about nonviolent resistance in 1948 when he started seminary training, which means that Coretta learned about nonviolent resistance before her husband did.  The Hall houses a number of artifacts as well, including a few of King’s pastoral robes and sashes, awards granted to both Dr. and Mrs. King.  

20160226_114449As I was perusing these exhibits, I was thrilled to hear a white woman visitor say, “I didn’t have to learn anything about the Civil Rights Movement to pass the GED, and it’s one of the most important parts of our history.”  Hopefully, she will pass that sentiment on to her family and in her community.

While we are inundated with information and images from Dr. King’s life, especially in January and February, I learned a lot about King’s life that I didn’t already know.  I left Sweet Auburn that day far more knowledgeable about King and his legacy.


The King Center: Martin Luther King Jr. National Parks Service Visitors Center

The King Center: Martin Luther King Jr. National Parks Service Visitors Center

Atlanta, GA (Free)

February 26, 2016

Official Web Site

20160226_091954In the historically African-American neighborhood of Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, the Martin Luther King Jr. historical complex is a set of buildings across a sprawling area that covers several city blocks, some of which are owned and run by the National Parks Service (the National Historic Site) and some still maintained by the King family (The King Center).  This complex includes the National Parks Service Visitors Center, King Birth Home, the Park Bookstore, the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. and Mrs. King’s tomb, Freedom Hall, and a Historic Fire Station. The day I visited the complex, I was accompanied by two of my colleagues for part of the time, and I was committed to visit each historically significant facility that I could.  

20160226_094704We started in the National Parks Service Visitors Center that houses some King artifacts and features the “Courage to Lead” exhibit made up of Plexiglas panels and video footage chronicling highlights from King’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.  One element of this exhibit that I haven’t seen at any other museums was the integration of museum labels designed for child readers, child height, all in blue, unlike the other gray labels for taller, more mature readers.

20160226_095223This exhibit encircles a display in which life-size statues of marchers in motion are ready to be joined by visitors of the center who can stand amongst them and listen to recordings from The Movement.  The Center even houses a few artifacts like the podium at which King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington and the wagon on which mules drew his casket.  Beside the podium is a description that offers background information about the March.  From reading it, I learned that King joined the March Committee late in the game after A. Philip Randolph had already been planning the March for months.  Randolph actually introduced the concept of the March on Washington in 1941 to protest unfair government hiring practices during World War II. 


20160226_093908Along the back and side walls is a timeline of King’s life, and from that timeline, I learned that in 1966 King refused to sign a statement condemning the concept of “black power.”  I also learned more in this exhibit about the Poor People’s Campaign, which had just gotten underway in 1968.  The goal of this was ending economic inequality; it was designed to cross racial lines and address poverty among all ethnic groups. Over the years, I have heard conspiracy theorists speculate that US government officials found this particular campaign too threatening, and that it was not a coincidence that King was assassinated  in the midst of planning it.

20160226_094240As we left the Visitors Center, we watched as more and more groups of school children of all ages filed in. We realized that there were probably school groups headed to the King Birth Home that opened to visitors at 10:00 where we were headed next, so we hurried from the Center in an effort to beat the rush.

Check back for the next post from my Atlanta series about the King Birth Home, Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the King Center’s Freedom Hall.


Noah Davis: Imitation of Wealth

Noah Davis: Imitation of Wealth

MOCA Grand Avenue

Los Angeles, California

January 29, 2016

Official Website

20160129_141017I first heard of Noah Davis when he died last August at 32 years old.  I tweeted that his death was “a loss,” but I’d never seen his art. Despite the fact that Davis was a renowned artist, I went to see his Imitation of Wealth installation with relatively low expectations.  I am generally more comfortable with public history rather than art exhibitions, especially contemporary or abstract art. Plus, I had seen some photographs of the exhibit, and I just had very little desire to look at a vacuum cleaner behind some glass.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the pleasure I got from this exhibit on display on busy downtown Los Angeles’s Grand Avenue in the “storefront” space of the courtyard of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

20160129_142450On Friday afternoon when I went, MOCA’s courtyard was quiet.  There is a fountain catty corner from the storefront, and the sound of water running provides a wonderful, tranquil atmosphere for enjoying art.  I first read the summary of Davis’s work in general along with Imitation of Wealth. The summary describes The Underground Museum, which Davis developed, that opened in 2012, in a Black and Latino working class LA neighborhood far from LA’s affluent museum districts. For his museum’s opening, Davis had difficulty getting loans of the type of “museum quality” artwork he wanted, so instead of being deterred, he created his own, and Imitation of Wealth was born.  For this installation, Davis recreated works by several well-known artists including Robert Smithson, Dan Flavin, and On Kawara.  I was not familiar with any of these artists, so I had fun Googling them and comparing Google’s images with the works before me.  

The summary also points out that the title of Davis’s exhibition alludes to the 1934 film and1959 remake of the film, Imitation of Life, a tragic story about a woman’s experiences passing for White, which I have not seen but is familiar to me because it is alluded to in one of my favorite novels, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Each piece in the installation is titled “Imitation of ________” with the name of the original artist in the blank. Exploring the installation left-to-right, the first piece was “Imitation of On Kawara,” a recreation of a piece from Kawara’s Today series.  In the series, Kawara painted the date of the painting on a canvas in the language of the country where he was painting.  Ironically, the date of Davis’s “Imitation,” October 7, 1957, comes before Kawara started the series in 1966. I have been unable to discover anything special about this date in history, so how Davis selected that date is likely to remain a mystery.

20160129_141428Davis also recreated some”readymade” works like the bottle dryer from Marcel Duchamp and a piece from Koons’s vacuum cleaner series. He also recreated a similarly minimalist  piece by Dan Flavin composed of one fluorescent tube and another by Robert Smithson from his corner mirror series made up of mirrors in a corner with mound of dirt piled on top.  

I was most surprised by the beauty I found in these minimalist recreations. I enjoyed finding my legs and feet integrated into the “Imitation of Robert Smithson” corner mirror piece.  I enjoyed contemplating the date on “Imitation of on Kawara.” I even enjoyed puzzling over the “readymade” bottle dryer as a work of art.  Giving new audiences (like me) access to these well-known works of art was surely part of Davis’s purpose.


California African-American Museum

California African-American Museum

Los Angeles, CA (Free)

January 18, 2016

Official Website

20160118_135446Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2016 I finally visited the California African-American museum with a couple of friends. I have visited this museum many times since its 1984 opening, but this was my first official Our Museums visit.  I was excited to finally visit one of the first African-American museums I ever visited, my local museum that I remember from childhood, for the project.


For King’s birthday, the museum featured programing, including live performances by community groups, a screening of the documentary about the 1963 Birmingham schoolchildren’s protest,  Mighty Times: The Children’s March, as well as free birthday cake.

While I did not see much of the film, my friend who did praised it and said she knew so few of the details of the march, especially the fact that the protesters were children.


20160118_145001I spent most of my time in the museum browsing exhibits.  We started with The African-American Journey West.  As a native of the west coast, I am always interested in stories of how the descendents of slaves made it to the west and how we have all fared here.  The exhibit is made up of artifacts from the museum’s permanent collection that provide an overview of the African-American presence in the West over the last several centuries.  Some of the items that most stood out to me were the photos and descriptions of Mary Ellen Pleasant, a 19th Century migrant to San Francisco responsible for early civil rights activism there. The exhibit also includes photographs and a description of Colonel Allan Allensworth and the California town he formed around the turn of the century.  An original copy of a 1913 edition of The Crisis titled “Colored California” is also included in the exhibit along with entire sections of the gallery dedicated to blacks in Entertainment and Sports in California as well as a piece by Noah Purifoy entitled “Watts Riots.”


20160118_131318We also spent some time examining pieces in Charles Dixon’s art exhibit, Metaphors, with pieces on display in the museum courtyard and foyer. They are made mostly from found objects from 5-hour energy drink bottles to electronics and musical instruments.  


20160118_132330The next exhibit hall was lined with posters and stills from independent African-American films from the 1940s, in the exhibit, Coloring Independently. We saw images from films including Oscar Micheaux’s The Betrayal and Ebony Parade.  ONe of my friends observed the colorism in the casting of these films.  If you look closely at the posters, you notice that all of the desirable actors would have passed the “paper bag test.”  Only comedic or villainous characters had darker complexions.  

In the next exhibit hall, was the debut Evolution of the Revolution, a series of wall hangings and staged color photographs designed to convey messages about the state of Black America. I had the pleasure of meeting the artists, giddy on the opening day of the exhibition of their lives’ work.

20160118_145239The final gallery we toured contained the exhibit, Hard Edged: Geometric Abstraction and Beyond.  We had almost skipped this gallery since we’re not too crazy about abstract art, and we were tired, but in the end, we were so happy we’d gotten a second wind.  The first work we saw was a purple sculpture titled “Middle Passage” that seemed intent on proving our misgivings about abstract art. We just couldn’t see it.  But as we explored space teeming with paintings, photographs, and sculptures, we developed an immediate appreciation for most of the pieces. I immediately recognized a piece by Elizabeth Catlett whose work I’d seen at the Museum of the African Diaspora a year earlier. There are many beautiful pieces in the exhibit, and we especially loved “Picky Head,” made up of four floor-to-ceiling panels covered in tiny black and white photo portraits of Black women and the words “Picky Head” stenciled across the panels in hair relaxer.  As we left this gallery, headed to grab some MLK birthday cake, we exchanged a few words with a young man about one of the pieces, and he wished us a “Happy King Day.”  I thought, “Wow. This is our holiday,” and I was pleased I’d decided to spend the day exploring one of Our Museums.


Be on the lookout for the next blog post about my visit to LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art to see Noah Davis’s storefront exhibit, Imitation of Wealth.


African American Firefighter Museum

African American Firefighter Museum

Los Angeles, CA (Free)

December 29, 2015

Official Website

The African-American Firefighter Museum officially opened in 1997, and I first heard of it in 2015.  I am a Los Angeles native attentive to African-American cultural events and venues, so I was surprised by my own ignorance.  

20151229_125258The museum has limited hours, so I was glad when I could arrange my schedule to visit after Christmas.  I called to make sure the museum would be open and reached Jimmy , who was there to greet me when I arrived.  He had just given a tour to a group of children from the Pasadena YMCA who enthusiastically donned their plastic fire helmets as they ate their lunches in the courtyard.

Jimmy explained to me that he was not a retired firefighter. Instead, he had been the fire safety director for Northrop Grumman, and when he took a tour of the museum a few years ago soon after his retirement, and he got inspired to volunteer.

A three and four-year-old sister and brother duo joined our tour along with their baby cousin, auntie and grandmother.  The four-year-old boy took the family field trip very seriously, for he was decked out in his Fire Chief jacket along with a water tank for his back and his very own helmet.  When Jimmy offered the news that if he started as a firefighter today, he would earn over $100,000 per year, Grandma nearly jumped for joy.

As we entered the building, Jimmy explained that LA’s first fire station housing exclusively African-American firefighters opened in 1913 and operated until 1980.  The original floors, ceilings, and poles remain in the building, which is impressive considering that the building was abandoned for fifteen years, housing squatters who, ironically, started a number of fires inside.  Photos of the renovation process that started in 1995 and produced the structure standing on Central Avenue today are on display.

20151229_12494220151229_113427He went on to introduce to us the late founder of this museum, Arnett Hartsfield, without whom, the museum would not exist.  Hartsville worked as a LAFD firefighter from 1940 to 1961.  He fought for integration of the fire stations and observed and experienced overt racism on the job, especially after integration was achieved.  He chose to document those experiences and eventually succeeded in leaving a legacy in this museum where many of his photographs are on display.  Hartsfield served as somewhat of an historian for Black firefighters of LA. He was a larger-than-life figure who, as a firefighter, earned a law degree from USC and was still forced to clean toilets by his White colleagues after the 1954 firehouse integration.

The story of Sam Haskins, the first Black firefighter in Los Angeles, is also told on the first floor of this museum.  Haskins was killed in the line of duty in 1895 but did not receive an honorable burial for over 100 years.  

20151229_124634Jimmy took us up to the upper level of the station which had been the firefighters’ living quarters.  Now the rooms are lined with memorabilia, including photographs of former firefighters, firefighting equipment, awards, photos of recent African-American fire chiefs, and  one copy each of two editions of the now discontinued “Men of Fire” calendar that, according to Jimmy, more than one woman has tried to swipe from the museum.  Black female firefighters and firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11 are also honored on this level of the museum.  Jimmy even referred to the fragment from one of the fallen World Trade Center towers as the “most important item in the museum,” which gave me a sense of the impact the 9/11 attacks had on all firefighters.

Although I met someone from Baltimore’s  African American Firefighters Historical Society at the Association for African American Museums Conference in Memphis in August, and I have a Black firefighter in my family, before visiting this museum, I had not given much thought to the history of African-American firefighters in Los Angeles. I am pleased now to recommend the museum to friends and share the small slice of Los Angeles history I learned from my visit.


Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada at the LA County Museum of Art

Noah Purifoy: Junk Dada at the LA County Museum of Art

Los Angeles, CA (Free for Los Angeles residents after 3:00pm)

November 19, 2015

Official Website

20151119_153327_Richtone(HDR)I don’t remember how I first heard of this exhibit of Noah Purifoy’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Surprisingly, I had not heard of this local modern artist until I encountered the Junk Dada exhibit.  Purifoy was born in Alabama in 1917, and he received most of his formal education in the south.  He came to California, however, for his arts education and spent more than half of his life here producing works of art.

20151119_153508Most of Purifoy’s artwork is composed of found objects, but his earliest existing work is a 1958 headboard he made during his decade-long career as a modernist furniture designer. The other works in the Junk Dada exhibition are wall hangings along with indoor and outdoor statues and structures made with found objects.

20151119_160807I explained my limited experience and patience with visual art in my blog post about my visit to the One Way Ticket exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.  My only formal training in visual art appreciation is from one undergraduate class in African-American art nearly twenty years ago. Because of that inexperience, I sometimes felt maladroit as I examined Purifoy’s modernist pieces.  I did find the symmetry and clean lines in Purifoy’s work beautiful, and I appreciated the overt historical and tragic references of some pieces like “Hanging Tree” and “Strange Fruit.”

20151119_160853In addition, some of Purifoy’s works invoke significant figures in African-American cultural and artistic movements.  For example, in his 1995 Desert Tombstone Series, Purifoy named three pieces “Fire Next Time I, II, and III (After James Baldwin).”  He also named a wall hanging “Rags and Old Iron II (After Nina Simone)” and another piece “Black, Brown, and Beige (After Duke Ellington).”  Purifoy called attention to the connections between his works and the larger context of Black Art.

20151119_154031I enjoyed Purifoy’s work so much that now I am planning to take an Our Museums trip the Noah Purifoy Foundation’s Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum in the desert of Joshua Tree, California where he spent the last years of his life.

20151119_153029Be on the lookout for my next blog post about my visit to the African-American Firefighter Museum.


Dora Nelson African-American Art & History Museum

Dora Nelson African-American Art & History Museum

Perris, California (Free)

November 13, 2015

Official Website

I first met Lovella Singer, the executive manager of the Dora Nelson African-American Art & History Museum, in Memphis at the 2015 Association for African-American Museums Conference.  I was overjoyed to discover that the 2016 conference would be held in Riverside, local for me, hosted by the Dora Nelson Museum.  I heard bits and pieces about the museum from Lovella in Memphis, but I determined that I would need to pay a visit to this hosting museum before the conference to get the full story.

20151113_163124The museum is intended to provide information about the history of the African-American community in Perris where Dora Nelson settled in 1920 and Lovella’s own mother, Alberta Mable Kearney, the now 95-year-old granddaughter of a slave, settled later with her husband and eleven children on the same block where Dora Nelson had lived.

20151113_155551The women tell the dramatic tale of Mrs. Kearney being offered money to demolish an old home on her block in the Perris neighborhood where she had recently moved.  Eager for the opportunity to earn extra cash and admiring the doors on the home, Mrs. Kearny put her children to work pulling down the house brick by brick.  She had her eye on the doors, and when they had completed the job, she retrieved those doors with the intent of using them for her own home.  However, when a neighbor informed her that her family had just demolished the home that had served as the first place of worship for Black families in Perris, Mrs. Kearney was devastated.  She eventually committed herself to learning the history of the African-American community in Perris and honoring that history in a significant way.

