Only a small percentage of any museum’s collection is out for public view. The rest is a set of unseen intrigues with some of the juiciest bits.
The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce is no different.
“One percent (on display) is a very good number for many museums and probably for us as well,” said Linda Collins, the museum’s collections manager.
The museum opened in 1988 and was one of the first African-American museums in the United States. It houses more than 9,000 artifacts and artwork, 350 manuscript collections and thousands of photographs.
Items range from a buffalo hide coat worn by a Buffalo Soldier to a charred cross found burning in front of Emery Hall, the museum’s neighbor at Central State University.
The museum’s mission is to document the African American experience from Africa to the present day, said Collins, who along with Hadley Drodge, an archive intern, gathered a sampling of rarely seen artifacts from the museum’s storage rooms.
One of the most recognizable items in the collection is a pair of tap shoes donated by the dancer, musician and actor Gregory Hines. The shoes were donated in 2000, three years before Hines’ death. Each of the two-tone green leather shoes with silver taps is autographed.
A “Jig Doll” puppet is a reminder of painful racism. The wooden toy, mass produced in the mid-twentieth century, is painted black with large white eyes and red lips. The figure, wearing a striped jacket, is attached by wire to a paddle that when tapped makes the puppet appear to dance.
A black rubber baby nursing bottle was reused to create a “Mammy” style doll in the 1920s. The female doll wears a red dress and head wrap with a white apron and holds an infant in the crook of her right arm. It’s unknown whether the object served as a child’s doll or as a decoration, according to Collins.
“One thing I love about being down in the archives is that you see all these incredible philosophers and educators – people that really shaped this country – talking to each other,” Drodge said. “You see this web of people who are inspiring each other and working together to build something really important.”
More than 160 boxes of materials given to the museum by Civil Rights leader Anna Arnold Hedgeman hold examples of that influence.
“CIVIL RIGHTS CRISIS STIRS NATION. HEROIC STUDENT PROTESTS SHAKE FOUNDATION OF SOUTH…” wrote Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph in a Western Union telegram sent to Hedgeman.
Randolph sent the telegram in 1960 and asks for massive support “IN FACE OF ARRESTS, JAILINGS, EXPULSIONS, VIOLENCE.” Three years later, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington organized by Randolph.
A black-and-white photograph of then-Major Charles Young, the first black man to obtain the rank of colonel in the United States military, accompanies a letter written to him from the black scholar, W.E.B. DuBois.
In the letter, DuBois gives Young advice on the nuances of dressing for a white and black audience that would be in attendance at a dinner honoring Young’s accomplishments: “If a colored man dresses up when the occassion does not call for it then white people criticize him. On the other hand, if he should not dress when the occasion did call not only would white people say that he did not know any better, but the colored people would feel hurt.”
An example of the museum’s national significance can be found in the archived collection of author Alex Haley. The best-selling author is known for his first book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and the novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”
The collection holds manuscripts, seven folders of correspondence, and a typewriter he used to compose his work. “ALEX HALEY” has been printed out with a label maker and affixed to the right side of the tan-colored Smith-Corona Coronet Electric typewriter. “A. Haley” and a phone number are affixed to the outside of the carrying case.
“It’s striking to see the range of collections here, whether it’s objects that belonged to some of the most important American figures in our history and people who are incredibly inspiring to objects that portray blatant racist stereotypes that are used to oppress,” said Drodge. “To see these juxtaposed, that experience itself is very unusual.”