National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center marks 30 years


A new exhibit will take visitors on a journey through the creation of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center.

“I hope people realize that it’s not just about African-American history. This is really American history,” said Jerolyn Barbee, assistant director of the museum.

“Color Outside the Lines: Celebrating Thirty Years at NAAMCC,” captures the human as well as the institutional history of the museum established in Wilberforce, the Greene County community named for an 18th-century abolitionist.

“I want people to have a collective experience of understanding that we got here as a country — and it was rough — but we can come together and learn more about each other and not be so afraid of each other,” said Barbee.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed Public Law 96-430, which “provides for the establishment of a national center for the study of Afro-American history and culture with headquarters in Wilberforce, Ohio.” The museum, which opened in 1988, is one of the first national museums dedicated to African-American history.

The center houses more than 8,000 artifacts, among them a buffalo-hide coat worn by a U.S. Cavalry Buffalo Soldier, a typewriter owned by Alex Haley, the author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” and a pair of green leather tap shoes that belonged to the dancer, actor and singer Gregory Hines.

Choosing items to include in the exhibit was nearly impossible, said Hadley Drodge, an assistant curator. “Every time we had to put something aside, our hearts would break because we just want to include everything.”

A timeline of the museum’s history and milestones encompasses the gallery walls and historic objects from the museum’s collection are placed within.

Among the treasures in the exhibit are a signet ring that belonged to the first African-American classical scholar, William Sanders Scarborough, who served as president of Wilberforce University from 1908 to 1920; a track uniform worn by Harry “Butch” Reynolds, an Olympic medalist; and the dress worn by Marjorie Parham, a Wilberforce graduate and newspaper owner, to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Another highlight is a sampling of the museum’s collection of 400 art pieces, which are often loaned to national and international institutions. Two paintings are currently on loan to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., and another is at London’s Tate Museum.

“People don’t know we have an extensive art collection,” said Barbee. “The exhibit will show people we have this great, maybe unknown, art collection of African-American influential artists and art pieces.”

The cultural center is also a gathering place for ideas and expression. Lecture series, art classes and exhibitions are held throughout the year and also currently on display is an exhibit highlighting African American military service during World War II.

“I want everyone to feel like this is our history together; you cannot separate the two. There is no American history without African Americans,” said Drodge.

“When we can dig deeper and find those answers together and come up with a better way of telling our American history — one that’s more honest — I think we’ll have a better understanding of ourselves.” 



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