In 1979, Mr. and Mrs. Kearny decided to found a museum and donate the land where their family home had once stood for that purpose.  That is where the Dora Nelson Museum of African American Art and History now stands.

20151113_143912The day I visited the museum, I was fortunate to meet Mrs. Kearny who is a wealth of wisdom.   She shared memories of the old house that had once stood on that same spot.  She shared that the house had been built of rejected lumber because good lumber was reserved for World War II construction.  She remembered how the house fell apart, literally into the family’s food.  She and Lovella remembered how, to the children’s chagrin, a beam fell into a giant pot of beans Mrs. Kearny had been cooking for hours.  Mrs. Kearny also explained to me the background of one of the museum’s focal exhibits, the Step Up and Be Counted Shoe Collection, a unique exhibit where they display the shoes of individuals from the community who, as Mrs. Kearny put it, “excelled in the area of human relations.”  One is a former Perris mayor who treated all Perris residents equally, across racial lines. She remembers him running a local store and crediting her children for their shoes when the family could not afford to pay all at once.

20151113_142710Other artifacts around the museum include an iron pot owned by Mrs. Kearney’s late slave grandmother, a photograph of Dora Nelson’s daughter, pairs of original slave shackles, Native American statues and artwork, a founders list, and one of the doors that serendipitously brought together Mrs. Kearney and Dora Nelson.

20151113_142915I am eager to watch the museum shape up in the coming months as the team prepares for the August conference.  They are working hard to secure funds to do some much-needed renovating.

Before I left for the day, Lovella drove me around the neighborhood to show me landmarks of Perris’s Black community like churches and historic homes.  She explained that after Dora Nelson hosted prayer meetings in her home for years, the male pastors came and got credit for officially starting First Baptist Church, which is now in its third iteration.  While Dora Nelson may not have gotten credit from her contemporaries for her leadership, Mrs. Kearney and Lovella are committed that through their museum, Dora Nelson will finally gain the notoriety and recognition she deserves.

Check back next week to read about my visit to the LA County Museum of Art’s Noah Purifoy exhibit: Junk Dada

The Mayme Clayton Museum and Library

The Mayme Clayton Museum and Library

Culver City, California (Free)

October 16, 2015

I first heard of Mayme Clayton around 2004 when I went to see a Black art exhibit at the Long Beach Art Museum.  Avery Clayton was there championing his mother’s collection and promoting the upcoming museum.  He asked for donations and put me on his mailing list. Then, over the last several years, I have visited the Mayme Clayton museum and Library on several occasions for screenings of films from Mayme Clayton’s collection, but this visit was my first time touring the Culver City facility that opened in 2008.  

20151016_151149When I called to set up a tour, Lloyd Clayton told me he would not be available at the time we could visit.  I was disappointed, but we stuck to our plan to go anyway.  When we arrived that afternoon, he was there after all, so we got the grand tour.  Since Lloyd was our tour guide, we got a lot of the background on Mayme Clayton’s collection which she started in their West Adams garage when she was still a UCLA law librarian.  She eventually asked UCLA for a budget to support her collecting of African-American artifacts, and when they denied her request, she retired and became a full time collector.  By 1979 she had over 24,000 books and over 800 films.  Early on she did a lot of trading, and once she developed a reputation as a collector of artifacts in the African-American community, people would leave boxes of items on the family porch.

20151016_152031We started our tour in the hallway at the entrance of the museum housed in the old Culver City courthouse.  That hallway is painted a deep red and lined with album covers from folks like Isaac Hayes and The Last Poets.  On display are also some eclectic historical images and documents like a decades old map of the “Distribution of Negroes in Los Angeles.” It shows, by color, the concentration of African-Americans around different parts of LA. Other images in the hallway include a poster from the Wattstax concert and a poster of a famous 1966 image of Huey Newton seated in a wicker chair, which according to Lloyd, gained popularity in the Black community at the time.

IMG_1431One surprising thing about this museum is its location.  It is in the old Culver City courthouse.  We passed by old courtrooms, and Lloyd even took us down to the old holding cells.  One major source of revenue for the museum is filming for television and movies using areas in the courthouse like the courtrooms and the underground holding cells.

20151016_155829Lloyd took us into another multi-purpose space in which an exhibit of
Mamie Hansberry’s paintings is on display. In one corner of this room is a closet where Lloyd went in and proceeded to dig out documents and artifacts and built up the suspense when he told us he was going to blow our minds.  We were doubtful, but he pulled out some impressive artifacts. He showed us an original print of William Lloyd Garrison’s nineteenth century abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. We also saw an original copy of Solomon Northup’s book, Twelve Years a Slave, an original copy of a bill of sale from the sale of slave in the 19th century, and an original copy of the first issue of Ebony Magazine from 1945. The collection includes countless other original documents and artifacts.  The most remarkable artifact he saved for last.  The Mayme Clayton Museum has an original, signed copy of Phillis Wheatley‘s 1773 book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. And “Boom!” he dropped the mic; our minds were totally blown.

Mrs. Clayton’s expansive collection is impressive. I look forward to one day seeing it professionally preserved, organized, and exhibited.  Lloyd told us he’s looking for a volunteer archivist, so if you know anyone, please contact the museum.  This Southern California gem deserves to have the opportunity to truly shine.

Tina Turner Museum (West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center)

Tina Turner Museum
(West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center)

Brownsville, Tennessee

August 10, 2015

Official Website

During the Association of African-American Museums Conference, someone told me there was a Tina Turner Museum in the Memphis area.  I made a note to myself, and fortunately, my husband and I were able to fit it into our itinerary.  

20150810_152253When we pulled up to the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, we did not know what to expect.  We walked in, and the desk clerk greeted us warmly.  We told her about my Our Museums project, and she told us all about the galleries and exhibits in the Center.  She gave us the inside story on the Home of Sleepy John Estes and shared with us about Billy Tripp’s Mindfield, an enormous and highly controversial metal sculpture in the community.

20150810_144712Since it was our primary destination, we started our visit in the Tina Turner Museum, located inside Turner’s childhood schoolhouse, which was relocated from Nutbush to Brownsville, Tenessee about 100 feet from the main building of the Heritage Center.  The exhibit panels describe the role of schoolhouses in early 20th Century rural Black communities.  In addition, of course, the museum houses artifacts from Turner’s life like a high school yearbook turned to the page with her photograph, books written by and about Turner, Turner’s costumes (all from one 2008 show), a few of her European gold , silver, and platnum album awards and most interestingly to me, cards and notes from Turner’s 2013 wedding.  There are also videos on loop of Turner’s last tourand of her sharing some of her memories from her days in Nutbush .

20150810_151628Right beside the Turner Museum, and also part of the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, is the home of blues musician, “Sleepy” John Estes, whose first recorded song was released in 1929.  One of the most interesting artifacts in this exhibit is the cigar box guitar.  Even my musically-trained husband had never seen a guitar fashioned out of a cigar box, strings, and a stick.  Estes was blind, so he depended on others to help care for him.  Interest for his music declined after World War II but picked back up again in the 1960s.  He recorded seven more albums and toured and performed extensively until his death in 1977.

20150810_153441Inside of the Center are a number of galleries a few of which stood out and are worth mentioning.  For example, housed inside of this Center is the one-room West Tennessee Cotton Museum.  I explored the museum optimistically but was disappointed when I did not find a single reference to Slavery or sharecropping, which is especially ironic considering that the African-American musicians featured throughout the Center are most likely all descendants of slaves and sharecroppers.  Instead, there were baskets, and clothing, a weaving loom, photographs on the wall of White West Tennessee residents who had been involved somehow in the cotton industry, and even unprocessed cotton is available for guests to touch, read about, and purchase.

The last museum within the Center that’s worth recognition is the West Tennessee Music Museum.  This museum clearly existed prior to the establishment of the Tina Turner museum and the home of “Sleepy” John Estes because those two artists are featured prominently, which feels a little redundant.  Another artist recognized in this museum is James “Yank” Rachell.  Here is a 1930 recording of Rachell and Estes singing “Street Car Blues.”

This was my first time visiting a museum sharing space with other museums all inside of one Center.  This Heritage Center provided me with an opportunity to learn about a region of the country that I would otherwise probably never have visited.  My first trip to Tennessee left me thinking about omission and historical revision and curious about what thoughts and questions will be evoked by my upcoming Our Museums trips.


Alex Haley House Museum and Interpretive Center

Alex Haley House Museum and Interpretive Center

Henning, Tennessee

August 7, 2015

Official Website

We drove to the Alex Haley House Museum and Interpretive Center, about an hour outside of Memphis, after our tour with Heritage Tours, Memphis.  I’d read about the museum and put it on my must-see itinerary, so I was grateful when one of our new friends from the conference offered us a ride in his rental car.

We arrived at the museum just about an hour before closing, and Richard Griffin, the museum director, welcomed us.  We went through a now, for me, very familiar drill, and entered a theater and watched a portion of this documentary about Roots:


20150807_163308Once we finished the film, we explored the Interpretive Center, which we learned later was built to look like a nautical vessel in honor of Haley’s time in the US Coast Guard.  One exhibit in the visitors center was a temporary exhibit, Slaves and Slaveholders of the Wessyngton Plantation, but the bulk of the Center is taken up with panels about and artifacts from Haley’s life and work, including images from his visit to Juffure, Gambia, where his alleged ancestor, Kunta Kinte grew up and was kidnapped.  

IMG_1026Once we’d explored the entire Center, Richard took us across a long, and according to Richard, expensive bridge to the house, which was the home of Haley’s maternal grandparents, the Palmers.  The house was built in 1919 by Haley’s grandfather, Will Palmer, who was an influential citizen in the town of Henning, Tennessee.  Haley lived there with his grandparents off and on for eight years as his father pursued advanced degrees and other ambitions.  

What stood out most about this home was the idea that the original furnishing and decor had been lost over the years, and when the state of Tennessee designated the house to become a museum, the curators painstakingly recreated the inside of the house according to Haley’s memories of his childhood.  Richard also told us stories of Haley’s childhood, especially about his memories of hearing his grandmother talk about their ancestors, telling stories that ultimately inspired him to write Roots.

Unlike the Withers Gallery, where there is no recognition of Withers’ role as an FBI informant during the Civil Rights Movement, the Interpretive Center does contain some allusion to the accusations of plagiarism launched against Haley after Roots was published.  However, just a little bit of cursory research uncovers article after article dispelling the myth of Roots as a historical account of Alex Haley’s lineage.  There is no mention of these issues, seemingly understood by historians, in the museum.  

IMG_1023This omission reminds me of the role of folklore in the African-American community, which first caught my attention in the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum we visited that same morning.  As I consider the “sins of omission” of the Withers and Haley museums and people’s willingness to treat folklore as  fact in the interest of maintaining the community’s narrative about our heroes or about our own history, leads me to think differently, less idealistically, about Our Museums.  After visiting nearly forty African-American museums and exhibits, this experience inspired a litany of questions:  Are the legends in our communities so vital to us that we ignore facts in order to maintain them?  Do we sometimes take advantage of people’s ignorance?  Is our need for heroes like Withers and Haley so great that we are willing to pretend their reputations are pristine?  Are the “politics of respectability” so powerful in our communities that we cannot acknowledge the complex multiple dimensions of our admired figures?  Are our museums so vulnerable that any admission of imperfection could lead to de-funding and closure?

I will continue to pursue answers to these questions as I proceed with my mission to visit all of Our Museums.  

Check back next week to read about my visit to the Tina Turner Museum and the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center.


Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum

Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum

Memphis, Tennessee ($10)

August 7, 2015

Official Website

20150807_104902The Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum was the second major stop on our Memphis Heritage Tour.  On the site is the home built by Jacob Burkle in 1849.  Although no concrete evidence exists to prove this, the home is marketed as a stop on the Underground Railroad for self-emancipated slaves heading toward the Mississippi river.  Some call the story “folklore,” passed down through the community’s chain of oral history.

Our tour guide, Elaine Turner of Heritage Tours Memphis, ushered us through the front door into the foyer of the home.  We huddled there looking around at artifacts sitting on shelves and hanging on walls.  Ms. Turner drew our attention to a map depicting routes along the Underground Railroad in the middle hallway. She pointed out that according to the map, a large number of self-emancipated slaves would have traveled through Memphis.  What stood out most to me about this visit was the discussion that ensued about the alleged connections between the triangular trade and changes in shark migration patterns and even DNA and weather patterns. That discussion got me thinking more and more about the ongoing and current role of “folklore” in African-American communities.

20150807_112426Eventually, a young woman invited us into a room furnished with primitive church pews.  Ms. Turner gave us a quick lesson on the hidden messages in Negro spirituals, and the young woman sang beautifully for us, “Wade in the Water” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”  Ms. Turner pointed out to us the quilts hanging around the room and explained the significance of quilts in many communities of slaves.

Ms. Turner ushered us through the house until we finally made it to the cellar.  She lifted the trap door and led us down the wooden staircase.  There, she showed us what she considers evidence of the house’s place in Memphis’s Underground Railroad history.  The cellar contains a short staircase that leads up to a wall.  Ms. Turner argues that the only explanation is that in the past, the cellar housed people who needed to get around surreptitiously, and the staircase must have let to a secret entrance or exit to the house traveled by escaped slaves.  Her theory is that Burkle gave refuge to people who had escaped slavery in that cellar and that they had some way of traveling in and out undetected.  She even switched off her flashlight momentarily to give all of us a brief notion of what that space might have been like in the nineteenth century.

IMG_1021No matter how historically accurate the story is of the Burkle home as an underground railroad stop, the Slave Haven museum provides a haunting physical reminder of the horrors of slavery and the will of so many to escape.

Check back next week to read about my visit to the Alex Haley House Museum and Interpretive Center.


W.C. Handy House Museum

W.C. Handy House Museum

Memphis Tennessee ($6)

August 7, 2015

Official Website

One of the post-conference activities available after the Association for African-American Museums (AAAM) Conference in Memphis was a tour given by the Memphis Heritage Tours Company, run by Elaine Turner, a highly respected longstanding member of Memphis’s African-American community.  We chose this tour partly because it allowed us to cover two more Memphis museums and gave us a chance to spend some more time with new AAAM friends.

The first major stop on the Heritage tour was the W.C. Handy House Museum.  I knew nothing about W.C. Handy before this trip, so I was surprised to learn that he was called “the father of the blues.” According to Ms. Turner, he made clear that he did not invent the blues.  He just happened to be the one to first write and publish blues songs.

Handy’s father and grandfather were both born into slavery and both eventually practiced as AME pastors.  Handy was born in 1873 in Florence, Alabama where, today, there is another museum in his honor.  

20150808_121058Handy’s first instrument was the pump organ, and eventually he went on to play the coronet and of course, the trumpet.  Ms. Turner told us about a rift that developed between Handy and his father, who accused him of playing “the devil’s music”.  She said that it was only after some friends tricked him into attending one of Handy’s concerts that W.C. Handy got his the elder Handy’s blessing for his secular music career.

The house is small and crowded with souvenirs from the years of showcasing W.C. Handy’s life.  Framed photographs, sheet music, and documents line the walls.  One photo that stood out was a family photo of Handy, his wife, and several of their adult children with their spouses.  In the photo, all of the men are smiling broadly while the women maintain solemn, serious expressions.  I couldn’t help but wonder about the gender dynamics of the day that would lead to the unfamiliar patterns of expressions in the image.  Unfortunately, photography was not allowed in the house, so you will have to travel to Memphis to see the photo.

20150807_100806Before we left the Handy house, Ms. Turner highlighted the triumph that was Handy’s life. Born to a former slave, he died in 1958 in his family’s big, beautiful New York home.  Then, his likeness, the first statue of an African-American in Memphis, was erected just two years later.  Handy certainly earned such recognition, and this house museum showcases Handy’s work and his family life, calling special attention in Memphis to details about the man that people typically miss.

Check back next Monday, October 19th, to read about my visit to the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum.

