Emergence of Museums and Institutes for African-American Civil Rights, History and Culture

By Fleury, Eric M. | Diversity Employers, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Emergence of Museums and Institutes for African-American Civil Rights, History and Culture


Fleury, Eric M., Diversity Employers


Over the last decade or so, African-American Civil Rights/Historical Museums and Institutes have evolved from concept to reality. This evolvement has been so widespread that a number of career options are now available to college students interested in preserving the history and culture of African Americans. Traditional methods of presentation and preservation still work, but recent African-American museums and cultural institutes are sophisticated, high-tech industries. Construction of a modern, preservation facility requires building contractors, architects, mechanical and electrical engineers. The operation of a major museum requires an executive director (M.B.A., Ed.D.), historians, archivists, educators, curators, media personnel, Internet specialists, security specialists, accountants, clerical staff, gift shop operators, and a public relations liaison. Exhibits require audiovisual technicians, artists, computer graphics and design specialists, writers and educators. All play important roles in the successful display of permanent and traveling exhibitions. Although these careers are lucrative, they provide satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment far beyond mere monetary value because of their focus on finding and preserving a race of people. In other words, in the environment of an African-American Historical/Civil Rights Museum, these careers become lucrative spiritually.

Primary examples of museums and institutes focusing on the Civil Rights Movement, 1956 through 1970, can be found in Birmingham, Memphis, Atlanta, and Selma, Ala. Examples of institutes that focus on African-American history and culture can be found in Detroit, Michigan and Wilberforce, Ohio. The focus of the latter is the connection between the antebellum anti-slavery effort and the Northern connection to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. Some museums are highly specialized, focusing on a single aspect or on a single person. The Amistad Research Center has all of the original documents related to the revolt on the Amistad. Debbie Allen researched the Amistad collection for the movie Amistad. Students interested in the origins of HBCUs Berea College, Fisk University, Atlanta University, Hampton University, Talladega College, Tougaloo College, and Dillard University must research the papers of the American Missionary Association that chartered them between 1866 and 1869. The original documents are housed at the Amistad Center in New Orleans. The Arna Bontemps Museum in Alexandria, La., has documents focusing on Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps. The basement of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Ala., has art related to the Movement in Montgomery and to Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s pastorship there. Although each of these institutions has its unique local variations on a common theme, they nonetheless share the common theme of defining the major struggle of African Americans for human rights in the United States through African-American eyes.

There are a number of reasons for the widespread development of African-American Civil Rights/Historical Museums and Institutes. The primary reason can be tied to the continuing struggle of African Americans to define their history, and their contributions to the world. The denigration of people of African descent has been one of the consistent themes of Western propaganda (particularly in the United States where the ability to manipulate the mind through the use of audio-visual media has developed into an art form). African-American Civil Rights/Historical Museums have arisen as vehicles to extol the dignity of the quest for human rights by people of African-American descent. In a sense, museums of this type are natural responses of a people whose historical relevance has been minimized and marginalized, at the very least, and outright denied as a matter of course by the dominant society. A sense of pride in a glorious past full of perseverance, hard work, self-sacrifice, and dedication toward the struggle for human freedom and equality, is a legacy of which anyone would be proud, if one were aware of it. …

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