Putting Race on Display: The National Civil Rights Museum

About this Episode

Guests
Stephanie Shaw, Hasan Kwame Jeffries

Join hosts Leticia Wiggins and Patrick Potyondy for part one of a two-segment History Talk on race in America. In “Putting Race on Display,” they interview Ohio State historians Stephanie Shaw and Hasan Jeffries about their work renovating the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. “It really is a place,” says Jeffries, “for living history.”

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Cite this Site

Leticia R. Wiggins, Patrick R. Potyondy , "Putting Race on Display: The National Civil Rights Museum" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
November, 2014
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/putting-race-display-national-civil-rights-museum?language_content_entity=en.
November, 2014

Transcript

Leticia Wiggins 

This is your host Leticia Wiggins and welcome to History Talk, the history podcast for everyone produced by Origins.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And I'm Patrick Potyondy, your other host. In late spring of 2014, the finishing touches were completed on the redesign of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Its reopening has coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

The redesign was the first since the museum opened in 1991. Interactive Media, oral histories, and more than 40 new films were added to the collection held there. Moreover, the reopening had garnered national attention and acclaim.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Museum's redesign has also created the opportunity for the United States to pause and consider its fraught history of civil rights. In the opening segment of today's show. We're joined by two Ohio State historians Drs. Stephanie Shaw and Hasan Jeffries, who led the team of scholars that reinterpreted the museum.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

So stay tuned and we hope you enjoyed this episode of History Talk.

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

Hi, I'm Dr. Stephanie Shaw, a professor of history here at Ohio State. My research is primarily related to African American women. But I teach courses that sort of cover mostly the 19th century Afro American, and also US women's history.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

And I'm Hasan Kwame Jeffries an associate professor of history here at The Ohio State University as well. And my areas of research, teaching, specialization include the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power movement, 20th century African American History Month, generally, but specifically civil rights, and Black Power eras.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

So we would like to just start with a quick overview of the role each of you played in the redesign of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

So I'll begin. Well, first, I think both of our roles sort of evolved over time, and which partly reflected the creative process of the redesign as a whole and so I initially was brought on with the firm that did not receive the contract. I was with another firm at first and was serving as their sort of onsite historian in a bidding process, participated in their presentation and help them sort of focus their, their thoughts on what they might do. And they did not receive the bid. And so I thought, oh, well, that was fun. But then the museum itself reached out to me, because they had they like sort of liked what I brought to that creative partnership. And so my work began with the museum directly as they began to rethink their overall mission statement. And so that's where I began with a rethinking of what the mission statement for the museum might be. And then they recommended me to contact the team that won the contract, Howard Revis.  And that, again, the process sort of evolved from there. So I served as, with Stephanie, one of the primary historical consultants for content development, but then worked on script writing, des-some design elements, media consulting, and pretty much a little bit of everything. And down the road, Stephanie?

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

Well, and I don't know where this fits in the in the process that Hasan described, but at one point in the process, the museum actually brought in five or six historians really early on, and I'm guessing but I don't know this, that it turned out to be sort of a test. I don't know, because ultimately, they hired the two of us, and Hasan may have been already, I'm not, you've already said you were already involved, but you may have already been hired by that point by them. I don't know. But my, you know, my impression was that it was those two or three days that resulted in their settling ultimately, at least on me. And I always assumed on the two of us, as opposed to others who were involved in that, in that, that weekend, as I recall. A weekend of discussing the museum and you know, sort of some insights on what could be done, what should be done and those kinds of things. Um once on board, I worked overwhelmingly on the slavery and Jim Crow parts of the exhibit, you know, trying to, doing a lot of research because a lot of these things are not committed to my memory, and, and writing some sort of main points that those parts of the exhibit should highlight. And, and digging up details for people who as Hassan said, who are working on the video, so who are working on the interactive elements of the museum. Some information for them to use in those processes. I reviewed content outlines as we went along once they took that information and turned it into something else, the kinds of documents that they were going to use. We both reviewed them, I felt more responsible for the slavery and Jim Crow parts, but I also reviewed all of them. But I but I knew that Hasan was the person who really, you know, should have the ultimate say, on the 20th century parts and specially the late 20th century parts.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

There were several historians involved in this process. And I'm wondering if there were other outside groups or individuals who also played a role in determining what ended up in the museum redesign?