National Civil Rights Museum

National Civil Rights Museum

Memphis, Tennessee

August 6, 2015

Official Website

IMG_1003I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis as part of this year’s Association for African-American Museums Conference.  Every evening of the conference attendees were treated to a reception in an African-American museum.  This museum hosted the conference’s closing reception, so the organizers pulled out all the stops.  There was a delicious buffet, an open bar, a live band, and a DJ.  My husband and I arrived at the party fashionably late, and as we walked in, I spotted a new friend looking surprisingly distraught.  We approached her, and she explained that she was just emerging from the museum’s maze of emotionally taxing permanent exhibits and she had to compose herself before she could return to the party.

20150806_210413After enjoying the party for a while, my husband and I made our way into the museum galleries.

We started by perusing A Heritage Preserved: African-American art from the Kimberly and Elliot Perry Collection on display in the small external gallery.  The Perrys had generously hosted a group of conference attendees at their home earlier in the week to see works from their collection and learn about their passion for Black art.

Next, we progressed into the permanent exhibits, which start in a circular room showcasing the triangular trade on the floor, statues depicting the middle passage against one wall, and a statue of a woman on an auction block in the center.  This recently remodeled museum has a number of interactive exhibits including trivia quizzes and touch screens.  This first room has an interactive wall of clues with buttons to press and discover the person of the era described by the clues.

IMG_1015IMG_1004As I walked through this museum, naturally, many of the exhibits reminded me of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, the freedom riders’ bus, King’s prison cell, etc.  However, this museum has one extensive exhibit that recognizes an element of the Movement that I do not remember seeing in Birmingham: Black Power.  One of the gems I got from this somewhat rushed, late-night museum visit was a tidbit I heard on one of the many videos going throughout the galleries.  As I walked by a video playing in the Black Power exhibit, I stopped briefly to hear Dr. Hassan Kwame Jeffries, one of the museum’s advising scholars, explain that the Black Power Movement was not, in fact, in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, the former was instead, an extension of the latter that was designed to secure and ensure the realization of the gains that had been achieved.

20150806_215121Of course, one critical element of this museum that Birmingham does not have is the Lorraine Motel.  The final gallery in this maze of panels, artifacts, videos, replicas, and touch screens centers around rooms 306 and 307 of the Lorraine Motel preserved for forty-seven years.  What stood out most to me about that exhibit that left my heart aching were the photos depicting Black America’s grief.  I knew about the widespread civil unrest that followed King’s assassination, but the nation wide grief is  captured in the photos on display in a way I had not seen before.  

Thus, when I emerged back into the museum gift shop, which was across from the party room, like my friend earlier, I didn’t feel much like partying.  It was my turn to feel emotionally drained and in need of a minute to recoup before going back in to do the Cupid Shuffle.

Check back next Monday, October 12th,  to read about my visit to the W.C. Handy House Museum.


Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Memphis, Tennessee ($13)

August 5 & 8, 2015

Official Website

20150805_205655Like the Withers Gallery, I visited the Stax museum twice while I was in Memphis.  I was fortunate to meet the former director of the Stax Museum at the Association for African-American Museums pre-conference session, and she encouraged me to visit the Stax museum again after the reception they would host during the conference and bring my husband.  

The museum is a wonderful place for a party with its “Wall of Sound,” a floor to ceiling display case filled with all the records and singles released by Stax artists and other display cases showcasing a variety of artist garments including several standard flashy 1970s getups.  The museum includes a fabulous live music space where the conference attendees were treated to music from a live band, Paul B. McKinney and the Knights of Jazz.  I also enjoyed the Stax: Visions of Soul contemporary art exhibit in a small gallery adjacent to the gift shop.

20150808_144621When I returned to the Stax museum a few days later with my husband and some family friends, I got a better sense of the museum’s full 17,000 square feet.  First, we watched a video, a much shorter and less detailed version of The Story of Stax Records in eight parts on Youtube:

20150808_153525From the small theater, we entered a gallery I had not seen in my first visit honoring the Black church as the origin of soul music.  An actual turn of the century church from Mississippi, Hoopers Chapel AME Church, is housed in the museum as part of the exhibit.  The exhibit includes panels chronicling the history of spirituals, gospel music, and the civil rights tradition tied to the Black church.

20150808_154100The next galleries chronicle the story of Stax Records, its artists, and other soul music artists of the 1960s and 70s.  The museum houses and displays artifacts from artists like
Johnnie Taylor, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, and Isaac Hayes.  

The museum also has some interactive exhibits and games that give visitors an opportunity to answer trivia questions and make connections between current artists and songs and artists and songs from the Stax era.

What stood out most to me in the Stax museum was the depiction of the relationship between Stax and Motown.  One panel explained that in some Black communities across the country, Stax was seen as “’Bama Music” of the south while Motown was described as “Uptown Soul,” a dichotomy in keeping with the narrative of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the “backwards” South to the “advanced” or “progressive” North through much of the 20th century.  In fact, Mowtown is a product of that migration.  Berry Gordy’s father had moved to Detroit from Georgia in 1922, and ironically, Smokey Robinson’s mother, Flossie, moved to Detroit from Memphis.

20150808_165336My husband, however, insists that Isaac Hayes’s green and gold Cadillac rotating on display in the museum left the most lasting impression on him.

Check back next Monday, October 4th, to read about my visit to the National Civil Rights Museum.

Withers Collection Museum and Gallery

Withers Collection Museum and Gallery

Memphis, Tennessee

August 4 and 8, 2015

Official Website

I visited the Withers Museum twice during my week in Memphis, once for the opening night reception of the Association of African-American Museums (AAAM) Conference and again to show my husband the impressive collection of photographs.  Ernest Withers, a Memphis native, spent sixty years of his life taking the over one million photos that are now in his collection.  Withers’s heirs, members of the museum staff, and other professionals are in the midst of digitizing and archiving the photos.  The photos on display are separated according to historical events.  There are photos from the Negro Baseball Leagues during the 1940s and 1950s, Memphis Music History, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 Assassination, The Sanitation Worker Strike, and other photos from Memphis and the South in the 1950s and 1960s.  

Withers gained popularity and credibility as a photojournalist after he published photos documenting the aftermath of the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi and the trial of his accused murderers.  In the gallery we flipped through a book of those photos.  Withers appeared to have had unfettered access to King during his visits to Memphis.  The gallery also has on display an extensive collection of photos of musicians who performed in Memphis like B.B. King, Tina and Ike Turner, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, and Elvis.  


On my second visit, my husband and I met a member of the museum staff, James Moore, a graduate student studying to become a marriage and family therapist.  He explained to us how he loves working at the museum and that working there gives him the opportunity to engage with people about race in ways that he might not typically be able to access.  We talked about how many African-American museum content evokes strong emotions, and our museums should be equipped to deal with those emotions.  James said that at the Withers Gallery they offer tissues to visitors who respond tearfully to images from King’s assassination.  We discussed briefly our own experiences with managing strong emotions in museums and seeing others do the same.

We were so impressed with the Withers collection that we bought two prints and left fully satisfied with our experience there.  Later that evening, I thought of a colleague for whom I considered purchasing an additional print as a gift.  I went online looking for the image so I could call the museum the following day and order it.  However, what came up in my Google search for Ernest Withers stopped me in my tracks.  I was stunned to learn that in September 2010, the Memphis Commercial Appeal broke the story revealing that Ernest Withers had used his beautiful and iconic photographs to inform the FBI about the activities of the Movement.  

I was most surprised because although it has been five years since Withers’ role as an informant was revealed, no one who I talked to at the AAAM Conference reception mentioned it.  When I started digging, I found article after article from 2010 when the story first broke to 2013 after the release of FBI records in response to a Commercial Appeal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. In the articles, Civil Rights Movement legends like John Lewis and James Lawson are quoted expressing disappointment, mistrust, and apathy.  

I hope that for future visitors, the gallery and museum administrators embrace the complexity of Withers and his role in the Movement and integrate these new discoveries into the experience visitors have in the space.  Otherwise, visitors who make the discovery on their own like I did might feel misled and betrayed, and the museum risks losing potential customers and fans on whom they depend to maintain and support Withers and his legacy.

Check back next Monday to read about my visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

Louis Armstrong House Museum

Louis Armstrong House Museum

Corona, Queens, New York, New York ($10)

July 8, 2015

Official Website

20150708_105028As my husband and I stood outside of the Louis Armstrong House Museum taking photos, Elaine, a volunteer docent, came out to check on us.  She welcomed us and explained that we were the first visitors of the day.  We had a few minutes before the tour would start, so she invited us to traverse the lovely garden, which serves as a performance space on the carefully landscaped adjacent lot.  After spending a few minutes in the garden, we went into the Visitors Center to start our tour.

Like many of the other museums I’ve toured, our Louis Armstrong House Museum tour begins with a video that offers some biographical information about Armstrong and background about the house.

20150708_123746Next, Elaine led us out of the visitors’ center to the front door of the house.  At the door, Elaine insisted that we ring the doorbell just as we would have if we had visited when Armstrong was living.  In the foyer of the home, Elaine told us about Armstrong’s wife, Lucille, who bought the house while he was on the road performing.  She was his fourth wife, and they met at a cotton club where she was a dancer and married when he was forty years old.  They had no children but kept beloved schnauzer dogs.  He made clear to Lucille that she was the third most important element in his life after music, of course, and his long-time manager, mafia-connected Joe Glaser.

Unlike Armstrong who was from Louisiana, Lucille had been raised in Queens.  So she bought this modest $8,000 house close to her childhood home.  Louis was very successful by the time he married Lucille, but she chose this house in a humble neighborhood where Armstrong could traverse the streets and socialize with members of the community without the fear of harassment.  Elaine told us how he had a great relationship with the neighborhood kids and how he would help them when he could.  There is even legend that the lyrics to “What a Wonderful World” are based on his feelings about this neighborhood.  Elaine also told us that Nat Cole had attempted to purchase property in this same neighborhood and was blocked.  My husband guessed that Armstrong and his wife had no trouble because of his mob connections.

On the shelves and walls around the house, Armstrong’s collection of artwork from his travels is on display.  This includes two carvings from the Congo.  Legend has it that his visit occurred during a civil war, and the fighting stopped when he arrived and through his visit so everyone could attend his performances, but the fighting resumed once his visit had concluded.


Before we left the living room, Elaine played a recording of a conversation between Armstrong and his wife.  The new technology of the time that made recording so easy and affordable fascinated him and led Armstrong to record many every-day interactions between members of his family and of his rehearsals.  

kitchen copyPhoto credit_ Photos Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House MuseumjpgElaine took us into the back of the house to see the kitchen, which contains a custom Crown stove made especially for Lucille and Louis and floor to ceiling cabinets coated with a vibrant turquoise laminate along with the first floor bathroom, which is wall to wall mirrors with gold plated fixtures.  When we passed the stair chair before we ascended the staircase, Elaine explained that Armstrong’s lifestyle was physically taxing.  He traveled and performed as many as three-hundred days per year.  He had three heart attacks in his life, so in his later years, his mobility was limited.

Armstrong also had a wood-panelled music room/office/den on the second floor of the house. He was so pleased to have a room all to himself for the first time in his life. On the wall in this room is a portrait of Armstrong painted by none other than Tony Bennett.  Elaine played another recording of Armstrong playing a song from his past and remembering how his band leader in school did not tell the students the title of the selection in case they were inclined to share that information and another band steal their unique choice of song.

Interior of The Louis Armstrong House, 35-56 107th Street in Corona, Queens

Interior of The Louis Armstrong House, 35-56 107th Street in Corona, Queens

Elaine was protective of Armstrong and his reputation.  She insisted that he was beloved in the neighborhood because he was such a kind and gentle person.  She jokingly dared anyone to say anything negative about him on her tour.  She was especially concerned about folks who criticized Armstrong for not participating in the Civil Rights movement and for being a “smiling Uncle Tom”.  Elaine recounted a story about a journalism student  who interviewed Armstrong before a show and reported him criticizing Eisenhower for his handling of the case of the Little Rock Nine. In fact, his words were so uncharacteristically angry, the newspaper editor demanded more proof from the student that these were Armstrong’s words.  The student, Larry Lubenow, returned to Armstrong’s hotel room and photographed him while he was shaving, and Armstrong approved everything Lubenow had written.  Lubenow’s story surprised many people, and Armstrong still did not escape criticism, but either way, he took a position on the events unfolding in 1957 in the American South.

20150708_125049We spent some time in the Visitors Center before we left the museum, and we met more members of the museum’s staff and shared my Our Museums project with them.  They recommended several other Northeastern museums and sites focused on African Americans.  I got really excited when they told us about Toni Trent’s children’s book, Sienna’s Scrapbook, about a little girl’s road trip with her family who is, like me, visiting African-American museums and historical sites.  Instead of writing a blog, Sienna documents their visits to places like the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Anacostia, and the Louis Armstrong House Museum in her scrapbook.

Check back next week, September 21st, for the first blog post in the seven-part Memphis series about my visit to the Withers Collection Gallery and Museum.


*Photos Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum: feature picture of Louis by CalvinBailey, Louis’s kitchen, and Louis’s living room. 

One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works

One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works

Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York ($25)

July 6, 2015

Official Website

FullSizeRender_2In April, my friend Sharon shared this exhibit on Facebook, and I immediately added it to my Our Museums itinerary for two reasons: One, I love learning and thinking about The Great Migration.  Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is one of my favorite books, and I am the product of two Great Migrants.   Two, Jacob Lawrence is one of the most important African-American painters of all time.  I remember learning about him in my undergraduate Introduction to African-American Art class.

I experienced the magnitude of this exhibit even before I set foot in the museum.  The MOMA website includes this phenomenal interactive site that shows each of Lawrence’s sixty panels and offers historical and cultural context for each one!

FullSizeRender_4This exhibit is an artistic celebration of The Great Migration experienced by millions of African-Americans in the 20th Century.  On one wall along the hallway leading into the exhibit space is a visual representation of the growth of the African-American population between 1910 and 1970 in seven American cities: New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Saint Lewis.  The population in each city grows 50 to 300 fold (In Chicago it went from 44,000 to 1,102,500.)

FullSizeRender_3Once inside the exhibition space, the main room houses Lawrence’s sixty panels and their captions documenting the migration.  We spent about two hours taking in each painting.  Some of my favorites are panels 10 (Beautiful in its simplicity.  I love Rita Dove’s poem too!!), 37 (The vibrant colors of the liquid steel and the stark background), 53 (Oh that coat!), and 60.  I especially love the caption for panel 60: “And the migrants kept coming.”  By 1942, when Lawrence created the series, the Migration had been going on for over thirty years.  He was a product of the migration, his parents having migrated to New York.  This was before the big World War II boom in the migration, and Lawrence cleary knew it was nowhere near over.  Throughout the series he intersperses images of the South, the migrants leaving, and images of the North, then he starts again.  Early in the series he shows the vast improvements African-Americans encountered in their quality of life after they migrated.  However, after the Northern cities became overwhelmed with Black migrants, the quality of life quickly deteriorated.

As I made my way around the room, I was reminded of my impatience with visual art.  I love text and facts, so I am inclined toward historical exhibits, so although this exhibit has a historical theme, it is an art exhibit.  Thus, in order to appreciate the art, I relied on the website to explain Lawrence’s artistic style and devices to my untrained eye. I find that without help, I am easily distracted from works of visual art.  That interactive website was made for people like me!  After much practice, by the time I got to Panel 56, I forced myself to spend time looking at it, and I got so excited when I noticed the light shining from the ceiling!

FullSizeRender_1After a lunch break, we resumed our tour of the One Way Ticket exhibition.  In several rooms adjacent to the main room are artifacts and other works of art pertaining to The Great Migration.  Of course I hovered over poems and novels of the migration like Native Son, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Cane, and my favorite book of all time, Quicksand. There were also poems by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, and Claude McKay among others on display.  In one room this haunting video of Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” and this video of Marian Anderson singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was on a loop.

There were several panels describing the role of music in the migration.  The migration led to African-American musicians being recorded for Black audiences for the first time.  They gained access to music executives and other resources for the first time.  Some of the music even featured themes related to the Migration like Josh White’s 1941 “Jim Crow Train”.

