African-American History Museum
Heads Up! This article is 22 years old.
Perry Mason wouldn’t stand for it. Neither would Johnny Cochran, but his objection would be more stylish. “If it’s hearsay, it cannot sway,” he’d tell the judge. And the jury would have to disregard the testimony. Not as easy a trick when it comes to history. We of the present are at the mercy of the integrity of storytellers past. Napoleon once said, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” This is a story of rectifying such lies. However, not ones of commission but of omission. Namely the rich past of African-Americans. “When I was a kid, my brothers and I sold black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier and the Afro Bee from Baltimore,” says Hana L. Stith. “I also corresponded with a west African army general. Even then I was proud of my native land.” Pride she now shares with all of Fort Wayne. Stith is the chairperson and one of the driving forces behind the African-American History Museum at 436 E. Douglas St. in Fort Wayne.
It wasn’t even an idea at first. Although Stith and Dr. Miles Edwards were deeply involved in teaching black history at the McCulloch School, building a shrine to that history wasn’t part of the plan. Until it came time to prepare for the Fort Wayne bicentennial celebration and there were no black people on the planning committee. Stith and Edwards changed that. Which was the first puff of the wind of change about to blow through. “We found out that they only had four pictures of sizable importance about black people,” says Stith. “They had no history. Only a few pictures that looked like they were taken in slum areas and stuff like that. Nothing of substance. Nothing of any contributions that black people had made to the city of Fort Wayne at all. I mean nothing.”
What started as “Stop” had turned to “Play.” Then in 1998 it became “Fast Forward.” A group of black people had been meeting since 1997 to discuss starting a historical society. Discussion only. Until a man named Jim Blanks was tired of the bait cutting and wanted to go fishing. “He had preserved a lot of artifacts with his own money,” says Stith. “So he said,’We just keep meeting and meeting and if we’re not going to organize, I’d like to know. But if we are going to organize, I want to do it right now.’ So we organized that day, Sunday, May 17, 1998.” Then Stith’s voice cracks, “And he died that Thursday.” An ending which led to a beginning. In May of 1999 Stith got the Ministerial Alliance to donate a house, rent free, for 10 years. She also got people to donate their time, their artifacts and, most importantly, their passion. And the idea suddenly got wings. “I believe God wants this place to be because he has really made a way for it to be,” says Stith. “And it’s all happened so very quickly. This whole thing has really been blessed.” As much by strangers as by divine approval. From the woman who showed up one day, took all the pictures off the walls, then returned with them framed, to the man who volunteered to do some yard work, then left, only to return with his friends. Individual hands which have unselfishly helped mold this work in progress. Which led to grand opening day, February 1, 2000.
The history, which is in the school books, is your gateway to the past. It greets you with a whisper, “Coming to America.” But the chained black feet on the floor and the chained hands hanging from the ceiling scream slavery. So do the representations of the ships which first brought Africans, stacked as cargo, to this country. A heritage once stripped but now preserved in another room. Authentic artifacts from Africa which honor both modern and ancient traditions. “We stress west Africa,” says Stith, “because basically that’s where blacks came from to begin with. We ask for west coast artifacts so we can say these are our roots right here. Africa is the motherland for all black people, but our people came from west Africa.
It’s an impressive visual tribute, but incomplete without the stories to go along, stories told by Stith’s brother Dan Jones on his tours. Like in the Inventors Room, where pencil sketches by a 79-year-old white woman named Darlene Kurtz honor pioneers in science. There’s Charles Drew, who invented the blood bank but, in a cruel twist of irony, died of injuries suffered in a car accident when he was denied blood because he was black. George Washington Carver is there, as is chemist Percy Julian and cosmetics creator Madame C.J. Walker. All on pedestals. All with wonderful stories to tell. There’s the William Warfield Room, dedicated to the first black man to live on Douglas Street ä right next to where the museum now stands. Fifteen years of his personal diaries chronicle his life in Fort Wayne. There are also stories about black cowboys — how the Clint Eastwood character in the western Hang ‘Em High was really a black man.
This is only a small portion of the museum. The entire upstairs is being readied for debut in June of this year. There will be rooms dedicated to local history, sports, music, entertainment and the Urban League. A lot of sweat already spent with much more to go. As the philosopher Plato wrote, “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” Stith agrees. “I think anybody, in order to appreciate the present, they need to know their past. They had nothing on display about black people at the Allen County Historical Museum. They would say,’Why don’t black people come to the museum?’ or ‘Why don’t black children like to go to the museum?’ It was because they couldn’t relate to it. They saw nobody that looked like them. It was an altogether different world. So we figured that when you can relate to a thing and see people who look just like you and there’s honor being paid to them and their contributions are being remembered, then you need that.”
So far, more than 300 people of all races have come through the museum, and they’re still booking tours. With the emphasis on the kids. “We feel it’s very important for our children to be proud of their ancestors,” says Stith, “to know where they came from, so they can say this has been my struggle, and I really have improved my lot in life.”
What was once hardship is now a source of strength and fortitude. Another telling of history which will open up a whole new world of discovery to generations which have been kept in the dark. “This is why this building is here,” says Stith, “because we are going to really and truly hold on to our contributions for motivation, for greater appreciation and greater understanding among people and to preserve our culture and our heritage which we should be very proud as black people. I’m just tickled by what we’ve been able to accomplish in a very short time. It’s like your wildest dream come true.”
A dream which may have taken a very long time to realize, but in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “The time is always right to do what is right.”