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

Yeah, and historians and others were brought in at different times. So closer to at the end of the process. There was also a group of people brought in who were activists themselves who were involved in these movements directly. And from different perspectives, someone who was really active in SNCC, someone who was really active in Mississippi, people who were involved in different kinds of ways, someone who was really close to Martin Luther King, and along with modern U.S.  scholars, people who were scholars of the Civil Rights Movement, so there were several moments in that whole process where others were brought in, and I'm sure also that there had to have been, although I can't recall it, they had to have been some, a lot of community involvement in this process, too. Maybe they were there when I wasn't.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Certainly the community, the local community, the Memphis community, was very much involved early on. And so in the selection of the team they had, the museum did a very good job as being sort of stewards of the Lorraine Motel, of bringing in or soliciting community input very early on, keeping the community informed about what it was doing. But then I think when the actual renovation work began, then it became sort of more of the professionals mixed with sort of the academics and the activists, and they did a good job of sort of bringing those two together. And then the final the final piece, I think, what Stephanie was alluding to was, was really this sort of dream team of civil rights, U.S. history scholars at the end, who reviewed all of the I think it's 25 or 26 separate exhibits. And, and just, you know, saying, okay, we have a preliminary script, we've gone to the content outline, what do you think, you know, is this did we get it right? And to get that sort of feedback, and what was really it was really a special moment, I think.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Yeah, with all this this process of working together and this dream team you guys assembled, what is the final result like how is this museum and its exhibit different from the one before it? For instance, have artifacts changed, or the presentation or the narrative of the history changed since you've been working on it? How did you write this?

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Well, actually, I want to, I want to toss it to Stephanie for a second because one of the one of the big changes happens in the beginning. And just in terms of how the intro and how we how the museum deals with the Atlantic slave trade, how it deals with slavery early on the United States. So Stephanie, do you want?

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

Yeah, well, well, one of the I think one of the primary differences in terms of the whole exhibit is that the original exhibit I mean, you have to sort of remember that this was 20 some years ago, actually, it was more than 20 some years ago when this was conceived. And 20 years ago, when that exhibit, the original exhibit was mounted, but at that time, you know, access to a lot of material was limited. Certainly, they had a different kind of access to funding. And so it was a really different kind of exhibit. It was exhibit that was driven by text by narrative. They probably I'm guessing didn't have the didn't have the money to buy artifacts that they would have wanted. They had a lot of a lot of facsimile material. And, and, and a lot of physical material. But it was still an exhibit that was really driven by the text, you had to read a lot to sort of understand what was happening in that exhibit. So the, the redesign includes a lot more material a lot more, as has already been indicated a lot more interactive things. They've incorporated the technologies of today that weren't that weren't available then and in some instances were barely imagined at that time. But as Hasan said, the first part of the exhibit is in indeed very, very different from what it used to be. And one of the things that's really different about it is a recognition of the world system that slavery developed in that the slavery that we talk about in US history was a part of a global system. One of the most exciting things I think about it is, is, is the mapping, you know, there's a visual, that's the floor that you can't actually miss. And, you know, so you see the relationship of these continents and this ocean to everything that was going on during that time. Also, I think, although I didn't have a whole lot to do with this, Africa is incorporated a lot more in the early part of the exhibit, Ernestine Jenkins, University of Memphis had much more to do with that part. And and I think that Jim Crow section of this exhibit, now focuses more on what on black Community Development during that period, on what black people were doing themselves, whereas before, there might have been too much emphasis on what people were doing to them. So there's more balance there now.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

