September 2008: Florida African American Museum Exchange Builds Alliance to Preserve History
The Florida African American Museum Exchange (FAAME) is building a robust alliance of African American museums throughout the state of Florida to preserve and present historically significant documents, photos, artifacts, and buildings. The initiative, coordinated by the John Gilmore Riley Center and Museum for African American History in Tallahassee, FL, was funded by 2006 and 2008 Museum Grants for African American History and Culture (AAHC) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Matching funds were provided by the Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs.
"What’s being saved is the history of Africans in the Diaspora who survived through struggles and triumphs," said Althemese Barnes, Riley Center Founding Director and the Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network (FAAHPN) Creator. "The network of museums also focuses on the accomplishments of the descendents of slaves -- sharecroppers, tenant farmers, lay midwives, teachers, craftsmen and religious leaders -- who are the underpinnings of today’s middle class."
"African Americans have made significant contributions throughout Florida but, until relatively recently, little had been done to preserve and illuminate their history," she said. In 1973, for example, the local government in Tallahassee planned to demolish the John Gilmore Riley home to erect an electric substation. The community rallied and raised the funds to acquire, restore and reinvent the Riley house as a center for African American heritage preservation. Riley was born in 1857 when slavery was a way of life and educational pursuits for Blacks were illegal. He defied the law of the land and learned to read and write, eventually becoming an educator and the county’s first Black principal for 33 years. First restored in 1981, the Riley House went largely unused until 1996 when Barnes established the Riley Center/Museum. She later started the Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network (FAAHPN) to help build the capacity of African American museums across the state, infuse African and African American history into mainstream museums, and equip network museums directors to become involved in the historical preservation movement.
FAAHPN directors said they wanted additional training opportunities, according to a 2006 needs survey supported by the AAHC grant. In response, the Riley Center selected 10 network directors to receive technical support and training in grant-writing, Web site development, partnership building, site upgrading and presence, and strategies to enhance cultural events and exhibitions. In the first year, the museum directors participated in three, four-day training sessions at different locations in Florida: in Tallahassee at the Riley House and Tallahassee Community College; in Jacksonville at the LaVilla African American Museum and in Orlando at the Wells’ Built African American museum. At the workshops, directors connected with other museum directors, showcased their sites, and engaged in peer mentoring. The project extended its reach with its "each one-teach one" mentoring, in which each of the directors who attended workshops returned home and shared what they learned with one other African American museum director. FAAME also provided:
- Museum internships for five master’s level students
- New computers, copiers, fax machines, and scanners for 19 African American museums
- Archival product information for collections care
- The opportunity for FAAME directors to attend professional conferences
Phase I of the FAAME project ends October 31, 2008, with a presentation by the Florida Network Directors on their FAAME experiences at the 2008 Association of African American Museums Conference. Prior to FAAME, the network directors had never attended or made presentations at a national historic preservation conference.
In Phase two of the project, funded by a 2008 AAHC grant from IMLS, seven museum directors will receive intensive training in effective management and preservation of historical collections, which will support a statewide effort to create a central database of collection holdings and a virtual museum. This program is particularly important to the future of historic preservation and heritage education because, with each passing day, dozens of books, papers, photographs, diaries, artifacts, buildings, landmarks and other valuable historical records and resources are lost due to neglect, mishandling, or ignorance of their value, Barnes noted.
One of the original FAAME directors was Clifton Lewis, founding president and volunteer of the L.B. Brown House Museum in Bartow, FL. Like the Riley House in Tallahassee, Lewis and his community’s efforts began when they rallied to save a structure built in 1892 by Lawrence Bernard Brown, a Black entrepreneur who had been born into slavery. In addition to the houses that Brown built, he also manufactured parasols and furniture, and dug wells. The museum was able to acquire his detailed records, including a daily log of his transactions.
"What interested me was that, as detailed as his notes were, there were no indications of racial tensions. In other words, if you were an entrepreneur, there might be immunity from racism. We are expanding on the knowledge of African American contributions to Florida," said Lewis. The records were donated to the museum by Brown’s son, who is now in his mid-eighties. (Brown was 68 years old when his son was born.) Through the FAAME project, Virginia Key Beach museum curator Anthony Dixon taught Lewis and his staff how to preserve and display the Brown documents.
Like the Brown records, many African American collections are held in private hands, according to Sandy Rooks, executive director of the Pinellas County African American History Museum in Clearwater and a FAAME Director. "Once a person dies, the families don’t always see the value of the collections and sometimes just throw them away," she said.
The FAAME initiative is helping raise the visibility and credibility of African American museums, Rooks said. A family, whose patriarch was the first African American police officer in Clearwater, has a historically significant collection, including the officer’s police badge and cap. Initially, they were reluctant to donate the items to Rooks’s museum, but because FAAME has raised the museum’s credibility, it appears that the collection will be donated, she said. "And because of the FAAME workshops, if these items are donated, we know how to handle them correctly and display them for visitors to learn from and enjoy," Rooks said.
Rooks also lauded the project’s peer-to-peer mentoring program. Rooks provided information on designing exhibits and programming to Juanita Barton, Rooks’s mentee and Director of the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Memorial Park and Cultural Center in Mims, FL. The Moores were educators and civil rights activists who were murdered on Christmas night in 1951 when a bomb exploded under their home.
"I’ve been all over the state looking at what others are doing. Without the IMLS grant, I wouldn’t even know these people," Rooks said.
Barnes added, "We are a closely knit group with a mission and a passion. At one time we sought to be included in the mainstream. Now, we are the mainstream.