20-20 the History Museum Brings an Increasing Number of African-Americans to Its Board and Staff to Sharpen Our Perspective on Local History

Article excerpt

FEW would disagree that African-Americans have played a significant role in the community's history and culture since the founding of St. Louis in 1764. Yet many African-Americans here have long said that exhibits and books by so-called master historians have downplayed the contributions of blacks.

If that sounds like carping and you fancy yourself knowledgeable about local history, see how many of these important benchmarks and names ring familiar:

1875: Sumner High becomes the first high school for black Americans west of the Mississippi. 1890: Dr. W.P.T. Jones becomes St. Louis' first black physician. 1909: The St. Louis Giants are organized as the city's first black professional baseball team. (They played in the Negro National League befo re folding after the 1921 season.) Throughout the 1900s, a host of African-American musicians made notable contributions in ragtime, jazz, blues, gospel, classical and rock 'n' roll. Most of us have a notion of that, but the details remain a bit vague. For almost two decades, the Missouri Historical Society has been at work trying to remedy that. Exhibits were mounted, but more importantly, people were included. The society's History Museum established a partnership with the St. Louis Public School System, hired more African-Americans staffers, appointed more African-Americans to its board and awarded an increasing amount of its construction work to African-American contractors. Now the society plans to initiate two new projects: the "Core Exhibit" and the "African-American Project," designed, in part, to attract people of color to the museum. This summer, the society hosted a forum to solicit suggestions from an advisory committee of African-American staffers and board members at cultural institutions, volunteers, collectors and artists. At the forum, participants criticized negative representation of African-Americans in the current exhibits. Also, some complained they were tired of seeing the same themes, such as civil rights, slavery, Dred S cott, Scott Joplin, music and sports. Suggestions for the African-American Project included interactive exhibits and computers for children; more historical material on each artifact; community participation in every project; stronger connections to the St. Louis public schools; and more exhibits that deal with neighborhoods, people and community institutions. "Our goal is to have African-Americans come to see themselves in the exhibits," said Katharine Corbett, the society's interpretation director. With the Core Exihibit, the society hopes to integrate the experiences of people of diverse cultures from the 13th century to the late 20th century. Corbett acknowledges that the Missouri Historical Society needed to upgrade its presentation of blacks. "We had made an assumption that white history was history. We also assumed that whites go to exhibits about whites and African-Americans go to exhibits about African-Americans," she said. Missouri Historical Society president Bob Archibald added: "St. Louisans cannot understand the direction of St. Louis history without knowing the influence of African-Americans in that history. Their representation in the United States is essential to explaining what America is." While Archibald acknowledges that the society still has a long way to go, he says he is proud of its efforts to promote cultural diversity. For example, in 1980, only two of the society's 28 staffers were African-Americans. Both were in housekeeping. Today, 37 percent - or 41 - of the society's 111 full-time staffers are African-American. Five are in senior level staff positions. In 1982, KMOV news anchor Julius Hunter was the first African-American elected to the Missouri Historical Society's Board of Trustees. …