Published Jan/Feb 2006

Left: The Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in Jackson, Miss., features permanent and changing exhibits on Civil Rights, Reconstruction and slavery. Among the exhibits are great photos. Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

Below The Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site examines the racial tensions when nine African-American students bravely integrated the school in 1957. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photo

Before You Go
For more details on these and other African-American heritage sites, contact:

• Mississippi Development Authority, Division of Tourism, 1-866-733-6477, www.visitmississippi.org;

• Arkansas Parks and Tourism, 1-800-628-8725, www.arkansas.com. The excellent “Heritage and Civil Rights Pathways in Arkansas” brochure is available on the tourism Web site in the “Things to Do” section. Once there, click on “History-Heritage” and then “African-American.”

• Louisiana Office of Tourism, 1-800-753-6194, www.louisianatravel.com. The popular “Textures: Louisiana’s Guide to African-American Culture” is expected to be available in February.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

Throughout the South, a variety of museums
preserve African-American history and heritage,
from slavery through the Civil Rights era.
By Darlene P. Copp

Betty Fry picked up birth certificates stacked next to a midwife’s bag in the quilting room at the Black History Museum of Corinth in northeastern Mississippi. Chairperson of the museum’s board of directors, Fry mused how the certificates, representative of the midwife’s lifetime of service to both blacks and whites, were never registered.

It remains a mystery why the forms were never registered, but they serve as one of the many puzzle pieces that combine to offer a view of African-American heritage in the South at Corinth’s three-year-old, all-volunteer museum. Occupying a renovated bungalow at 1109 Meigg St. that’s surrounded by a white picket fence, the museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

Museums that preserve local and regional African-American history are becoming more commonplace throughout the South. Often filling the one-time homes of prominent black citizens, the museums aim to document African-American contributions.

Mississippi memorials

Along the Mississippi River, a three-story brick home in downtown Natchez–part of the Natchez National Historical Park–opened a year ago to tell the story of free blacks prior to the Civil War. William Johnson, a prosperous free black barber and slave owner, kept a lifelong diary, which guides the interpretation of the William Johnson House, 210 State St. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday–Sunday. Restoration of the 1840s home took more than 10 years.

In October, the site was awarded a national accessibility award from the National Park Service for its interactive exhibits. Visitors also can see furnished family quarters at the site, as well as browse the bookstore.

In Jackson, the story of blacks in Mississippi is pulled together inside the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, 528 Bloom St. Opened in 1894 as the first public school for black children in the capital city and closed in 1971, the building reopened as a museum in 1984. Well-documented and visually provocative exhibits delve into slavery, Reconstruction and the black migration of 1915 to 1940. Additional displays on the Civil Rights era in Jackson, including a Medgar Evers retrospective, will debut in 2006, according to Curator Gregory Jones. Admission is $4.50 for adults. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday–Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Jones suggests that visitors request the guidebook for Jackson’s Civil Rights Movement Driving Tour while at Smith Robertson, the starting point for the tour. Consisting of 55 sites identified by blue signs along the route, the tour encompasses four distinct neighborhoods. The excellent booklet, also available through the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau, is compelling reading even if only part of the tour is driven.

Arkansas artifacts

A critical test of America’s Civil Rights struggle in the state capital of Arkansas captured world attention nearly 50 years ago. Desegregation events of September in 1957 are captured forever at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, 2125 Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive.

On the morning of Sept. 4, 1957, nine black teenagers tried to enter the school in the midst of an angry mob of protesters. However, they were turned away by the Arkansas National Guard. In the following days, President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed disgust with the situation in Little Rock and ordered the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock to escort the nine students into school.

Despite its brief span of contention, Central stands out for its long tradition of educational excellence and for being on the “most beautiful buildings” list of the American Institute of Architects.

Central continues its function as a high school, but across the street is the site’s visitor center, housed in a former Mobil service station, its 1957 façade restored. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday–Saturday, 1 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

Riveting multimedia presentations spotlight the participants and replay the tensions that surrounded the nine black teenagers who bravely integrated Central High School. The aftermath of that fateful school year also is explored. The historic site already is planning a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights desegregation crisis for September 2007.

In Helena, the Delta Cultural Center (141 Cherry St.), a museum of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, offers insight into the Arkansas Delta, its people and their history. Exhibits include a wide variety of topics, including Native Americans, the Civil War in the Arkansas Delta, music of the region, the Mississippi River and more. Featured within downtown storefronts and a nearby 1912 railroad depot, artifacts and photographs develop the topics of Delta land, settlement, agriculture and the Civil War. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday.

Music exhibits highlight legendary bluesmen. The studio facility for King Biscuit Time, the longest-running blues radio show in the country, is included. Visitors get a chance to attend a live broadcast weekdays at 12:15 p.m.

Louisiana legacy

The hundreds of enslaved people brought to plantations along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge are recognized for their contributions to Louisiana’s culture and economy in the River Road African American Museum. Originating at Tezcuco Plantation in 1994, the museum relocated to Donaldsonville (406 Charles St.) after fire destroyed the main house in 2002. Kathe Hambrick, founder and director, cites the historic town’s large population of free blacks prior to the Civil War as a natural complement to the “freedom stories” she relishes telling.

Hambrick seized the chance to incorporate landmarks at the Donaldsonville site, expanding the museum’s mission to include buildings as well as artifacts and art. Today, various exhibits–including Louisiana cuisine, jazz, the Underground Railroad, Reconstruction and rural medical practitioners–occupy a Creole-style cottage. Soon the nearby Central Agricultural School, a Rosenwald-funded school built in 1931, will open to focus attention on black education in plantation country. True Friends Hall, a benevolent society building dating from the 1880s, and the Africa Plantation House wait in the wings for restoration.

People, however, form the heart and soul of this growing museum. Slave inventories, data on hundreds of monde de couleur libre (free people of color); the 20th-century inventor of the sugarcane-planting machine, Leonard Julien; famous folk artists; and original documents of Madame C. J. Walker (America’s first female self-made millionaire) are all on display. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday and 1–5 p.m. Sunday. Museum tours are $4.

For its accomplishments, the River Road African American Museum garnered one of 10 national Living History and Museum Preservation Awards given by American Legacy magazine in 2005. The museum also is the first Louisiana member of the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom, a collection of sites across the nation associated with the Underground Railroad.

The first African-American museum in Louisiana settled into the boyhood home of a prolific author on African-American themes and a leading authority on the Harlem Renaissance. Arna Bontemps (1902-1973) wrote more than 20 novels, biographies and anthologies while pursuing a career as an educator and librarian.

Threatened by highway construction, his Alexandria home was relocated to 1327 Third St., restored and opened as the Arna Bontemps African American Museum in 1992 to pay tribute to his life’s work and to function as a cultural arts center for central Louisiana. Part of its mission is to promote awareness of African-American history and culture through programs and exhibits. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday–Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

Because of its significance, the Arna Wendell Bontemps home earned places on the National Register of Historic Places and on the National Park Service’s 1994 listing of African American Historical Places.

Whether new or established, these and many other museums open their storehouses of 200 years of African-American heritage to travelers and hometown folks alike.

Darlene Copp is a contributor from Oxford, Miss.

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