On Wednesday night, the city of Memphis got rid of two Confederate statues, including a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The first of the statues to be removed was of Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and a founder and “Grand Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, followed by the statue of Davis.
As police surrounded the scene with lights flashing, a jubilant crowd sang farewell to the statues: “Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, goodbye.”
Memphis is fast approaching the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. With that somber anniversary hanging over their heads, Memphis politicians suddenly lit a fire under their desire to get rid of the reminders of the Confederacy.
But the problem was the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2016. That act prevented the removal of statues on public property without two-thirds of the board of the commission expressing their approval.
But facing the prospect of thousands of people coming to the city to celebrate MLK and finding Confederate statues there, the city worked around that law.
The kicker was the fact that statues “on public property” were affected by the law. On Wednesday, then, the city council let the mayor sell the parks to Memphis Greenspace Inc., a private nonprofit set up by Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner and others. Hours later, the statues, now on private property, were removed.
On the heels of launching the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the largest preservation campaign ever undertaken on behalf of African-American history, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced a preservation easement on Madam C.J. Walker’s estate, Villa Lewaro. A powerful preservation tool, the easement prevents current and future owners from making adverse changes to or demolishing the estate’s historic, cultural and architectural features.
Madam C.J. Walker (December 23, 1867–May 25, 1919), America’s first self-made female millionaire, commissioned Villa Lewaro, her “Dream of Dreams,” at the height of her wealth and prominence as inventor and entrepreneur of haircare products for African-American women. Constructed in 1918, alongside the Hudson River in Irvington, New York, Madam Walker’s elegant residence was built to inspire African-Americans to reach their highest potential.
Designed by Vertner Tandy—the first African-American registered architect in the state of New York and one of the seven founders of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.—the 34-room mansion served as the intellectual gathering place for notable leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes.
“On the 150th anniversary of her birth, we are delighted to have played a lead role in the lasting protection of Madam C.J. Walker’s tangible legacy,” said Brent Leggs, director of the National Trust’s African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. “The legal protection of irreplaceable historic sites like Villa Lewaro, one of the most significant places in women’s history, is essential in telling the full American story and inspiring future generations.”
Since designating the site as a National Treasure in 2014, the National Trust has worked with Villa Lewaro’s current owners and exceptional stewards, Ambassador and Mrs. Harold E. Doley, Jr., to recognize its architectural and historical significance and secure long-term protections before the property changes hands. The easement marks a successful culmination of those efforts.
Villa Lewaro stands as a living monument to Madam Walker’s entrepreneurial spirit and remains central to understanding her unprecedented achievement during an era when neither women nor African Americans were considered full citizens. Soon to be portrayed by award-winning actress Octavia Spencer in a series produced by LeBron James, Madam Walker’s story of persistence continues to inspire a growing number of African-American women taking leadership roles in business, politics, philanthropy, and other industries.
Serena Williams, undoubtedly one of the most important athletes of all time, has certainly had an extraordinary year. Aside from her many professional accomplishments, the tennis player has gotten married and given birth. And now she will lend her name to something totally unexpected: a building in Nike‘s Beaverton, Oregon, world headquarters. The company announced Wednesday that four new structures will open in 2019 as part of its campus expansion. Two buildings will be named after athletes, Serena Williams and former track-and-field star Sebastian Coe, while a fitness center will be named after Mike Krzyzewski, better known as Coach K, of Duke University.
When completed, the Serena Williams building will be the largest structure at the headquarters (deserving), spanning more than 1 million square feet and nearly three city blocks. Serena, for her part, was so excited about the development that she took to Instagram to reflect on her year of major accomplishments.
She wrote, “What a year it has been. First a grand slam win followed by a awesome baby… than the most magical wedding. What next? How about a building!!… Nike announced yesterday that one of its new world headquarters buildings will be named after me. It will be the biggest on campus and is scheduled to open in 2019. I am honored and grateful! #TeamNike @nike.” Serena has been a Nike athlete since December 2003, and the company declared her “one of the greatest athletes of all time and one of the most inspiring people in sport” in their recent statement.
Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, announced that it will rename its College of Media, Arts and Humanities after Gwen Ifill, the noted journalist and Simmons College alumna who died in 2016.
Ifill was born in Jamaica, New York, the daughter of immigrants from the Caribbean. She earned a bachelor’s degree in communications at Simmons College and worked as a reporter for the Boston Herald-American, the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Washington Postand the New York Times.
Her first job in television was for NBC News. She then joined the Public Broadcasting System in 1999 and served as co-anchor of NewsHour and moderator of Washington Week. Ifill moderated two vice presidential debates and a primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Ifill was the author of The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (Doubleday, 2009).
In announcing the honor, Simmons College President Helen Drinan stated, “For over 100 years, our mission at Simmons has been to prepare our students to lead meaningful lives and build successful careers. Gwen’s example stands tall in that mission. The kind of unimpeded curiosity Gwen brought to her work, coupled with her warmth, integrity and commitment to truth-telling, is something all of our students aspire to – no matter what field of study they pursue. We are extraordinarily proud of her and so pleased to formalize her legacy at Simmons this way.”
Princeton University showed respect and honor to author Toni Morrison by dedicating Morrison Hall on Friday, Nov. 17. Morrison – who in 1993 became the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature – is the Emeritus Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at the university. The building dedication took place after Morrison’s keynote address at the Princeton and Slavery Project Symposium.
“This is a very, very special, beautiful occasion for me,” Morrison said.
During the opening fort he dedication ceremony, Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber emphasized the importance of Morrison Hall, referring to it as a “181-year-old building that is the home and the heart of the undergraduate college at Princeton University.” Previously, Morrison Hall was called West College, and inside, students can find the Office of the Dean of the College. On Nov. 14, a portrait of Morrison created by Paul Wyse was hung in the building.
“How fitting that the first building named through this process will now honor a teacher, an artist and a scholar who not only has graced our campus with the highest imaginable levels of achievement and distinction, but who has herself spoken eloquently about the significance of names on the Princeton campus,” Eisgruber said, referring to an address Morrison delivered in 1996 at Princeton’s 250th convocation, titled “The Place of the Idea; the Idea of the Place.”
Other speakers at the ceremony included Morrison’s close friend Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University and her former student MacKenzie Bezos who graduated from Princeton in 1992 and is now an author. In 2016, the university trustees approved naming and dedicating one of the institution’s most prominent buildings after Morrison. Simmons helped recruit Morrison to Princeton when Simmons was acting director of the Center for African American Studies. In her remarks, Simmons said, “It doesn’t take much for Toni to get a swelled head; this is going to take it over the top.”
Morrison joined the Princeton University faculty as a literature and creative writing professor in 1989. She transferred to emeritus status in 2006. According to the Princeton, the Sula writer played a major role in expanding the university’s commitments to the creative and performing arts and to African American Studies. In 1994, Morrison founded the Princeton Atelier, which brings together undergraduate students in interdisciplinary collaborations with acclaimed artists. Morrison’s papers, which were already a part of the university library’s permanent collection since 2014, became available to students, faculty and worldwide scholars in 2016 for research purposes.
A new multi-year initiative to help preserve more African-American historical sites, and address funding gaps in the preservation of current sites, was announced today.
TheAfrican-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Ford Foundation, The JPB Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations, will establish a grant fund for protection and restoration. Actress and activist Phylicia Rashad, who previously campaigned to protect the Brainerd Institute in South Carolina, a school established in 1866 for freed slaves, will serve as an advisor and ambassador.
“There is an opportunity and an obligation for us to step forward boldly and ensure the preservation of places which tell the often-overlooked stories of African-Americans and their many contributions to our nation,” said Stephanie Meeks, President and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a statement. “We believe that this fund will be transformative for our country, and we are committed to crafting a narrative that expands our view of history and, ultimately, begins to reconstruct our national identity, while inspiring a new generation of activists to advocate for our diverse historic places.”
