Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Black History For All

"Young people, they don't feel that interested (in civil rights and black history), I don't think. They need to be pushed, they need to be encouraged. They have these ideas that are instilled in them, whatever their ideas. But when they come here, they develop their own understanding, they develop their own ideas. They see the why, the how come, and they begin to ask questions." -- Museum volunteer Georgina Toro-Lugo.

The more people know about each other's histories and the histories of their ancestors, says Georgina Toro-Lugo, the better they can understand each other and build a better future.

That is exactly the idea behind the Black History Museum in Alexandria, Virginia, where Toro-Lugo works as a volunteer. It’s the guiding principle as well for many other black history museums across the United States.

Toro-Lugo says centuries of slavery and decades of discrimination and segregation are legacies that shouldn’t be forgotten but studied, and the lessons used to empower future generations to protect and defend hard-won civil rights.

Through their collections of photographs, video, artwork, text, and historic memorabilia, museums help bring the past alive. Alexandria’s Black History museum takes a very local approach to that past, giving historical background to every street corner, building, business and family, and to the extraordinary struggles its residents once encountered in their daily lives.

Museum curator Audrey Davis says that besides such important national figures of black civil rights history as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, the Alexandria exhibition space honors the legacy of local heroes who also helped alter the course of history.

In fact, the Black History museum owes its own existence to a peaceful protest against segregation – possibly one of 20th century America’s first civil rights demonstrations -- at a nearby whites-only Alexandria library in 1939. The city began construction of a museum for black people the following year, and it is that building that now houses the Black History Museum. Its current exhibit of baskets, dating back to those artfully woven by former slaves, suggests the ingenuity, creativity and resilience that African Americans have mustered in the face of oppression.