Finally, there was an case with journalistic and academic works of nonfiction from the Migration on display like Richard Wright’s  12 Million Black Voices, Walter White’s Rope and Faggot; recounting White’s undercover journey among White supremacist groups; and Carter G. Woodson’s A Century of Negro Migration.

Check back next Monday, September 14th, to read about my visit to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York.

The Legacy Museum at Tuskegee University

The Legacy Museum at Tuskegee University

Tuskegee, Alabama (Free)

June 17, 2015

Official Website

My mom and I arrived at the museum right at 10:00am, the hour it was scheduled to open, but the door was locked.  There was a sign saying the museum was “Closed for School Holidays and Breaks,” so we concerned that it might be closed for the summer.  However, when I called, we were assured the museum was open, and the woman who answered said she was sending Jeff to let us in.  

Jeff gave us a warm welcome and ushered us into the museum’s empty second floor, the art exhibition floor, explaining that we had just missed the P.H. Polk exhibit.  They were in the process of preparing that floor for an upcoming art exhibit scheduled to open in the coming fall semester.

20150617_102411The third floor houses the museum’s permanent exhibits tied to the history of the building as the former John A. Andrew and then John A. Kennedy Memorial Hospital and the current National Center for Research in Bioethics and Health Care.  One side houses the exhibit on Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells, and the other side features the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study we started reading about at the Tuskegee History Center.

Jeff offered to give us a tour of the exhibits, and we happily accepted.  We started with the HeLa exhibit since I was anticipating reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks later in the summer.  Jeff expressed his desire to focus on the contribution Lacks had made to medical research rather than on the injustice of the medical community’s treatment of her and her family.  We discussed her cells’ role in the discovery of the Polio vaccine and other medical advancements including HIV and HPV research.  He talked about the tours he leads for young students and the connections he makes between the injustices Lacks and her family members suffered and the recent cases of police violence against unarmed Black men caught on film.  He observed that the devaluing of African-American lives is at the root of both.  We also talked about the partnership between Morehouse School of Medicine, University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Tuskegee that is giving students access to extensive cancer and other medical research.

20150617_112913We were running out of time as we got to the exhibit featuring the Tuskegee syphilis study, but Jeff emphasized a point that I had not considered as I learned about the experiment at the previous exhibit: collateral damage.  Because the men in the experiment were not informed that they had syphilis, they were allowed to continue to spread the disease throughout their communities without their or their partners’ knowledge.  The exhibit is mostly made up of artwork related to the experiments and bioethical issues, and it included a painting by a well-known artist who suffered from syphilis, William Johnson, who also has pieces on display in the Smithsonian.

20150617_111330Before we left, Jeff lamented a bit to us about challenges with funding for museums and political barriers that plague institutions of higher education.  He described the wealth of items in the permanent collection that cannot yet be displayed because they need to be restored and because of spatial limitations in the building.  His final words were reassuring, however; he assured us that when we return to the area next summer, the exhibits will be remodeled and refurbished and worth a revisit. We assured him that we would be back!

Check back next Monday, September 7th, to read about my visit to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit, One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Works.


George Washington Carver Museum

George Washington Carver Museum

Tuskegee, Alabama (Free)

June 16, 2015

Official Website

20150616_162313Like The Oaks, Booker T. Washington’s home on the Tuskegee University campus, the George Washington Carver Museum is owned and operated by the National Parks Service.  The museum is in the university’s former laundry facility, in a building that was built in 1915. It has been a museum showcasing Carver’s work since 1941, two years before his death.  Near the entrance is a recording of Carver reading one of his favorite poems, “Equipment”; the ranger called our attention to it.  I love hearing old recordings of prominent historical figures.  We heard a recording of Mary McLeod Bethune’s last speech at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, and I have heard a recording of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech. Listening to those recordings adds a new dimension to my image of the person. Plus, Carver had a very distinct voice that complements his somewhat quirky and lovable image but may come with a more unsavory and even sinister explanation.

In the museum we learned that in addition to being a scientist, Carver was an artist.  Almost all of his paintings were destroyed in a fire, but one painting that was recovered is on display in the museum as a testament to Carver’s diverse talents.

20150616_155931Also on display in the museum are many of Carver’s tools, preserved specimens, and photographs, including his experiments with the soybean, the sweet potato, and of course, the peanut.  Part of Carver’s intention with these experiments and discoveries was to harness ways for farmers to get the most from their crops.

20150616_161146What stood out most to me was Carver’s educational innovation.  He implemented distance learning before the Internet and television. He designed the Jesup Wagon, which he would load up with seeds, livestock, plants, tools, and other products of his work and drive out into the community to teach farmers about new, more effective agricultural strategies.  He shared with them the value they could get from rotating their crops and from growing versatile crops like soybeans, sweet potatoes, and peanuts.

The inspiring video below on Carver’s life is available for viewing on the basement floor of the museum.  As you will see, the narrator mentions the friction between Carver and Booker T. Washington, a friction that fascinates me from the perspective of an educator.  The ranger put it something like this: Washington wanted to make sure all records were in order and all documents carefully maintained, while Carver wanted to get down and play in the dirt.  Both are admirable and invaluable, but this museum demonstrates how there is something so special about a man who wants to play in the dirt.


Check back next Monday to read about my visit to the Legacy Museum at Tuskegee University.

The Oaks

The Oaks (Home of Booker T. Washington)

Tuskegee, Alabama (Free)

June 16, 2015

Official Website

My love for African-American history has fostered a long-term fascination with Booker T. Washington.  Apparently, I am not the only one in my family who has been interested in Washington seeing that my paternal grandfather titled his 1987 autobiography, Up from Poverty.  I have often regretted that he did not live long enough for me to discuss with him the connections he saw between himself and Washington whose famous 1901 autobiography is titled Up from Slavery.  I remember my first encounter with Washington’s Atlanta Compromise speech and the alleged conflict between him and W.E.B. Dubois. I was incensed and felt somewhat betrayed that no one had told me that the beloved Washington was actually what I saw as a conformist sellout who maintained low expectation for his people. Of course, I now realize the shortsightedness of that view, and although my visit to Tuskegee University left me with mixed feelings, I have since regained respect for Washington.

20150616_145947Our ultra-knowledgeable Park Ranger, Robert Stewart gave us our tour through Washington’s 1899 house, emphasizing the extreme self-sufficiency of the college during Washington’s time.  The house was designed by Robert Taylor, the first Black graduate from MIT, and was built exclusively by Tuskegee students practicing their industrial skills.  20150616_151549He showed off the state-of-the art technology present in the house.  Washington’s home was the first in the county with electricity, a running shower, and a sauna.  The house has five bedrooms and three bathrooms all with beautiful, vibrantly colored clay-based paint  on the walls, which was engineered by George Washington Carver.  Most of the internal doors feature transom windows above that could be opened to facilitate privacy and promote circulation.  The double-layered oak wood floor is still the original and looks like new.  There are also a number of original pieces of furniture still in the house, including a sofa in the entryway, several chairs and a desk  in Washington’s office that were sent to Washington from Asian students who’d attended Tuskegee.  

Washington’s wife, Margaret Murray Washington was only 4’11,” so the house was designed with her stature in mind.  The stairs are shallow, and the handrail was made low to accommodate her and Washington, who apparently, and unbelievably, to me, was only about 5’5”.  Washington’s daughter from a previous marriage and their two sons lived with them there, and legend has it that Washington had an “open door policy” with his children.  As long as they lived in his house, they had to keep their bedroom doors open . . . at all times.  20150616_151910

Washington has been criticized for building his house with a rear staircase and servant quarter-style rooms on the top floor, but our guide defended Washington, insisting that these features were designed with student interns in mind who would practice their hospitality skills in the Washington home before going out to make an honest and lucrative  living serving (most likely White) employers.

When I asked Robert about the Washington-Dubois controversy, he took up for Washington (1856-1915).  He made a great point that Dubois lived much longer (1868-1963) and had much more time to make and defend his positions.  Robert also argued that Washington and Dubois actually agreed on most points, and perhaps the media and scholars have made more of the controversy than truly existed.   Robert talked also about other conflicts between Washington and George Washington Carver, which sounded like typical faculty/administration misunderstandings. He also alluded to a conflict between Washington and Monroe Trotter.  But the way Robert responded to Dubois’s ongoing criticisms of Washington and articulated the bottom line of the alleged controversy from his perspective was classic: Ranger Robert said, “As far as I know, Dubois never started a school” and then dropped his mic.

Check back next Monday to read about my visit to the George Washington Carver Museum, also on Tuskegee’s campus.


Tuskegee History Center

Tuskegee History Center (also Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center)

Tuskegee, Alabama (Free)

June 16, 2015

Official Website

This building, which also serves as Tuskegee’s visitor center, is not technically an African-American museum.  It is a center focused on the history of the area, and it even dons a logo depicting faces representing the three general ethnic groups present in that history: Native American, African-American, and European-American.  Though since Tuskegee’s population is 95.8% African-American and the town houses one of the most famous Historically Black Universities, by default, that ultimately translates into a facility primarily focused on African-American issues.

20150616_104220On the lawn outside the building stands a replica, built in 1957 by the Booker T. Washington Centennial Commission, of Booker T. Washington’s Roanoke, Virginia childhood home. A plaque describes the home using some of Washington’s own words from his book Up from Slavery.

The broadest historical exhibit inside of the Center starts with pre-history of the region including what prehistoric creatures lived on the land that is now Macon County thousands of years ago.  The exhibit moves on to the humans that first inhabited the area, the Creek people, a matrilineal society, who were ultimately expelled against their will.

20150616_111323The exhibit moves on to the European migration to the area, and, of course, the accompanying slavery.  One small panel that stood out most to my companion for this series of museum visits, my mom, was a description of a slave woman, Lucy Zimmerman, who lived in the area in the early to mid-19th century.  A common health problem of the time for women was bladder tearing during childbirth, which lead to ongoing bladder leakage.  This slave woman, Lucy, suffered with this condition, and when her master sought treatment for her from Dr. J. Marion Sims, Sims considered her condition untreatable.  Then, since her master considered her of no value if she could not bear children, he allowed Sims to keep Lucy.  Eventually, Sims acquired other Black women who suffered the same affliction, and he fashioned tools to operate on them.  Over the next years, after many experimental operations, he conducted the operations successfully but without anesthesia, and ultimately became world renowned as a result.  In the end, these same African-American women, his first, experimental patients, served as his medical assistants.  This is just one less-familiar example of the long, complex history of medical exploitation of African-Americans.

20150616_120903The Center also includes panels describing reconstruction and the dawn of the Jim Crow era along with Civil Rights Movement activities in Tuskegee featuring one martyr of the movement, whom I had never heard of, Sammy Younge, Jr.  Younge was murdered in a service station at just 21 years old, shot in the back of the head after an argument with a man who refused to allow him to use the Service Station restroom.

Finally, the Center features an extensive exhibit on the infamous Tuskegee experiment in which approximately 600 African-American men served as research subjects for members of the medical community who wanted to study the effects of syphilis on the body.  These men were never told that they had the disease; instead they were told they had “bad blood,” and when penicillin was discovered as a treatment, again, they were not informed, and they were not treated. The preeminent Alabama Civil Rights attorney, Fred Gray, represented the victims in the 1973 class-action lawsuit against the US government. The following year a 10-million settlement was reached.  The men are also honored in the Center with their names on floor tiles, and President Clinton’s 1997 apology and his introduction by Herman Shaw, one of the victims, play on a loop in the Center:

On our way out, we chatted with Deborah Gray, Managing Director of the Center. She was a wealth of information about local African-American history, and when we told her we had visited Troy, Alabama, my mom’s birthplace, during our Alabama visit, she lamented the absence of any historical marker recognizing Troy as the birthplace of Civil Rights icon and present-day congressman, John Lewis.  Clearly, there is still much work to be done in recognizing African-American history.  Fortunately, Tuskegee, Alabama is doing an excellent job.

Check back next Monday to read about my visit to The Oaks, the home of Booker T. Washington on the campus of Tuskegee University.

Rosa Parks Museum

Rosa Parks Museum

Montgomery, AL ($7.50)

June 15, 2015

Official Website


20150615_145352The Rosa Parks museum is part of the Montgomery campus of Troy University. It is located at the intersection where Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat and igniting the 13-month long Montgomery Bus Boycott.

20150615_145827The museum is separated into two wings, a Children’s Wing and the main museum.  The exhibits have been the same since 2000, so the new director, Felicia Bell, is eager to replace them with more updated and interactive displays. I found them highly original, especially the kids’ exhibit, which uses the premise of time travel. In the lobby a schedule of the time machine’s travel is posted along with an explanation of how time travel works. In the center of the main exhibit room is a rocking and rolling bus “time machine” on which passengers travel to the time before the Civil War and learn about Dred Scott, his family, and their great loss in the Supreme Court with a video that includes actual photographs along with some reenactment.  We also learned the origins of the term “Jim Crow”.

The bus driver, Mr. Rivet, next shuttles passengers to forward to the War and on into the era of Jim Crow laws.  This includes a reenactment of Homer Plessy’s 1896 arrest after purchasing a ticket and sitting in the first class cabin of a train. Jim Crow laws continue into the 1950s, which, of course, leads us to December 1, 1955 and Ms. Parks.

Once we finished our experience with time travel, we moved on to the main wing of the museum to an orientation video, which offers some background and context for the boycott. The video includes statements from Black and White locals who actually lived through the boycott.  They describe the personal impact bus segregation had on members of the community and the humiliation suffered by African-American bus riders.

20150615_152138The main exhibit begins with a huge bus replica on which images are projected to recreate the events of the evening Rosa Parks was arrested. It’s a great and unique way to show visitors all the details of what happened. Visitors then move into the next room to hear about the boycott and the Black church’s role.  What stood out most to me was the Women’s Political Council, a group of women leaders, very active in organizing the Boycott, who wrote and duplicated more than 50,000 leaflets informing the community about the boycott. This was my first time hearing about that group.

20150615_170019Of course, 27-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. is featured in the exhibit as the leader of the boycott.  I had no idea that he and other leaders did not initially ask for the complete elimination of segregation, even on Montgomery busses.  The protesters were only asking that Black passengers be treated with as much respect as White passengers, even if they remained segregated. They also requested that the bus company hire African-American drivers to drive in African-American neighborhoods.

20150615_165714The exhibit ends with the jubilation of the Browder vs. Gayle verdict when the U.S. Supreme Court found Montgomery and Alabama’s bus segregation unconstitutional.

We finished our visit in the museum’s last small exhibit hall where Tim Kerr paintings of civil rights icons and images were on display.

Watch this video to get a four-minute tour of the museum from the former director:

Check back on Monday, August 10th, to read about my visit to Tuskegee History Center.

Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College, Birmingham Museum of Art

Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College, Birmingham Museum of Art

Birmingham, Alabama

June 14, 2015 (Free)

Official Website

When I flipped over the June 11-18 edition of Weld for Birmingham and saw the ad for Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College at the Birmingham Museum of Art on the back page, I knew we had to fit the exhibit into our itinerary.  The vibrant colors and powerful images of the mural, The Rise of the Amistad, depicted in the ad struck me.

20150614_125714When we arrived at the museum, I was disappointed to learn that photography inside the exhibit is forbidden.  As I visit museums, I’m discovering that photography tends to be allowed in historical exhibits, while understandably, it is likely to be forbidden inside of art exhibits.

We started our visit by watching this fascinating video on the history and background of the murals:


I do not remember hearing of Hale Woodruf or Talladega College before seeing this exhibit. I was fascinated to learn that the abolitionists who helped the Amistad mutineers also established the American Missionary Association, the racially integrated organization that helped found many southern universities for African-Americans, including Talladega College.

Woodruff’s set of Amistad murals was completed in 1939 for the opening of the College library.  I was surprised to see such enormous, vibrantly colored, violent images of Africans overtaking their white captors from so early in the 20th century. We sometimes get a one-dimensional  impression of history that all forms of Black expression were stifled during the Jim Crow era, especially in the South.  I am familiar with early 20th Century art from the Harlem Renaissance, but I was not familiar with Southern artwork, especially this type of resistance work of that era.  I can’t help but wonder how Woodruff was able to spend hours working on these depictions of strong victorious Africans and then leave the college and tolerate Alabama’s strict segregation and widespread anti-Black terrorism.