The nascent initiative will seek $25 million in initial funding, and focus on historical sites and buildings that help tell often-overlooked aspects of the country’s history, as well as stories of overcoming intolerance, injustice, and inequality.
“As the scholar Carl Becker once wrote, history is what the present chooses to remember about the past,” said Patrick Gaspard, vice president of the Open Society Foundations. “The events in Charlottesville this past summer are a stark reminder of how one segment of American society chooses to celebrate a brutal past. We have an opportunity, through this tremendous project, to preserve, protect and cherish another history too often neglected—the vital story of African-Americans and their enormous contributions to the idea of America.”
Since Ruth Odom Bonner joined President Barack Obama in ringing the bell to open the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture last year, more than 2.5 million people have visited the site.”What’s been so moving is that it’s clear after a year, the museum has already become a pilgrimage site,” says Director Lonnie Bunch, who began the “great adventure” of opening the museum in 2005. What followed was more than a decade of building a collection and a building from scratch. It culminated on September 24, 2016 when the daughter of a slave and the nation’s first black president tolled the 500-pound bell that had been lent by the historically black First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Va. and ushered people in.
Visitors to the African American History and Culture Museum tend to stay more than triple the typical amount of time they spend at most museums. Even a year later, a pass system remains in place to prevent overcrowding, and the free tickets remain difficult to come by (they are released monthly, and a limited number of same-day tickets are available online starting at 6:30 a.m.). The cafe serves up over 1,500 meals a day. Bunch attributes the success in part to a pent up demand—generations worked to get the museum built, and the long-held dream was only fulfilled after more than a century of effort. But he also believes that the way the museum presents its subject matter has a lot to do with it.”It tells the unvarnished truth,” Bunch says. “I think there are people who were stunned that a federal institution could tell the story with complexity, with truth, with tragedy, and sometimes resilience. So I think the kind of honesty of it appeals to people.”
Museum officials know that even many Washingtonians still haven’t managed to get through its doors. So as they celebrate the year anniversary, much of the programming and performances they’ve planned are taking place outdoors. Music and tours of the grounds will take place on both Saturday and Sunday, and the museum’s hours have been extended for those who have passes to go inside.Ahead of the celebration, we spoke with Bunch about what it’s been like to shepherd the museum through its first year. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations! You’ve made it to a year.
Thank you. That’s the easy part. The hard part was getting it open.
You worked on this for more than a decade before it opened. What was it like to finally see it open after all that work, gathering all those artifacts, building this up from the ground (really a giant hole in the ground) up?
In many ways, it was probably one of the most emotional moments of my life, both professional and personal. To actually not only fulfill a dream of all the staff, but a dream of generations who wanted this, it was really very humbling. But quite honestly it was also very motivating. Whenever you hit a bump or you worry about how you’re going to pull it off, recognizing that I didn’t want to let down all these other generations who had tried, that was a great motivating factor.
You had this moment celebrating the opening, you had the president and all these people who had traveled to D.C., and then it was day one on the grounds. What’s been your experience like shepherding it through this first year?
It’s been wonderful in that it’s become, within the first year already, part of the American lexicon. There’s almost no one that doesn’t know about the museum, doesn’t know about how hard it is to get in, or how much they enjoyed it. But also I think that what’s been so moving is that it’s clear after a year, the museum has already become a pilgrimage site—that there are thousands of people who come to share their story with their grandchildren or to connect over an object with people who shared maybe a comparable experience in the Civil Rights movement. I think it’s really become what we wanted, which was to be a place that was as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday.
You’ve had a long museum career. How has this particular museum been different from previous places you’ve worked at?
