African American history is Iowa’s history, all year long

By February 26, 2018 No Comments

By LaNisha Cassell, guest columnist. Originally posted to The Gazette

Nationwide celebrations of Black History Month may be coming to an end, but the African American Museum of Iowa provides communities with accessible, year-round resources.

From on-site exhibits and programming to traveling resources and online material, the museum’s purpose is meet your desire to learn more Iowa’s rich African-American history; Iowa’s history.

Walk in for a self-guided tour or schedule your group’s docent-led guided tour. Search our collections catalog or stop by to conduct research in our Learning Lab. You might be surprised at the gems you’ll find.

Part of the museum’s new vision is to encourage conversation, engagement and reflection. While not a new concept for us, it is the first time this vision has been crafted into tangible action and a guiding principle. We want those conversations to happen organically, on any day and in any month.

Celebrating the accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans is something we can do all year long. While the establishment of Black History Month has been one way to make this happen, the museum works to share all our woven history every day. We want people of all backgrounds to uncover the many layers that help demonstrate that black history is America’s history; Iowa’s history.

Black History Week and the subsequent Black History Month were created not to be divisive but to be inclusive. The significance of African-Americans and all people of color had not been part of all aspects of historical education in our schools or mainstream dialogue.

For instance, when we learn about female aviation pioneers, we learn about Amelia Earhart, who earned her U.S. pilot’s license in 1923. But African-American pilot Bessie Coleman earned her international pilot’s license in 1921. These women were contemporaries, yet their stories are shared separately.

It is for “missing” history lessons like this (and countless others) that black leaders felt the pull to advocate for the acknowledgment of African-American history not only be taught, but authentically preserved. That authenticity is what makes the passionate team at the African American Museum of Iowa so good at what we do to “preserve, exhibit and teach.”

Preserving history is such an important responsibility — one museum staff and volunteers don’t take for granted. We are held accountable in providing your children (or the next generation) with a path that can only start with their own beginning (our beginning). Chronicling today IS the history our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be navigating in their pursuit of lifelong learning.

Sharing African-American history is a record that displays a robust, comprehensive and deeper connection to all American stories. Understanding or acknowledging yesterday gives us greater insight into today!

These stories are not isolated, but shared; like in the story of an integrated Iowa town where white and black people worked, lived and played together.

Before the nation ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, Buxton was an integrated and fully operational coal mining town from 1900 to 1923. There were African-American doctors and lawyers, equal pay was normal, and children were educated together.

There’s also the story of Alexander Clark, who fought to desegregate schools in 1868 and won, placing Iowa ahead of the country by 86 years.

In Linn County alone, there are so many impactful stories that beg to be shared.

Viola Gibson’s life of advocacy often is told, but the museum’s current temporary exhibit, “If Objects Could Talk,” attempts to share pieces of the inspiration behind her life. Known for her successful efforts to re-enact the Cedar Rapids NAACP in 1942, she lived a life of advocacy.

With her beloved church piano on display, we point out her faith as the guiding motivator that dictated her life of community activism.

No story is one-dimensional. The museum explores all facets of the story whenever possible.

Yes, there are many hard stories to share, but there are stories we can be proud of as Iowans.

Patrons of the African American Museum of Iowa are pleasantly surprised by the “Buxton” kind of stories, but also experience eye-opening moments when learning about Edna Griffin and her famous 1948 sit-ins at Katz Diner in downtown Des Moines. After refusing to be served at the diner, despite the Iowa Civil Rights Act of 1884 making this a crime, Edna fought back. In the 1949 State v. Katz case, the diner manager was found guilty by a jury and fined.

Historians and other museum professionals spend years (sometimes their entire lives) researching and uncovering treasures of truth to share. How can these stories be restricted to 28 days?

Should these stories be told only in February while parallel stories are shared throughout the year? Why can’t we celebrate the past while we learn history as it happened; intertwined?

The African American Museum of Iowa offers patrons the ability to learn year-round.

Options abound, from presentations, programs, workshops and field trips to online materials, a research library and traveling resources. Yet, every February the museum is inundated with requests to the point where we can’t honor them all.

While there never is an issue with families, educators and communities wanting to learn more about these captivating stories in February, we want everyone to know they are available all year, more than enough time for all who are interested.

The museum encourages parents, educators, libraries, community groups and anyone who desires to learn more, to take advantage of all we have to offer. As we near the end of February, don’t feel like you need to wait another year to reach out, or that it’s too late to learn more.

Anytime is a good time to learn true and authentic stories that might have an effect on your life’s story.

• LaNisha Cassell is executive director of the African American Museum of Iowa.