20150614_125319The beautiful, strong images of the Amistad mutineers during the mutiny and its aftermath took my breath away. Even in the courtroom mural, Cinque’s is, by far, the most powerful image in the painting. Standing confidently, arms folded, he is the only standing figure in the painting whose full body is shown.

The second set of murals, The Founding Panels, show, first, a dramatic scene from the Underground Railroad in which Black people are escaping slavery and whites are assisting and taking them in.  The panels go on to show the building of Talladega College and the productivity possible among an integrated team of workers.

The exhibit includes pieces of Woodruff’s artwork other than the murals.  Those pieces show the evolution of his style, his experimentation with cubism and traditional African styles.

Woodruf’s murals are touring the nation.  They will next be at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas. Trust me when I say that you do not want to miss them!  Thus, when they arrive in a city near you, make the time to witness these tremendous works of art.

Check back on Monday, August 3rd to read about my visit to the Rosa Parks Museum.

Kelly Ingram Park

Kelly Ingram Park

Birmingham Alabama (Free)

June 14, 2015

Official Website

RIght across the street from them Birmingham Civil RIghts Institute and caddy-corner from the 16th Street Baptist Church is Kelly Ingram Park, formerly West Park, a significant historical landmark for Birmingham and for the nation.  It was on the streets surrounding this park in May of 1963 where Birmingham police officers unleashed water cannons and dogs on young, non-violent protestors, producing the iconic images we have all seen:


Thus, in 1991, as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was preparing to open, the park was renovated and designated as a memorial to “revolution and reconciliation.”

20150614_112946Part of that renovation included the installation of a series of sculptures throughout the park and a free audio tour you can hear by dialing 205-307-5455 as you take the “Freedom Walk” through the park.

We entered the park at the newest “Four Spirits” sculpture honoring the victims of the September 15, 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church. The park also houses monuments to historic figures like Martin Luther King Jr., pastors who supported the Civil Rights Movement, and other local heroes.  James Drake’s metal sculptures honoring the 1963 events are stunning in creatively depicting the harsh reality of violence characteristic of the time.  The Freedom Walk takes visitors through a sculpture of snarling dogs on either side of the walkway.  It also includes a sculpture of two youths standing on a platform inscribed with the words “I ain’t afraid of your jail” directly across from a sculpture of metal prison bars.   Watch this video to get a feel for some of the powerful sculptures in the park:



Two of the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trails also start in the park and are identified by signs and life-size photos guiding visitors through the blocks of significant Civil Rights Movement locations and events.

The park maintains its relevance in the struggle for civil rights in America.  Just last November, people gathered there to protest the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Ferguson, Missouri teenager, Michael Brown.

20150614_122209What stood out most to me about this park on the day we visited was the community of maybe twenty-five folks idling in the park.  They did not appear to be living in the park exactly, but I had the distinct impression that they spend most of their days there.  They are mostly African-American, and many of them could be seen drinking from paper bags on this Sunday before noon.  One gentleman even engaged with us in passing on his way to the group.  He shared that he was not from Birmingham originally, but Mississippi, and he has not been in touch with his family in a long while.  This group is visible in this video:


I regret not engaging more with this group to hear their experiences of the park and discover any connections to its historical significance.

Check back next Monday, July 27, to read about my visit to the exhibit, Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College, at the Birmingham Museum of Art.


Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Birmingham, Alabama ($12)

June 13, 2015

Official Website


My mom and I left the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and walked right across the street to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  Out in front, a statue of tall, slim Fred Shuttlesworth watches visitors as they pass.  As we approached the box office, we smiled and nodded at a proud, purple-shirted family reunion group, a relatively common sight in Alabama in the summer. More than one Southern Black museum staffer has mentioned that in the summer family reunion groups make up a substantial share of their business.

After paying the entrance fee and ascending the Institute staircase, we were ushered into the lobby rotunda, welcomed, and instructed on how to proceed through the museum.

We first watched a film that served as a preview for the museum’s numerous elaborate exhibits. The film offers an overview of Birmingham’s history starting in 1871 as the first industrial center of the South.  The film also shows early to mid-20th century Black life in Birmingham and the lead up to Birmingham residents’ involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

20150613_132602The film screening room opens into the “Barriers” gallery where visitors start their tour through Birmingham’s Civil Rights journey.  The first room includes a replica of a street car with descriptions of Birmingham’s bus segregation and a model soda fountain depicting statues of White youth enjoying themselves conspicuously as a young Black girl looks on from outside.

20150613_135143This exhibit includes rather extensive coverage of educational inequities during segregation.  It includes two model classrooms, one for White students, including all of the latest technology and texts and another for Black students, that is relatively bare with old furniture and no texts.  Another part of this exhibit depicts life in Birmingham’s Black Community including church, music, barbershops, and other businesses.  Near the end of this exhibit is a full Klan robe on display, where the city’s 1960s nickname, “Bombingham,” is posted to help visitors understand the context for the artifacts.

20150613_141327The next gallery, “The Movement” includes recognition of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks along with the oft ignored women who were arrested before Parks for refusing to give up their seats and who plaintiffs in the case: Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith. To honor the Freedom Riders, a very dramatic exhibit is on display, a replica of a wreckage of the Greyhound bus firebombed in Alabama.  WhaScreen shot 2015-07-12 at 6.37.37 PMt stood out most to me in this museum was of a personal nature, two photographs and descriptions of the Reverend James Lawson’s role in the Movement are included in this gallery.  I grew up hearing James Lawson’s sermons, and he officiated my wedding, so seeing him recognized always gratifies me.

The next gallery contains one of the artifacts that is clearly a source of pride for the museum, the door to the cell in which King wrote his famous 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in response to clergy members’ criticism of the movement. This gallery also includes projected video footage of nonviolent youth protesters being attacked with police dogs and water canons:

Of course, this exhibit includes recognition of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and honoring Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair followed by panels depicting images of Bloody Sunday and the eventual Selma to Montgomery march.

20150613_144526The last exhibit among the central Birmingham historical exhibits in this museum is a replica of the office of Birmingham’s first African-American mayor, Richard Arrington, who remained mayor from 1979-1999.  By this point in this ample, comprehensive museum, I was  exhausted and hungry, so unfortunately, I could not dedicate much attention to the museum’s extensive Civil Rights gallery where worldwide human rights struggles are compared with the Birmingham fight.  I hope to return someday soon to explore those last galleries on a full stomach and a good night’s sleep.

Take a virtual tour of the museum with Education and Exhibitions Director, Ahmad Ward.

Check back on Monday, July 20th to read about my visit to Kelly Ingram Park.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

Birmingham, Alabama

June 14, 2015

Official Website

When my mom and I arrived at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, our timing was perfect.  As we entered the church, the greeter told us that a video had just started recounting the church’s history and its involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.  We joined  about thirty other visitors in the sanctuary.  I learned from the film how tied the church had been to the Movement early on.  According to the church Visitors Guide, “Due to Sixteenth Street’s prominence in the black community, and its central location to downtown Birmingham, the church served as headquarters for the civil rights mass meetings and rallies in the early 1960s.”

20150613_123349Of course, the film went on to cover the events of September 15, 1963 when a bomb went off in the church, killing four teenage girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair.  Twenty other church members were injured, and the film goes on to cover the arrests and trials that went on between 1977 and 2002 of the three convicted bombers, Robert Chambliss, Frank Cherry, and Robert Blanton.

20150613_123142After the video, what stood out most about our visit was the talk by the knowledgeable church member and guide.  She showed us the stained glass window designed and created by a Welsh artist, John Petts, sympathetic to the tragedy suffered by the members of the church.  She told us how Angela Davis was neighbors with one of the slain girls, and her mother drove the girl’s mother over to the church after she got word that she should see about her daughter.  She also told the story of Addie Mae Collins’ sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, one of the unknown victims of the bombing. She survived but was severely injured in the blast, was hospitalized for months, and lost her right eye. She was teased by her peers for years because of her glass eye, and she continues to suffer emotionally as a result of her injuries.  Despite the emotional strain, according to the guide, Collins Rudolph has started speaking publicly about her ordeal and about how she has overcome the adversity she faced.  I was impressed by the guide’s knowledge of the church’s well-known and more obscure history.  She encouraged us to learn the names of the bombing victims just like we know the names of male martyrs of the Movement, like Medgar Evers and Emmett Till.

20150613_123950Finally, after the video and guide’s talk, the group went down the stairs to browse the church’s small Memorial Nook where photos and memorabilia from the bombing and its aftermath are on display.  As I bought a postcard in the gift shop and headed through the bustling fellowship hall toward the exit, I was reminded of something else the guide urged us to remember: the church is not simply a museum or memorial to the Civil Rights Movement; it is a living, breathing, active church whose members continue to serve its community and worship every Sunday.

Watch Lamar Washington, the church administrator, in the Memorial Nook describe the tragic day’s events and the artifacts:



Tubman Museum

Tubman Museum

Macon, Georgia ($10)

June 11, 2015

Official Website

Macon’s Tubman Museum’s new location had only been open a few weeks when we visited.  It was so new, in fact, that our car’s GPS system directed us first to the old location on Walnut.  After seeing that location, we were even more impressed with the block-long bright yellow building that greeted us in the new location on Cherry Street.

20150611_122255Visitors enter the new building onto a blue and yellow tiled floor beneath the rotunda.  It’s two stories with several classrooms around the first floor along with two small galleries and a unique exhibit of the history of Macon depicted on quilts, by textile artist, Wini McQueen in her comprehensive series commissioned by the museum, The History of the Dream, displayed on the walls beneath the rotunda.  Some of the quilts include text from the WPA’s slave narratives, photographs, and other documents.


In the ground floor galleries is a “Black Artists of Georgia” exhibit.  One painting that stood out to us was by artist, Kojo Griffin and depicts human bodies with animal heads possibly engaged in a domestic dispute.  His work is fun because it leaves so much to interpretation.

20150611_123609After fully exploring the ground floor of the museum, we opted to break for lunch, especially since the youngest member of our party, five-year-old, Kyler, had expressed a desire to eat.  One of the friendly employees gave us a map of downtown Macon and offered a few recommendations.  We ended up at Market City Cafe, where the really standout item was the delicious fried string beans.  The four adults devoured two full orders.  (Kyler wasn’t interested.)  The sweet tea wasn’t half bad, and nobody complained about the red velvet cake either.


The second floor of the museum included the Harriet Tubman gallery, full of diverse artwork depicting Tubman and artifacts from her life including photographs and letters.   The first piece we saw was Harriet by Elizabeth Catlett, whose art I’d seen at the MoAD exhibit in February.  I was looking for the Black Moses Barbie video to be shown somewhere, but alas, it was nowhere to be found.  There were the familiar photos of the icon and some lesser-known images.  One of Tubman near the end of her life, sitting in  a chair outside wearing white and wrapped in a white blanket stood out to me since it was the most recent.

Another section of this gallery featured what was called in the original location the “inventors gallery,” a number of samples of artifacts invented by African-Americans.  One that was new to me was the pencil sharpener, invented by John Lee Love and patented in 1897.  Then, a piece that was featured in the previous space is the huge mural intended to depict African-American history from ancient times to the present was painted by a Macon artist, Wilfred Stroud. It is dominated by portraits of African-American celebrities.


We culminated our visit with a stop in the museum store followed by a viewing of the short film, A Slave’s Story: Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom, based on a true story about William and Ellen Craft, a married couple who escaped slavery in Macon by disguising Ellen as a White man and her husband as his slave.   I’d heard of their story and was glad to see the film.  I am constantly struck by the number of captivating and dramatic stories that exist as part of the African-American story.

Check out a short clip of the film here:

Check back next Monday to read about our visit to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.


Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park

Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park

Allensworth, California ($8 parking)

May 16, 2015

Official Website

My friend Melody and I had plans to visit Allensworth for at least a year.  I had heard about the historic all-Black town throughout my childhood when my father volunteered for the state parks system; I remember him talking about this significant town for California African-American history, but I don’t remember ever visiting with my family.  Melody and I finally made it for the annual Old Time Jubilee in May.

The town of Allensworth was founded in 1908 by Colonel Allan Allensworth along with a few other African-American founders.  In 1906, after being sold down river as a child for learning to read, escaping slavery, joining the Union navy, working as a pastor in Nashville and Cincinnati, and working as a chaplain in the 24th infantry of the US Army, Colonel Allensworth retired and migrated, along with millions of other African Americans, to California in one more effort toward self actualization.


Allensworth believed that African-Americans were better off living independently in their own communities.  He waged a campaign and traveled around recruiting people to move to Allensworth appealing to their desire for a home where they could feel comfortable and thrive.  At that time the town was also along the Santa Fe railway system, with easy access to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Unfortunately, the town did not last. In 1914 the rail line moved. The area suffered a catastrophic drought. Colonel Allensworth died in an accident in 1914. And in 1915 the town lost its bid to build a Black Polytechnic institute (like Tuskegee Institute) because segregation in schools was illegal in California.  Thus, the population started its slow decline soon after those letdowns, and the Depression dealt the final blow to the Colonel’s vision.

20150516_134738We arrived for only about the last two hours of the Jubilee, so we missed most of the scheduled activities like the tug of war, the foxtrot lessons, and the cakewalk held in various locations around the park.  We went into the temporary Visitors Center first, signed in and noticed the map showing where previous visitors had come from. Next, we entered the schoolhouse, which, it turned out, was the second one built in the town and was initially led by William Payne.  In it were set up period desks, an old typewriter, and other furniture.  A docent in that building offered information about its history.

Next, we hit in the only food vendor line for fried fish, where we met Joseph and his daughter, Kia, volunteer docents for Allensworth events.  They answered some of our questions about the demise of the town, and I shared my Our Museums project with them.  We ate in the picnic area and listened to a few youth acts singing gospel music.Allensworth Pic with Nia and Joshua

20150516_154053We moved on to walk around the town visiting the buildings like the library; the Scott-Gross drug store, where we met Shirley Collins and Fannie Franklin making button spinner toys for kids; and the Singleton General Store where we saw the original ice box and bulk items display case.  We also passed a barber shop; the Smith house, which is rumored to be haunted; the hotel; a couple of other stores; a boarding house; a railroad car; and a bakery.20150516_150601

Then, we headed b20150516_160409ack to the area around the visitors center where most of the activities were being held, and we asked some more questions and were eventually directed to the standout encounter of the day.  We met Samuel Pierro, an artist who was born in Allensworth and comes back to sell his artwork at the events.  He shared with us his incredible family’s story and gave us great insight from an intimate point of view.  Apparently, his parents raised him and his fifteen brothers and sisters in Allensworth.  He attended the one-room schoolhouse for elementary and junior high school.  Then, his sister ended up the last principal of the school before it closed in 1972 when the Park Service took over the area.  Another of his sisters graduated from Harvard, and he told us with great pride that all sixteen of his parents’ children graduated from high school, and a number of them also graduated from college.  He shared a lot of fascinating family stories and rumors that I assured him I would not share on my blog.  You will have to go to Allensworth for the next event and meet him for yourself to hear his story about Ed Sullivan. He also shared the history of the campaign to getting Allensworth into the State Historic Park system. I was so glad we met Samuel.  Hearing about Allensworth’s more recent history from such an intimate perspective was a real treat!




Check back next Monday, June 29th,  to read about my visit to the Tubman Museum in Georgia.