It’s different in that you had to start from scratch—you didn’t have a collection, you didn’t have a building. What it allowed us to do is say “what should a 21st century museum that explores race, what should it do?” So it helped us put the way that museums interpret race on its end. Instead of saying “this is a story about the African American community,” we’re saying “this is a story about America through the lens of the African American community.” And so that’s very different.Being able to start from scratch allowed us to think innovatively about how do you actually collect by working with communities and going into peoples homes, in their trunks and attics. In essence, because we had nothing, it forced us to be different than most museums. We have to be more creative, more nimble.
I’ve heard you say this a number of times, that this is an “American story told through an African American experience.” That story is obviously still happening; what is the museum’s role in responding to that story as it occurs, as we’re seeing things like Charlottesville happen in real time.
First of all, part of the museum’s job is to collect today for tomorrow, so that there are things—like we’ve collected Black Lives Matter artifacts, we’ve collected things in Ferguson, things in Baltimore—and some of those are on display in the museum. Some maybe won’t be in display until a curator 30, 40, or 50 years from now wants to use it. Our goal is to make sure that it never happens, like it used to happen early in my career—there were exhibits I wanted to do, stories I wanted to tell, and museums didn’t have those collections. I wanted to make sure that future curators wouldn’t have that problem. Continue reading “As the National Museum of African American History and Culture Turns One, Director Lonnie Bunch Looks Back”→
LONDON — In a backyard in Berlin, a ramshackle house that was once a haven for the civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks is preparing for its third life — back in the United States. It had almost been lost to history, falling into blight, abuse and foreclosure, in Detroit. But in 2016, the American artist Ryan Mendoza shipped the dismantled facade in two containers to his home in Germany. There, it was restored as an art exhibit in his garden in the Wedding neighborhood.
Then the strange and itinerant journey of the wood-frame house took another turn recently, when a member of the Nash Family Foundation, based in Manitowoc, Wis., formally agreed to pay for its passage back.“I never wanted to rebuild it in my backyard,” Mr. Mendoza said by phone from Berlin. “But I wanted to protect it.”“ It’s time for the house to return home,” he added. “It’s needed for people to have another major point of reference for how to treat each other with dignity. This will be a marker on the ground.”
While the house has a ticket back to America, the question of where it would find a permanent home remains unanswered. The hurdles seem huge, the logistics daunting, but calls and emails have gone out for help to institutions including Brown University in Rhode Island, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit and the Brooklyn Museum, among others, Mr. Mendoza said. At least two institutions — Brown and Wright — said they were seriously considering the project. “The house has a symbolic importance — it’s important in the narrative of her life,” said James Nash, a board member and the driving force behind the foundation’s pledge. “She suffered for a huge act of courage. It should be here, not in Berlin.”
The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, is commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the first Black residential students on campus by creating a mural that will be permanently displayed at the university’s Swen Library.
In the fall of 1967, Lynn Briley, Karen Ely, and Janet Brown became the first African American students to live in residential housing. All three graduated four years later in 1971. The three women all came to the university last month to have bronze casts made of their faces, which will be included on the mural.
Bob Leek, a local potter who participated in the creation of the bronze masks, stated that “this is an amazing process, and what we’re going to create is just going to be amazing; it’s just going to be very powerful.” The mural will be unveiled on August 31.
A video about the making of the masks of the three women can be seen below:
The board of trustees of Princeton University in New Jersey has announced that Toni Morrison, the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emerita at the university, will have a building on the Princeton campus named in her honor. West College, built in 1836, is now used as an administration building. It will now be known as Morrison Hall.
Toni Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her novel Beloved. In 1993, she was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2012, Professor Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her latest novel is God Help the Child (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).
The board of trustees also announced that the main auditorium in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs will be renamed to honor Sir Arthur Lewis, a Nobel laureate in economics who taught at Princeton from 1963 to 1983.
A native of St. Lucia, Professor Lewis was the first person of African descent to be appointed a professor in Great Britain’s university system. He was knighted in 1963 and won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1979. Professor Lewis died in 1991.