15.30 African American Heritage and Pride: How Neighbourhood Museums Educated and Inspired Local Black Communities
Until the mid-twentieth century, African Americans identified a significant omission from the mainstream American historical narrative. An entire race had been whitewashed from history, and stories of the challenges and perseverance by previous generations of African Americans were limited to small exhibitions in black colleges or oral traditions within family homes. When African American history happened to trickle into the white narrative, participants were often depicted as victims, or worse, deserving of their fates. Progress was made within the black community in the early decades of the twentieth century. A new generation of black scholars—most notably Carter G. Woodson and W. E. B. DuBois—faced the on-going challenge of disseminating African American heritage to the wider public. The creation of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the Journal of Negro History, The Negro History Bulletin, and Negro History Week—the predecessor to Black History Month—gave new life to African American history and culture. Although many white people remained unaware and uninterested in black history, these new tools of dissemination infused African Americans with a communal pride in their heritage. For the first time, African Americans were publicly encouraged to learn about their collective heritage and, in turn, reclaim and celebrate their rightful spot in American history.
This new, powerful emphasis on the importance of black heritage laid the foundation for the African American museum movement of the 1960s. Increased black consciousness was the result of the recent rise of black scholarship and the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Consequently, African Americans began to challenge the whitewashed mainstream historical narrative that largely ignored black contributions to American society. The museum movement sought to address this issue and stress the importance of black heritage to the nation and, more importantly, to African Americans. Early black-focused museums—called neighbourhood museums—adopted a community-based method that directly linked the new institutions with local African Americans. Notable examples of early neighbourhood museums include the DuSable Museum of African American History (originally the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art) in Chicago (1961), the International Afro-American Museum in Detroit (1965), and the Anacostia Community Museum (originally the Anacostia Neighbourhood Museum) in Washington, DC (1967). Mutual respect and communication created a strong relationship between each museum and its respective black community. Built in largely black areas, the museums educated local African Americans about their collective heritage. The institutions were staffed by members of the community who became increasingly passionate about educating others about their significant—and often overlooked—history and culture. The exhibitions and public outreach programs communicated new ideas about heritage, power, memory, and identity. The collections at neighbourhood museums often comprised neighbourhood contributions and donations from other local organizations. In these museums, local African Americans could connect to the representations and the narratives focusing on themes such as tragedy, perseverance, and strength. The museums significantly shaped the black neighbourhoods in which they were located, as African Americans rediscovered the importance of their heritage within the American context.
Seeing their people fairly represented in public museums empowered black visitors, invigorating them throughout the turbulent years of racism and activism taking place across the nation. With this renewed pride in their heritage, African Americans could go on to fight for their rightful place in America—not only in the history museums, but also in modern society. This paper will examine the intersection of heritage and community in the museological framework, as well as trace the impact of the powerful relationship between early black neighbourhood museums and local African Americans.