The U.S. Constitution and the End of American Slavery

The U.S. Constitution and the End of American Slavery
Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California ($25)
April 9, 2015
anti slave almanacLike the Civil War Portraits exhibit at the Central Library, this exhibit is not a full museum and is not on the Wikipedia List that inspired this project; however, when I heard about the exhibit featuring original documents from the Civil War and the end of slavery, I knew my visit would be a great addition to Our Museums.The exhibit included a number of documents
demonstrating the difficulty of the task of abolishing slavery. There were original manumission papers; there was an 1843 Anti-Slavery Almanac, which featured images of the horrors of slavery to promote the cause of abolition.The exhibit included original letters written by presidents like Jefferson and Lincoln, one from Lincoln to Alexander Stevens, the future Vice President of the Confederacy, from 1860. In it Lincoln commits that his administration will not interfere with slavery in the south despite the fact that northerners thought it was “wrong and aught to be restricted.”Other documents showed how once the southern lawmakers were no longer participating in congressional business, the northern congressmen took advantage of the opportunity to free slaves in their own territories. Until the nation was willing to identify itself as a nation at war, the federal lawmakers had no sway over slavery in southern states because of the Constitution’s federal consensus because the slaves could only be freed as enemy slaves in a time of war. Thus, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was, according to the U.S. Constitution, an act of war.lincoln20150409_140250The exhibit included an 1807 book of Thomas Branagan’s illustrated poem, The Penitential Tyrant or Slave Trader Reformed, recounting his experiences as a slave trader and advocating for the abolition of slavery. Branagan had a conversion experience and wrote as many as twenty books advocating for abolition. He even wrote letters to Thomas Jefferson appealing to him to join him in his crusade to end slavery.There were letters recounting the experiences of former slaves serving in the Union army, including their disappointing experiences of discrimination and cruelty among their Union brethren. The exhibit even included manumission papers, documenting the release from bondage of slaves by their masters.The two items that stood out most for me were not actually part of this temporary exhibit. They are part of the Library’s permanent collection on display in Library’s Main Exhibition Hall, just across from the West Hall that housed The U.S. Constitution and the End of American Slavery exhibit. In that Hall on display is a copy of the 1964 book, The Gospel of Slavery: A Primer of Freedom, an illustrated book written in rhyme documenting the atrocities of slavery mimicking a children’s book, but clearly written for adults. The text that left the greatest impression on me was the 1863 pocketsize facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation. I thought of the African-Americans I’d read about who’d learned of their freedom through this tiny, concealable version of the Proclamation and the joy and excitement they must have experienced as they heard it read or read it's of abolishion
Check back next Monday, June 22nd,  to read about my visit to Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. 



African-American Military Portraits from the American Civil War

African-American Military Portraits from the American Civil War

Los Angeles Public Library, Central Library, Getty Gallery (Free)

March 20, 2015

Official Website

I had seen this exhibit in 2013 at its home in the California African-American Museum, but after visiting the Washington DC African-American Civil War Museum, I was happy to see it again with a new appreciation for the role of African-Americans in the War.Screen shot 2015-06-07 at 8.38.11 PM

This exhibit is special because it is so personal.  The DC museum tells the story of the politics behind the war and the Black participation in it.  It also tells the story of various celebrities like Robert Smalls, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Frederick Douglass’s sons who served in the war.  In this exhibit, however, the viewer sees the actual faces of the mostly nameless servicemen close up with the help of the most advanced technology of the time.  Some of the photos did include names and even notes about the temperaments of the men from the perspective of a White officer.5

The fantastical story of George St. Pierre Brooks stood out to me and was featured in the exhibit in its own display case. When Brooks first entered the War as a slave, he was forced to serve his master’s son-in-law who was fighting for the Confederate side.  Then, when his unit was seized, and he switched sides and fought for the Union for the last few months of the war. His story gets really interesting after his service in the Civil War. He went on to tour and perform in foot races with P.T. Barnum; then, he sang with the Fisk Jubilee Singers touring Europe, and singing for Queen Victoria, and the German Kaiser. Next, he served as a volunteer civilian cook during the Spanish American War; finally he settled in Winnipeg, Canada around 1900.  There, he volunteered again to serve but this time in World War I after falsifying his age to be forty. He served briefly in France as a cook in the Canadian Expeditionary Force until his seventy-plus years caught up with him and he was discharged for medical reasons back to Canada where he lived thirty more years until 1948.

3I was also surprised to learn through his exhibit that the US Navy was not segregated, and African-Americans had been serving in the Navy for decades before the Civil War.  This explains Frederick Douglass’s escape from slavery wearing a sailor suit, which was not an uncommon sight at the time.  The numbers of Black sailors increased substantially during the Civil War.  This exhibit does a great job bringing to life the nearly 200,000 African-American servicemen who made the Union victory possible.4

Check this site for other fascinating Civil War era photos of African-Americans from the Library of Congress.

Check back on Monday, June 14th to read about my visit to the Huntington Library’s exhibit, The US Constitution and the 6End of American Slavery.


Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park

Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park

Baltimore, Maryland ($5)

February 20, 2015

Official Website

This lovely museum is not on the Wikipedia list, but I was telling a colleague who lives in Baltimore about Our Museums, and he reminded me that Frederick Douglass spent much of his childhood in the Baltimore harbor and insisted that I visit the Maritime Park before I left the city.Douglass Sculpture Info

Approaching the museum, there is a lot to see including beautiful views of the harbor and informational signs, but on the winter day when I visited, nothing prepared me for the stunning six-foot bronze memorial bust of Frederick Douglass sitting in front of the building contrasting dramatically with the thin layer of snow on the ground.  In the photo I took that day, the statue looks as though one tear has just fallen from Douglass’s left eye.  So as I walked into the museum, I wondered what might be causing him to cry.  Perhaps he was anticipating the death of Freddie Gray?

Douglass Meyers 2The Maritime Park shares space with a few other businesses, and it is three levels with the cashier on the first floor. Douglass Meyers Sign 1Then, the second floor is the screening room for a 20-minute video, which provides extensive background information on the two men and the museum.  The second floor includes a few artifacts, panels and other displays.  On that floor I learned about the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, the first African-American owned and operated shipyard in the United States, founded in 1866.  Artifacts from the company are on display in the museum along with images of the founders, a group of fifteen middle class African Americans, with expertise in the maritime industry and/or with funds to invest.  At the height of its operations, the company employed hundreds of Black and White men and sustained several government contracts.

The displays on the third level of the museum detail the personal lives of the two men.  This exhibit includes a beautiful wooden replica of a ship skeleton on which artifacts, panels, and images are displayed.  Myers, who was new to me, was born free in 1835 and started working as a caulker in the maritime industry in Baltimore when he was sixteen.  After the Civil War, he worked to get Black maritime workers organized and started the Colored Caulkers Trade Union Society, which eventually led to the founding of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company.Douglass Meyers 5 Founders

After visiting the home where Douglass spent his last years in Anacostia, I was pleased to spend some time in the place where Douglass first gained some independence and eventually escaped slavery.  Douglass famously learned to read in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor from White boys in the area with whom he cleverly bartered food for lessons.  I learned at this museum about Douglass’s first wife who was free when they met in Baltimore.  She took the risk to help Douglass escape slavery and left the city around the same time he did and met him in New York where they were married. The museum includes an exhibit of a mannequin sitting in a train car seat wearing a sailor suit, just as Douglass did to facilitate his escape.  Baltimore is so proud of being the town from which Douglass escaped that locals will sometimes lead heritage trail walks in the area that promise to include some of Douglass’s childhood haunts along with various Underground Railroad stops.

Screen Shot 2015-05-31 at 7.08.12 PMThis museum was such a pleasant surprise, not on my itinerary but an important Our Museums destination revealing a gross oversight by Wikipedia contributors.  I am so thankful to my colleague for making the recommendation.

Check back on Monday, June 7th to read about my exploration of the African-American Military Portraits from the American Civil War exhibit at the Los Angeles Central Library.


Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture

Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture

Baltimore, Maryland ($8)

February 20, 2015

Official Website

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum is huge, beautiful, contemporary structure located in Baltimore’s tourist-filled Inner Harbor. In 1999, the Baltimore Sun published an article in which the National Great Blacks in Wax museum founders raised some concerns about a new African-American museum coming to Baltimore. When I learned about the two African-American museums in Baltimore, I, too, was puzzled and marveled that the city had funding to support two museums focused on telling the story of African-Americans in Baltimore and beyond.  Now that I’ve visited both venues, I see the stark contrast and the value of maintaining both spaces in a city with such a rich African-American legacy.RFL 2.20.2015 Barber Shop

Reginald F. Lewis, born and raised in Baltimore in the 1940s and 50s, was a successful attorney, entrepreneur, and philanthropist.  He died in 1993 at age fifty, and in 2002 The Reginald F. Lewis Foundation donated $5 million to the museum.

RFL 2.20.2015 FlagsThis museum houses a temporary exhibit on the second floor, and when I visited, the exhibit was For Whom it Stands an exhibit displaying a variety of depictions of the American flag from artists of color. This exhibit included the 7th Annual High School Juried Art Show for which Maryland high school students responded to this prompt: “The Flag and the American People: What Does it Mean to Me?”

The third level of the museum houses the permanent exhibitions in a network of interconnected corridors and rooms that my colleague described as “non-linear, like the Web”. RFL 2.20.2015 TobaccoThere is an exhibit honoring the role of the barbershop in the Black community.  There is a powerful small room shaped like a tree trunk in which visitors can and read the names of lynching victims projected on the wall and hear their names read.  There is an exhibit showing the role of slave labor in cultivating tobacco in the region.  There is a description of the ships built in Baltimore shipyards that were used to transport human cargo. There is an entire wing focused on African-Americans’ historic relationship with Baltimore’s maritime industry.  I was introduced to early feminist abolitionists like Francis Ellen Watkins Harper. I was especially interested to learn about Maryland’s divide over slavery with its northern half more inclined with the northern states and its southern half allied with the South.  By far, my favorite work on display was a highly contemporary, ironic, clever, and hilarious short 1:15 digital video by Pierre Bennu entitled “Black Moses Barbie.” Only the first in the series of three videos is on display in the museum.  Watch that first video here:


This list barely scratches the surface of what is to be found on the third level of this comprehensive, well-funded museum that honors local as well as national issues impacting African-Americans throughout U.S. history.RFL 2.20.2015 Water Fountains


Check back next Monday, June 1st, to read about my visit to the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, the last post in this Baltimore series.


National Great Blacks in Wax Museum (Part 2)

National Great Blacks in Wax Museum PART 2

Baltimore, Maryland ($14)

February 16, 2015

Official Website

Blacks in Wax 5After recovering from the slave ship we detoured off the main hallway into a set of three adjunct rooms, the first containing the Ancient Africa exhibit room, which houses figures of Akhenaten, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh considered by some as the founder of monotheism;Nefertiti, his wife; Imhotep; Chaka Zulu; Makeda; and others.  From that room, we went on to the “Entrepreneur Scene,” which prominently features the figures of the FUBU clothing company among other well-known African-American entrepreneurs.  Then, the last room in this section contains the “Walking in the Footsteps of our Ancestors” exhibit, which, incongruously, includes the Barack Obama Scene.

Returning to the main part of the building, we emerged into the Main Exhibit Hall #1, which continues the story of American Slavery with a figure of an escaped slave traveling the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman along with John Brown, Henry “Box” Brown, Nat Turner, and a host of others.  At the end of the Main Exhibit Hall #1 are the stairs down to the underground level and up to the second floor.  In the stairwell are signs indicating that the Lynching Exhibit is downstairs and that “Parental Discretion is Advised” for the exhibit.

We made our way downstairs, and at the bottom of the stairwell encountered the framed poster-size Lynching Victims Senate Apology Resolution.  Before this museum visit, I knew nothing of this 2005 resolution, and I was surprised to see that just ten years ago, the US Senate had finally apologized for its inaction as hundreds of African-Americans were brutally and publicly murdered.

Other items on view in the museum’s basement include a disturbing rendering of a desecrated body post-lynching in addition to replicas of “specimens” of various body parts that might have been found on display in a proud home of a participant of a lynching.  There are also photographs of actual lynchings, newspaper articles, photographs of protests against lynching, and a wall dedicated to Ida B. Wells who dedicated much of her career in journalism to exposing and denouncing lynching.

In a far corner of the basement, there is an exhibit absurdly dedicated to showing how today because of drugs and gangs, “we are lynching ourselves;” this exhibit is even mentioned in this 1999 Baltimore Sun article.  The costuming and images are somewhat outdated; I imagine that they were added during the crack cocaine epidemic of twenty to thirty years ago, and I am optimistic that with the planned expansion and renovation of the museum, this exhibit will be retired.

From the basement we traveled to the third floor of the museum where wax replicas of mostly local heroes like Henry Hall, a late Baltimore aquarist, and Ben Carson, the famous conservative Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon, along with some figures from South Africa’s fight against apartheid stand on display.

Blacks in Wax 7Back down on the main floor of the museum, the last section to see before you exit is Main Exhibit Hall #2. As you enter that section of the museum, Matthew Henson greets you in his usual hooded fur jacket in a snowy scene.Then there are renderings of Black artists and writers like James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes and athletes like Joe Louis, and the last figure you see as you prepare to cross the threshold back into the museum lobby is, of course, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

This unique museum includes wax replicas of so many historical and current figures that I did not capture here. It is definitely not like any other museum I have visited, and to get the full effect, you must visit it yourself.  The plans for an elaborate expansion are posted in the museum with an appeal for donations.  I am hopeful to return one day to the newly expanded and renovated space that would do justice to the over one hundred wax figures and scenes now on display in this one-of-a-kind museum.

Blacks in Wax 2

Check back next Monday, May 25 to read about the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

National Great Blacks in Wax Museum (Part 1)

National Great Blacks in Wax Museum PART 1

Baltimore, Maryland ($14)

February 16, 2015

Official Website

I never watcheBlacks in Wax 3d the HBO series, The Wire, but I am sure The Great Blacks in Wax Museum is located right in the middle of the set for that show.  The museum opened in the 1980s in a converted fire station, which has afforded it extensive square footage for exhibits.  We were greeted in the foyer of the museum by wax figures of Carter Woodson and W.E.B. Dubois along with one of an elephant with a boy on its back.  There is also a plaque that offers some historical context for the wax museum concept.  According to the plaque, ancient Egyptians were the first to use wax figures to honor great leaders.  It goes on to say, “The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is proud to carry on a tradition started by our Kemet ancestors over five-thousand years ago.”

Blacks in Wax 4After each visitor bought a ticket, the woman in the Plexiglas-enclosed ticket booth was sure to tell him or her to enter the first exhibit through the red, black, and green swinging doors to her right and start the self-guided tour with the slave ship.  We followed her instructions and entered the replica of a ship marked with two signs, “The Middle Passage” and “Enter Slave Ship Here.” Clearly the designer of the museum thought it important for visitors to start their visit with the Middle Passage exhibit, I assume to replicate the start of most African-Americans’ ancestors’ journeys to the United States.

The exhibit was a difficult one, with three-dimensional models of captured Africans and depictions of some of the worst treatment humans inflict on one another.  The most disturbing elements of this exhibit were the posted quotations from documented observations aboard actual slave ships.  I noticed some of quotations were the same we saw in the Alexandria Black History Museum.  This exhibit, however, is not in a well-lit, traditional exhibit hall with finished text on clean panels that can be read from a distance. Instead, visitors are thrust literally inside of the exhibit, face to face with three-dimensional figures mimicking the agony experienced by African prisoners who endured the middle passage.  The quotations and other descriptions are printed on worn sheets of paper tacked with thumbtacks to wooden panels inside the ship.  Then, as visitors exit the exhibit, they are invited to participate in its final, experiential component. A pitcher and a communion tray filled with tiny communion cups of water from the Atlantic Ocean are available, and visitors are invited to pour a libation in honor of those lost during the Middle Passage and in recognition of what they all endured.

As I poured my symbolic cup and tried to envision my own ancestors who underwent the Middle Passage, I felt a profound responsibility to create a legacy in their honor.  I realized that one of the essential benefits I get from studying African-American history and from creating and sharing Our Museums is an opportunity to honor my own literal ancestors along with my figurative ancestors, the members of their extended communities and networks who shared their experiences.  Although I fear that I will never be fully satisfied with my capacity to honor those men and women, I offer this project as one attempt in my ongoing pursuit of recognition for those who bore so much and without whom I would not exist.
Check back next Monday, May 18th to read part 2 of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum of Baltimore, Maryland.

Mary McLeod Bethune National Historic Site

Mary McLeod Bethune National Historic Site

Washington, District of Columbia (Free)

February 15, 2015

Official Website

This was my second visit to the National Park Service’s Mary McLeod Bethune Historic Site, former headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and residence of Bethune.  We’d visited back in 2010, but after touring Bethune’s home in Daytona Beach and as a contribution to this project, I was eager to return.