And I think, sort of moving forward from sort of the early parts of the museum exhibit exhibits sort of what we consider sort of the modern, the modern civil rights era. I mean, there were a number of sort of changes, small changes that we did in terms of emphasis. So for example, in the original exhibit, there was a big, in the original museum, there was a big exhibit on the Little Rock Nine. And so in this exhibit, while we still treat the Little Rock Nine and the Little Rock Crisis 1957, there's a much broader treatment about student activists and student desegregation during that period. So it's not that you know, there were elements that are that it's not that old elements are ignored. It's that the old elements are put often in a broader context. Another example that comes to mind is the earlier treatment on Mississippi, which focused heavily on the James Meredith desegregation of Ole Miss. And so one of the suggestions that we came up with was hold on, you know, the Meredith desegregation of Ole miss was important, but again, is a much broader context, the deepest story that has to be told about Medgar Evers, early NAACP activists. So that will then set up when we come back and deal with Freedom Summer. And so content wise, there's a number of sort of changes and shifts in emphasis and focus. And then just lastly, one thing that really, I'm really excited about, that the designers were able to do in hearing what we were suggesting and talking about, but what the movement was, was in each of these exhibits, it  now takes on the sense of place in a sort of a new way. So you know, you come out of the Jim Crow era, and then you walk into sort of a courtroom. And then in other exhibits you're in, you're in a schoolhouse, this sort of sense of school a sense of place changes, then you're on a Montgomery Street, a Birmingham Street, but then, you know, you find yourself in the middle of a demonstration or a jail cell or, or in a church, in freedom, headquarters during Freedom Summer, across the bridge, I mean, the streets of Chicago, I mean, so you physically experienced the Civil Rights Movement the way it happened, right in these multiple spaces, in addition to these multiple places, and so you get a better sense for the, it becomes an immersive experience, in a way and they achieve that.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

It sounds really, really immersive, really throwing you right into the middle of everything. And so given that it has been 50 years since many of the key events of what we think about, right? When we think about the Civil Rights Movement. What is the goal of the museum would you say in the last few minutes for our first segment here is it only to present the history quote unquote or is it trying to influence even if indirectly, current race relations or the debate over race relations today?

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

I think that, um, I think that one of the, that there were a number of goals, obviously from the beginning and one was to present this history in a real accessible way, in a way that schoolchildren, you know, adults, young adults, people who were involved in the movement, so to present this material in a way that those who don't know anything about it wherever they are, you know, in terms of age or grade or whatever, that they can understand it to be accessible to, for it to be accessible to them. The other thing is for those people who involved in this movement for them to recognize it for them to, you know, for them to recognize themselves in it and recognize it as what they in fact went through and what they did. But I think another really important part of the sort of overall goal was for people to leave that exhibit with the feeling that they themselves can change their community, to change their neighborhood, to change their state, to change to change the world. It was, and I think that was a real conscious, a real conscious inclusion.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Yeah, certainly the museum had multiple goals, Stephanie pointed out, you know, to preserve this important history to present it in a challenging way, an honest way truthful way to get the history right. But then to challenge people, and there literally is this great interact called Join the Movement, so that people after experiencing this, that they will see themselves as the inheritors of this fantastic legacy of this struggle, and want to pick it up and bring it back to their communities in in these multiple ways. So no, there was definitely a--it's not just a place for old artifacts to be held. It really is a place for living history. And the museum was consciously trying to do that, to challenge people as they come in with the history, but then challenge them as a leader to do something to further this movement for democracy in America.

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

And I think if I could add something, I think also that there is a there's a way in which the exhibit itself, even if people weren't asked at the end, you know, what can you do? Or what do you want to do? I think there's a way in which the exhibit itself encourages people to think that way. Because one of the things that the exhibits do is they make it apparent, that the probably the vast majority of these people without saying so in most instances, that the vast majority of people who were involved in this revolutionary movement for social, political, economic change, were really ordinary people. You know, they didn't start out as leaders you know. Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper and had been all her life and her parents had been, you know, so I think people get a sense when they leave this exhibit, well before even they get to that section where they're asked, what can you do? What do you want to do? Before they get to that, I think they have a sense already, that there are things that they can do where they live, you know, because these, you know, these things that really start out as movements, you know, they start out as a person making a decision to do something.

 

Leticia Wiggins  

Well, thank you, all of you on, thank you Dr. Stephanie Shaw and Hasan Kwame Jeffries, for joining us today for this discussion.

 

Dr. Hasan Jeffries 

Thank you so much.

 

Dr. Stephanie Shaw 

Thank you.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

This edition of the origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer, our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at our website origins.osu.edu on iTunes and on Soundcloud and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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