Telling the Untold Story; Plans for Three New African American Museums Are under Way, Signaling a Growing Interest in Black History, Culture

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Question: What do Washington, D.C., Fredericksburg, Va., and Charleston, S.C., have in common? Answer: Each city will, in the next three to five years, become home to a major African American museum site.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who led a 15-year battle to authorize a National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, sees a momentous shift in the making.

"We have this growing movement, not just in the South but around the nation," says Lewis, whose bill finally passed Congress with strong bipartisan support at the end of 2003 (see Black Issues, Dec. 18, 2003). "There's a growing interest in the whole of African American history -- slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance," on up to the present.

Dr. Bernard Powers, a professor of history at the College of Charleston who is working closely with the International African American Museum project there, agrees. "When you look back on the 1960s and '70s, we were still at that time trying to convince people that something you could legitimately call slave religion and a slave family and slave culture existed," he says.

"The time is right," Powers adds. "This series of projects that is unfolding nationally is really, I think, the byproduct of several decades of research, teaching and publicity in African American history and studies. So this is the next logical step."

But Fath Ruffins, an historian at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, is not so sure.

"There's no doubt that (the) African American studies (discipline) and historical studies of topics in African American culture have been of tremendous importance. But I'm skeptical of the notion that the academy has had so much influence on popular culture," Ruffins says.

Ruffins, a 25-year veteran of the museum world and co-author of a forthcoming book on African American museums, thinks a far more significant factor is the vital influx of a young museum-going audience. Relatively removed from the civil rights struggle, this generation feels far less personal shame over slavery and is, thus, freer to express curiosity and share feelings and ideas.

"I think the key is that the audience is changing," Ruffins says, noting that writers and artists are parodying former sacred cows like Gone With the Wind and comedians are cracking jokes about what was formerly unspeakable. "And now that the audience has changed, the scholarship is there to meet them."

NOT JUST A `BLACK THING'

Observers agreed on one trend. While African Americans are certainly at the center of the momentum toward museum-building, the hunger for new sites and new stories appears by no means to be a "Black thing."

Just ask Joseph Riley Jr., the mayor of Charleston, S.C. -- a lovingly preserved historic city whose bustling heritage tourism trade is often critiqued for its emphasis on "moonlight and magnolias" nostalgia.

But Riley, who just began his eighth term as mayor, has made waves and a national reputation for his determination to wrestle his city into the modern world. The International African American Museum -- or "I AAM" -- became part of Riley's personal vision for completing Charleston's economic and cultural revitalization as he began weighing an African American heritage tourism concept that would link several sites around the city.

As it happened, Riley was fresh from a visit to the Afro-Brazilian Museum in Salvador, Bahia, with his son. And "I realized that what we were doing just wasn't enough," he says.

"In fact, as I looked at the whole story of African peoples' experiences for almost 200 years coming to Charleston, living in the city and moving out from our part of the country, I realized there was a huge story that had been untold and that Charleston had not only an opportunity but a responsibility to help tell that story," he adds.

Indeed, Riley's journey is far from being unique. To a remarkable degree, the momentum for museum-building appears to be animated by personal passion. …