The site is a Brownstone in Logan Circle, a neighborhood where many members of DC’s African-American elite had made their homes.  In fact, Carter G. Woodson’s home was nearby, and our ranger tour guide, Rosemary, was apologetic that Woodson’s home was being restored by the Park Service but will not open until 2016.  The Mary McLeod Bethune Site was temporarily housing some artifacts from Woodson’s home.Bethune site 2

We entered the parlor of the home, and Rosemary pointed out the original chairs and chandelier, along with the piano, and some photographs on the walls.  The chandelier is allegedly a hand-me-down from the Truman Whitehouse.  When Bethune heard President Harry Truman was in the process of remodeling, she asked him for it.  While the piano is not the original, it sits in the spot of the original piano, and it is decorated with flags from around the world just as the piano was in Bethune’s time.  Rosemary told us how the NCNW considered itself an international organization, and one photograph on display shows the NCNW leaders at their conference table with a delegation of Japanese women.  On display are also photographs of subsequent NCNW presidents, Dorothy Ferebee, Vivian Carter Mason, and Dorothy Height.

On the second floor of the home is Bethune’s bedroom.  Bethune site 4 bedroomThere, Rosemary explained that the home had three bedrooms on the third floor that had been available to traveling African-American women who needed accommodations since accommodations were not readily available to African-American travelers during Bethune’s time.  Hanging in Bethune’s room are photographs from her early life including a portrait of her parents, a photograph of Booker T. Washington, a photograph of the Negro School for Girls in its early days, and a photograph of young Bethune.

Bethune site 3 OfficeBethune’s office next door still contains the original office furniture, and on display are photos from Bethune’s political life, like one of her in a large group with President Franklin Roosevelt. Rosemary also took us into the conferenceroom that still houses the original wooden conference table and chairs.  In that room was also an exhibit, “Bethune Goes to Hollywood,” highlighting Bethune’s relationship with entertainers like Marian Anderson and Hattie McDaniel.

One thing that stood out about this tour was how Rosemary emphasized, just as we’d heard in Bethune’s Daytona Beach home, Bethune’s gift for fundraising.  She was not afraid to make powerful requests of people with the resources she needed.  In this case, Bethune raised funds for the NCNW and other organizations. She knew how to make giving beneficial for others, and she used those gifts to improve the lives of African-Americans and women around the country.  Even the purchase of this home for the NCNW was partly made possible by a $10,000 donation by Marshall Field, heir and namesake of 19th century department store mogul.

As a last stop on our tour, we sat in the visitors’ center and listened to a 1955 audio recording of the last speech Bethune gave at the Twentieth Anniversary Brotherhood Luncheon where she was being honored, the audio footage of which was only recently discovered.  In that speech she foreshadows her death, only two months later, and addresses women around the world asking them to “take the torch that was placed in our hands possibly twenty years ago, and carry that torch higher and higher and higher, until the spirit of brotherhood shall have enveloped the world, and mankind everywhere will understand the change of heart and mind.” She goes on to advocate for peace and fellowship and love.

Bethune’s legacy lives on as the NCNW continues its work on improving the lives of women of color on issues including healthcare and education. I have no doubt that Bethune would be proud, and on my next visit to DC, I hope to continue my exploration of Bethune and her legacy by paying a visit to the current headquarters of the only African American organization to have occupied prime real estate on Pennsylvania Avenue for nearly twenty years.

Check back next Monday, May 11 to read my first of two posts about the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum of Baltimore, Maryland.


Paul R. Jones Collection of African-American Art, Mechanical Hall Gallery, University of Delaware

Paul R. Jones Collection of African-American Art, Mechanical Hall Gallery, University of Delaware

Newark, Delaware (Free)

February 14, 2015

Official Website

University of Delaware (1)After driving out of the snow falling in Philadelphia, we made our way to the college town of Newark, Delaware.  We found the Mechanical Hall Gallery on the University of Delaware campus, which houses the Paul R. Jones Collection of African-American art.  The exhibit on display for our visit was Forget Me Not: Photography Between Poetry and Politics. On display in this contemporary, minimalist gallery were black and white photographs taken by African-American photographers mostly from the 20th century.  

The gallery is divided into three rooms, and the first room housed mostly photos of African-Americans depicted going about their daily lives in rural settings. My favorite photograph from the exhibit was in this room, titled “The Boss,” taken by Prentice Polk in 1932 as part of his Alabama portrait series titled “Old Characters,” with which he wanted to capture images of formerly enslaved people.  The subject worked at the Tuskegee Institute Market, and according to the description charged Polk $1 to take her photograph.  She stands in a dominant, powerful pose.

University of Delaware 2The second room housed photographs from more urban settings depicting lives of more privileged early 20th Century African-Americans.  We even saw a photograph, also from 1932, of a man sitting in and a woman standing on the sidewalk next to an automobile both decked out in beautiful fur coats.  The title of the piece is “Couple in Raccoon Coats,” and Harlem brownstones are visible in the background.  This room included an entire wall of early twentieth century, posed, in-studio photographs of men, women, and children in their Sunday best.University of Delaware

The third room included more recent works, including this photograph of the cast of the 1984 production of the play, A Soldier’s Home, which included none other than Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington.



a soldiers play

Photo taken from

Check back next Monday, May 4th, for the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site.

Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Museum

Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Museum

Philadelphia, PA (Free)

February 14, 2015

Official Website

Mother Bethel AME Church is not on the Wikipedia List, but when two unconnected, well respected friends heard I was going to Philadelphia, they both recommended that I add it to my itinerary. Mother Bethel is special because it was the very first AME church. The church was started by Richard Allen in 1787 after he experienced discrimination while working with White members of the Methodist clergy.

Mother Bethel 3We rang the doorbell at Mother Bethel at 2:30 on this Saturday afternoon, only 30 minutes before the museum was scheduled to close. The ladies who let us, however, in were warm and enthusiastic. Dolores, a longtime member of Mother Bethel, was our tour guide.

She first took us into the sanctuaryMother Bethel 1 and explained that the current building is the fourth building on the site, which is the longest ongoing African-American-owned plot of land in the history of the country.This current building was built in 1889 and was preceded by three buildings, which were damaged or the membership outgrew. While the first was a blacksmiths’ shop that Allen had towed to the site in 1794 when the church was founded, this last building is a beautiful brick structure with three sets of exquisite stained-glass windows, beautiful wooden pews and a balcony.

The museum is in the basement of the church, and on the stairwell leading to the Mother Bethel Brightenedmuseum is a stained glass window honoring Allen. A mural chronicling the history of the church stands in the entryway to the museum. Then, inside, Dolores showed us paintings, photographs, and other artistic renderings of church leaders and artifacts from Allen’s life and the early days of the church along with the tomb of Richard and Sarah Allen. There, we discovered we were visiting on Richard Allen’s 255th birthday!

Allen’s is an incredible story that starts with him being born into slavery. He converts to Methodism at 17 years old, and then, once his master also converts to Methodism, Allen is freed. As a result, he is a devout Methodist, and he goes on to preach to large African-American congregations, but leaders in the Methodist church do not give him ideal times to preach, and he certainly does not have his own space. When he and his friend and colleague, Absolom Jones, are disrespected while praying in the Methodist church, they walk out, and Allen never returns. By 1816, he will have founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Below is a video about Allen’s life.

Because the museum was scheduled to close at 3:00, and snow had started to fall, we rushed through the last of the exhibits. We then bade Dolores goodbye and promised to schedule our next visit to Philadelphia on a Sunday so we could hear her sing in the church choir.

Check back next Monday, April 27, for the University of Delaware’s Paul R. Jones Collection of African American Art.

The African American Museum in Philadelphia

The African American Museum in Philadelphia

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ($14)

February 14, 2015

Official Website

The permanent exhibit, “Audacious Freedom,” which starts on the first floor of the African-American Museum in Philadelphia, focuses, similarly to the museum in Alexandria, on local African-American history and contributions to American history in the first century, 1776-1876.  In the Timeline Gallery, a narrator explains Philadelphia’s African-American community’s political, religious, educational, social, and other developments while spotlights are shined on relevant images inside of an enormous  3-dimensional collage of images of historical figures like FrederickDouglass, Harriet Tubman, Henry “Box” Brown, and others; newspaper clippings; drawings; signs; buildings; and other relevant images across the entire back wall of the room.

Another major element of this exhibit is on the second floor of the museum in the Conversations gallery.Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 9.12.14 PM  In this gallery are nine human-sized screens positioned inside of window or door frames on which museum visitors see actors playing the important historical figures described in the earlier part of the exhibit like Octavius Catto and Richard Allen telling their own stories. Visitors can press buttons to get certain questions answered by these figures. These displays are certainly like nothing I had ever seen.  I can imagine that child visitors are tickled seeing the actors in costume and in character addressing them directly.

The third floor of the museum houses the temporary exhibit, which, for my visit, was “As We See It: Selected Works from the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art.” This exhibit had a heavy emphasis on children and was geared toward offering them opportunities to think about, interact with, and create art.  There were numerous sketchpads and building toys scattered around.  There was even a mirror with a chair in front of it designed to entice visitors to draw their portraits. An available kid-friendly art appreciation handout was titled, “Looking at Art: A Guide to Help You ‘See.’” I felt so knowledgeable when I saw a work by Elizabeth Catlett, whom you surely remember from my previous post, in this exhibit.  What stood out most to me, though, was a discussion I heard between a tour guide and a group of children approximately seven to ten years old.

Philly 3The guide walked with the children to see to Camille Billops’s etching, I’m Black. I’m Black. I’m Dangerously Black. She asked the children questions about the image.  One girl said the picture was not pretty because it has no colors, and the group discussed whether a work of art’s beauty is dependent on the number of colors it includes.  Then, the guide read the children the title, I’m Black. I’m Black. I’m Dangerously Black, and asked for their thoughts.  The tour guide generously honored every contribution.  One clever child suggested that the subject of the picture had neglected to apply adequate sunscreen. Finally, just as the guide was preparing to lead them to the next piece, one of the smallest boys asked enthusiastically, “Do you know what’s amazing about this picture?”  The guide, of course, took this bait and asked, “What?”  He responded, “There are so many things hiding.”  Of course that insight earned him some well-deserved praise.  I was struck that art gives children a unique opportunity to imagine and explore.  This museum and all of its exhibits and galleries offer wonderful opportunities for children to do just that.

Check out this video for more about the museum and Philadelphia’s Black history:


Check back next Monday, April 20, for a look at Mother Bethel AME Church.

Museum of the African Diaspora

Museum of the African Diaspora

San Francisco, California ($10)

February 1, 2015

Official Website

On the first day of Black History Month 2015 I found myself back in the bay area visiting my sister, and again she generously agreed to join me at another museum on the list.  We had visited MoAD in 2013 and saw a wonderful Gordon Parks exhibit, and I was eager to return officially for the Our Museums project.MoAD 1

For this visit, Trina de Chalus, MoAD’s Director of Retail and Visitor Experience and Lovisa Brown, Director of Education, welcomed us to the newly renovated contemporary, urban, tri-level, museum.  I introduced myself as we checked in and paid the entrance fee and described this project.  I explained that I was visiting African-American themed museums, and I was immediately corrected that MoAD “does not consider itself an African American Museum,” which is understandable considering the word “Diaspora” in the name. The museum’s mission states, after all, “The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) showcases the history, art, and cultural richness that resulted from the migration of Africans throughout the world.”  I could see why the museum’s educator would want visitors to understand the intent of the museum’s exhibits to span beyond the U.S. borders.

Despite the museum’s diasporic emphasis, the two primary exhibitions at the museum for our visit featured the work of African-American women artists, Lava Thomas and Elizabeth Catlett.

My sister and I started in the Thomas exhibit, Beyond, and found ourselves face to face with human-body-themed works including drawings and photographs of hair and teeth along with vaguely organ-shaped sculptures. I was pleased to be newly exposed to such a creative contemporary Black artist.  Her realistic drawing of a severed dreadlock ponytail, part of her Lavaville series, stood out most to me, with its impressive depiction of every hair.

We moved on to The Art of Elizabeth Catlett, and, to our delight, the exhibit included works by Catlett’s second husband, Francisco Mora, and her protégé, Samella Lewis. Catlett’s story interested us, especially her political activism and her self imposed exile to Mexico.  Many of Catlett’s subjects are women, including in her most famous work, Sharecropper (1970).  We discussed the process for producing one of her preferred media, the linocut.  Sharecropper, along with several of the pieces in the exhibit are works of linocut.  Watch this video to see the process for yourself:

Catlett was also a sculptor.  Check out this video to hear Elizabeth Catlett talk about the Beauty of the Black Woman and to see a few more of her pieces:


We spent a little time at the end of our visit in the museum’s lobby where iPads are set up for visitors to explore online exhibits.  I spent the most time exploring an online exhibit on food of the African diaspora.  The exhibits include videos and audio files.  I watched a video on the use of beans across the diaspora and learned about foods brought from West Africa to the Americas and how their use has evolved over the centuries.

My experience in this museum was dramatically different from my experiences in the African-American history-themed museums I had visited just prior to this one. While the other museums offer regional history lessons in permanent, text-heavy exhibits, MoAD is designed to continuously welcome new, diverse traveling exhibits and display art and cultural artifacts from across the diaspora in a sparse, contemporary setting.  I love to see a contemporary museum featuring Black artists and exhibits from around the world, but I did miss learning about the history and legacy of San Francisco’s African-American community.  I guess there’s always room for one more museum.

Check back next Monday, April 13, for a look at  African-American Museum in Philadelphia.



Alexandria Black History Museum

Alexandria Black History Museum

Alexandria, Virginia (Recommended fee $2.00)

January 2, 2015

Official Website

When we visited the Black history museum in Alexandria, Virginia, I immediately saw how the small but extensive panel exhibit in this museum perhaps best captures my vision years ago of a network of “American slavery museums” across the nation following the example of the worldwide phenomenon that is the Holocaust Museum.


The guide proudly introduces the permanent exhibit, “Securing the Blessings of Liberty,” saying that it follows the history of the African American population in Alexandria starting in Africa until about 1820. This is unique because African-American history museum exhibits typically emphasize the most well-documented 20th century history of Americans descended from enslaved Africans rather than these earlier times.

The first set of panels captures the sub-Saharan African civilizations and includes artifacts from sub-Saharan African cultures that dominated the slave trade. What stood out most to me was learning about Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish missionary, who was an advocate for indigenous peoples in the America and thus, although he eventually opposed all slavery, is credited with recommending Africans to replace the poorly-suited indigenous American population enslaved in the 16th century Caribbean. Watch this video to learn more about de Las Casas’s role in the history of the Americas:

The panels go on to describe the middle passage including heart-wrenching details using quotations from Oloudah Equiano and Europeans who participated in or witnessed the Slave Trade. The panels then go on with details specific to slaves and free Blacks in the Alexandria area. The exhibit features Benjamin Banneker and his important role in American history along with other free Americans of African decent in Alexandria. The writer even brilliantly points out that any buildings with historical significance for White Alexandrians surely also housed or were frequented by early Black Alexandrians, and are thus significant to Alexandria’s African-American history as well.


In addition to the panels of text, the exhibit uses quotations from a variety of sources as well as images including photos of buildings, artifacts from archeological digs, and life-size wax figures to make real this portion of American and Alexandrian history.

The temporary exhibit in the museum showcases the recently-opened Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial and explains the history of the cemetery. We were so intrigued, we delayed our already late lunch to visit the somber and beautiful site where hundreds of self-emancipated former slaves and Civil War veterans are buried.

Watch this video to learn more about the cemetery.

 Check back next Monday, April 6, for a look at San Fransisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora.

African American Civil War Museum

African-American Civil War Museum

Washington, District of Columbia (Free)

December 31, 2014

Official Web Site

I saw the African-American Civil War Memorial when I visited DC in 2010, and little did I know that about a year after my last visit, an entire museum opened to educate the public on the role of African-Americans in the Civil War.  Despite the fact that the exhibit, much to my husband’s chagrin, is mostly devoid of technological enhancements, we learned so much about slavery and about the civil war.

20141231_141233This exhibit recounts details about the history of the slave experience in the U.S. including slaves’ experiences in the Civil War. What stood out most to me about the exhibit is what I learned about President Lincoln’s reason for writing the Emancipation Proclamation.  He did not go into the war intending to free the slaves.  It was only after the union army took many hits from the confederate side that Lincoln chose this lifeline.  Emancipating the slaves was, in fact, an almost last resort effort to win the War. After some strategic planning to prevent the public from realizing he needed former slaves to enlist and fight for the Union, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.  As a result, thousands of African-Americans sought refuge in Union encampments where they were first held as “contraband” and were eventually allowed to enlist.  By the end of the war, approximately 200,000 African-Americans had fought and contributed to the Union’s victory. The irony is that despite what we are taught, Lincoln’s desire to emancipate the slaves did not cause the war; instead, his desire to win the war caused Lincoln to free the slaves. And it worked.  On the front of the museum’s brochure is this 1865 quotation from President Lincoln: “Without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the south could not have been won.”

The exhibit’s extensive panels highlight the strategic value of having African-American soldiers, who were more familiar with the southern culture and terrain, fighting for the union and includes the dramatic story of Robert Smalls’ daring delivery of a confederate warship into the hands of the Union navy.  The exhibit also captures the roles of Black women in the war including celebrities like Harriet Tubman and Harriet Jacobs and other prominent figures like Frederick Douglass whose two sons enlisted.  20141231_141201

I have shared some of these insights with a my intelligent, educated friends since my visit, and none of them knew the role emancipating the slaves played in the Union’s winning of the Civil War.  It seems like a simple enough fact from U.S. history, and it’s difficult to imagine that the widespread ignorance is coincidental.  This example offers one more reminder that we must be vigilant about using reliable sources to educate ourselves and our communities.  Visit this museum, and then share with your friends this critical and not-typically- taught explanation for why the Union army actually won the Civil War.

Check back next Monday, March 30, for a look at The Alexandria Black History Museum.

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Washington District of Colombia (Free)

December 30, 2014

Official Website

20141230_154333Who knew that nineteenth century African-American icon Frederick Douglass spend the last seventeen years of his life in Washington DC?  His house is now owned by the National Park Service and open to the public. Park rangers lead tours of the twenty-one room mansion where many of Douglass’s belongings including artwork, furniture, books, clothing, and even a set of dumbbells are still housed and preserved thanks to the advocacy of Douglass’s second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, to maintain the site as a historical monument after his death. Douglass even had a “growlery,” Fredrick Douglass Man Cavea small outdoor structure which our tour guide referred to as “the first man cave,” where Douglass spent time engaging in one of his favorite and most renowned pastimes: reading. Our guide recited to us a number of anecdotes about Douglass’s later life, traveling around the world and playing with his grandchildren at home.

In addition to the house, the site includes a visitors’ center with a small theater where we watched a short 1980’s film chronicling Douglass’s life.  A wall in the Center is adorned with a timeline of Douglass’s life that includes some artifacts like a cane that was given to Douglass by President Lincoln and Douglass’s death mask.  Another wall is covered with quotations from Douglass’s many writings and speeches. On our way out, we encountered another park ranger, friendlier than the one who’d given us the tour, and my husband quizzed him on Douglass’s financial circumstances.  We learned that Douglass had invested $10,000 into and had been president of the Freedman’s Bank just before it closed in 1874.20141230_154704

We left truly awed by this man, born a slave but amassing enough wealth and influence to go on speaking tours, write bestselling books, purchase a mansion, invest in a bank, and travel the world.

Check back next Monday, March 23, for a look at The African American Civil War Museum.

The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum

Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum

Washington DC (Free)

December 30, 2014

Official Website

Although this Smithsonian museum is listed in my Wikipedia “List of Museums Focused on African-Americans,” and it is located in an African-American community, called by a friend the “worst” part of DC, the featured exhibit when we visited was not about African-American culture or history.  The exhibit, Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence, instead showcased the beautiful beadwork of a small group of South African women living on a compound owned by a White woman advocate who lobbied the museum’s director, Camille Giraud Akeju, to exhibit the women’s work.  20141230_133937While all of the works are gorgeous, the most stunning piece was, by far, the multi-paneled African Crucifixion.  This work was initially commissioned for a church, and like much of the women’s art, includes elements honoring their colleagues, family members, and friends lost to AIDS.  One of the women who worked on the piece actually died of AIDS soon after it was completed.  The exhibit also included a documentary film featuring the artists and their benefactor describing their processes and their experiences that had brought them to Ubuhle.

The museum contains three exhibition spaces, and we saw in the second space the exhibit, Home Sewn: Quilts from the Lower Mississippi Valley.  This exhibition included a video showing women sewing together and talking about the value of quilt-making in their lives.  What stood out most about this video was its depiction of African-American quilters in Mississippi along with White quilters quilting together.  The women reported that this act of quilting together offered some healing power in response to those old, familiar southern tensions between the groups.  Of course, the walls of this small room are adorned with quilts from the Valley.

The last exhibit tucked in the back of this museum is Separate and Unequaled: Black Baseball in the District of Columbia.  It is comprised mostly of photos of DC’s African-American baseball teams over the years and their owners and coaches and other supporters.  It is the one exhibit listed without an ending date.  Thus, it is a perfect exhibit to expose a DC baseball fan to some little-known, local baseball history.

Watch this video for more about the Ubuhule women’s artwork:


Check back next Monday, March 16, for a look at the Frederick Douglass Historic Site.

African-American Museum and Library at Oakland

African-American Museum and Library at Oakland

Oakland, CA (Free)

August 2, 2014

Official Website

Last summer I spent some time with my sister who lives in the bay area, so I convinced her to join me on my excursion to the African-American Museum and Library at Oakland.  oakland museumWhen we arrived at the museum around 3:30 in the afternoon and signed in, we were clearly the only visitors to the museum that Saturday, which saddened me.  There was a competing event a few blocks away, the Oakland Art and Soul Festival, which drew thousands to the neighborhood but, unfortunately, none to the museum.  Even my sister and I were tempted by the music and throngs of people flocking to the festival, but we stayed on track and went to the museum.

The museum and library’s historic building was built in 1902 as one of Oakland’s first libraries.   It has since remained part of Oakland’s public library system. In 1989 the building was badly damaged in an earthquake but was eventually restored and reopened in its current form in 2002. Inside the building the reference library is on the first floor and the exhibits are on the second floor at the top of a beautiful staircase.  Around the perimeter of the main museum room is a permanent exhibit chronicling the history of the African American community in the bay area.  That exhibit includes panels and photographs along with video interviews of a diverse array of current Oakland residents.  The most striking element of this exhibit are the enormous beautiful photo prints of early 20th century images of African Americans in Oakland on white fabric hanging from the ceiling.

The temporary exhibit on display when we visited was “The Mood, The Music, The Passion in Art” featuring brightly colored, jazz themed paintings from the artist, Charles Blackwell. oakland inside photOnce we finished perusing Blackwell’s paintings and learning about Oakland’s Black history, we returned to the first floor where we scanned the library shelves. My sister, herself an artist, discovered some Black art books, and we spent the last of the library’s open minutes exploring the history of African-American art. We were ultimately notified on the library’s loudspeaker that the library was closing.  We were the only patrons in the building, so the librarian called us out, expressing his hope that “the two ladies” enjoyed their visit.


Check back next Monday, March 9, for a look at The Anacostia Community Museum in Washington DC.

Wells’ Built Museum of African-American History and Culture

Wells’ Built Museum of African-American History and Culture

Orlando, FL ($5.00)

February 28, 2014

Official Website

I had called ahead to this museum as well and was assured by Charlene that she would be on site on the date of our arrival to show us around.  However, when we left the Mary S. Harrell Black Heritage Museum 55 miles away with only forty minutes until the Wells’ Built’s 5:00 closing time, I was concerned we wouldn’t make it.  I called and reached Charlene again to tell her we were on our way in hopes they would stay open for us.  She was gracious and again assured me they wouldn’t close before we arrivedP1030465.

Once we finally got there, we discovered that the entrance fee of five dollars was only accepted in cash, and we had just enough cash for one ticket.  My husband offered to find an ATM in the area, but the museum’s treasurer, James DeShay, generously let us off the hook, and we agreed to mail in our money later.  Once that was settled, Charlene sat us down in front of a promotional video explaining the history of this museum and its site.

It turns out that Dr. William Wells was an African-American physician and entrepreneur serving Orlando’s Black community in the 1920s.  thomas fortuneWhen he opened a dance hall where African-American musicians came from around the country to perform, he realized he would need to provide those entertainers with accommodations too since in the Jim Crow South, hotels owned by Whites would not take Black boarders.  Thus, in 1929, he opened the Wells’ Built Hotel.  Dr. Wells’ hotel is even listed in 1949 edition of the infamous Negro Motorist Green Book.  The museum displays at least one registry featuring signatures of famous African-American performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Ray Charles, who all stayed at the Wells’ Built Hotel.  Other items on display in the one=room museum space include works of African art, photographs of local African-American heroes, and prints of works of African-American art.



As much as we enjoyed the museum, the best part of our exploration of Orlando’s African-American community was yet to come.  When we finished perusing the exhibits, we chatted with James and discovered that he is an artist in his own right.  He is a published poet and spoken word artist who works at the museum and coaches kids’ football.  When we learned that he is also an Orlando native, we asked him for a soul food dinner recommendation in the neighborhood.  Without hesitation, he directed us to Nikki’s Place, just a few blocks away.

When we arrived at Nikki’s Place, our young hostess and waitress greeted and seated us. Nicci's Place We soon saw why James did not hesitate.  The food was incredible, and we even got to meet the cook and owner, Nikki!  We topped off our soul food dinner with the best bread pudding either of us had ever tasted.  Nikki’s legendary bread pudding continues to come up in conversations nearly a year later, and we often contemplate flying back to Orlando just to get another taste.







For more about the Wells’ Built, check out this video:

Check back next Monday, March 2, for a look at the African-American Museum and Library at Oakland.

Mary S. Harrell Black Heritage Museum and Heritage House

Mary S. Harrell Black Heritage Museum and Heritage House (formerly St. Rita’s Black History Museum)

New Smyrna Beach, FL (Free)

February 28, 2014

Official Website

MuseumOur second Florida destination was a small green and white church building in the tiny town of New Smyrna Beach, about fifteen miles from Daytona Beach. I had called ahead and played phone tag with Jimmy Harrell, the executive Director of the museum and widower of Mary Harrell, to ensure that the museum would be open when we arrived.Mr.Harrell was not there on this day; instead, we were greeted enthusiastically by Angie, who is on the museum’s board, and Sherrie, both retired ladies who live in the area.
First, we browsed the small one-room building, formerly one of the first Catholic Churches in the area open to African-Americans. It is now filled with an assortment of artifacts from pieces of African art to replicas of African-American inventions, to local items from African-American schools and the local railroad, which was critical to the early African-American community.
Once we’d perused the artifacts inside of the museum, we told Sherrie and Angie about this project. They immediately recommended several other nearby museums that are missing from the Wikipedia list. They also gave us a copy of the Florida Black Heritage Trail magazine; we didn’t have the heart to tell them that we were heading home the following day. Heritage houseBefore we left the museum, they insisted that we tour the Heritage House across the street, a model of a 1920s shotgun house which had been typically inhabited by African-Americans in the community. A variety of relics are on display in theHeritage House including a full kitchen with an old-fashioned icebox, jars of preserved fruits, pots and pans; the bedroom of the Heritage House even has set up an antique typewriter.P1030458
We were so grateful for their help and expertise, but we had to hurriedly bid Sherrie and Angie goodbye hoping to make the fifty-five mile trek to our final Florida museum destination back in Orlando.P1030456

Check back Monday, February 23rd for the first blog post in the Florida series.

Mary McLeod Bethune Home

Mary McLeod Bethune Home

Daytona Beach FL (Free)

February 28, 2014

Official Website

The first trip I scheduled after I resolved to pursue this project was to Orlando, Florida for a professional conference. I checked the Wikipedia list and saw one museum listed in Orlando and several others in neighboring Florida towns. I mapped out the Florida locations to determine which I could visit during my trip, and I settled on three starting with the Mary McLeod Bethune Home in Daytona Beach.

The beautiful home is located on the campus of Bethune-Cookman University, a Historically Black University, which Ms. Bethune founded in 1904 initially as The Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. She lived in the house on campus until her death in 1955.

Dawn Gross, the assistant to the curator, greeted us when we entered the house; her passion for Bethune was immediately apparent as she gleefully shared stories with us about Bethune’s fundraising for the college, her leadership tactics, her political influence, and where she traveled. We followed Dawn from room to room examining Bethune’s belongings, which have been maintained and remain in the house including furniture, dishes, books, photos of her many famous friends and acquaintances, and certificates of achievement hanging on the walls.


Dawn offered a detailed history of the university in the context of Bethune’s life and accomplishments as and educator and activist. Dawn even shared information about Bethune’s personal life. Mary McLeod and Mr. Bethune’s marriage did not last long; they separated after nine years. Being married to such a powerful woman must have been challenging for him. What stood out most to me were the stories she shared about Bethune’s strategies for maintaining adequate funding for the school. Because she was very politically engaged, working under four US presidents, she had unprecedented access to wealthy potential donors across racial lines. She fearlessly requested donations from those people in order to keep the college afloat. Even the house we toured had been purchased for Bethune by Thomas H. White, of White Sewing Machine Company and James N. Gamble, of the Proctor & Gamble soap company. Her ability to persuade wealthy and powerful people to support her cause generated the results Bethune needed to fulfill her commitment to education in the African-American community. Click here to read more about Bethune’s fundraising strategies.

Unfortunately, we did not get to see much of the university campus because we had two more destinations that day, but I was inspired by Bethune’s commitment to providing education to the members of her African-American community. That commitment continues to pay off.

Check back Monday, February 16th for the first blog post in the Florida series.

Our Museums Debut

I have been interested in African-American history since before I had interests. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom taking me to the library in February to study important figures in Black history. I specifically remember encountering Harriet Tubman’s heroism, reading Langston Hughes poems aloud, and learning about Benjamin Banneker’s math and science expertise.

As I matured, the interest my mom had cultivated blossomed. With an English minor in my undergraduate education, I loved African-American literature. I was fascinated by slave narratives and by Toni Morrison’s novels, which capture that history through her lyrical, non-linear narrative style, and when I studied abroad in Barbados, I devoured two semesters’ worth of West Indian literature classes and read Ellison’s Invisible Man for the first time. That love grew in my post-graduate work in English where I did an independent study on Pan-African women’s literature. I continue to love African-American literature, but I read more non-fiction now. I tout works like Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to anyone who will listen. I also never miss a documentary on the subject like PBS’s 2005 Slavery and the Making of America, Sam Pollard’s 2012 Slavery by Another Name, and Henry Louis Gates’s 2013 The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.

The more I learned, though, the more frustrated I became. I had to fight back tears during a visit to LA’s Museum of Tolerance in 2009 because I realized that the Jewish community worldwide had done such an amazing job of documenting the atrocities of the Holocaust, but I was frustrated by what I saw as the Black community’s inaction in using museums to document and share the nearly 250 years of atrocities committed in America’s “peculiar institution.” I visited a Holocaust museum in Israel, and I have visited and heard about others across the world.Shackles So I wondered, “Where are our Slavery museums?”

That question lingered in the back of my mind for years, and when I visited The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2011, that question came flooding back. I was overjoyed to see that one museum existed that was dedicated to documenting the atrocities and the victories of the African-American experience. Were there others?

Then, near the end of 2013, a Wikipedia list put me in action. I don’t remember what I was looking for when I happened upon the List of Museums focused on African-Americans, but when I found it, I got an idea: Why not visit every museum on the list? I didn’t know how long it would take, but perhaps by the end of my excursions, I would be comforted by the information that is available to the public through museums on the American institution of slavery and African-American history or I would be inspired to do something about the lack thereof.
So of all places, I started in Florida. . .


Check back Monday, February 9th for the first blog post in the Florida series.