A moving exhibition of black history

Mobile museum makes stops at Baltimore sites

February 19, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Three generations of the Powell family took advantage of the Presidents Day holiday to trace their genealogy, test their knowledge of black history and learn about their heritage.

The family visited a traveling exhibit, sponsored by American Legacy: The Magazine of African-American History & Culture, that was parked in Baltimore for a second and final day yesterday. While their mother and aunt tracked ancestors through a computer database and their grandmother lingered over the exhibits, 12-year-old Jasmine Ashe and her brother Eric, 11, answered trivia questions.

"I think that it's really important to learn more about my culture," said Jasmine, of Northeast Baltimore.

The exhibit, which moves to the campus of Howard University in Washington today, includes black-and-white photos of black artists and leaders, and framed replicas of the covers of magazines. It began touring Feb. 1 in Detroit, stopped at Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum on Saturday and was parked beside the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture yesterday.

American Legacy, a quarterly magazine that has been published for more than a dozen years, spotlights lesser-known moments in black history. More than a decade ago, the magazine published an article about the Depression-era debate team at tiny Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, which defeated debate teams from Harvard and Oxford. A movie loosely based on the article, The Great Debaters, was released late last year.

"There are many things in our history that people just don't know about," said Robert C. Newton, the magazine's director of business development, adding that the publication aims to "inform, inspire and uplift."

Leonard Pitts, an 80-year-old retired city schoolteacher and administrator, went to the exhibit to learn about someone from his own history - photographer Leroy Henderson, who was Pitts' neighbor growing up in Richmond.

Henderson's photos in the exhibit include an image of Rosa Parks at the 1972 Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind. Her gray hair tucked into a bun, she gazes at a poster of Malcolm X. Another photo shows Aretha Franklin, her eyes closed, clutching a microphone as she sings under bright spotlights.

"I wanted to know more [about the photos], so I could go back and tell my people," Pitts said.

Jackie Ashe, 53, and her sister Phyllis Williams, 52, brought their mother, Mary Powell, 74, to the exhibit along with Ashe's children Jasmine and Eric. The sisters, who said that they are "totally obsessed" with genealogy, scrolled through a computer database to find information about their ancestors. They bent close to the computer screen to scrutinize a census record showing information about their great-grandfather.

Rhona Case, a 52-year-old administrative assistant with the city schools, and her 19-year-old son, Travis, a student at Baltimore City Community College, won T-shirts by correctly answering trivia questions about black pioneers in science and medicine.

"We have a rich history that's been kept from us for so long," said Rhona Case, of Northeast Baltimore. "African-Americans would see themselves a lot differently if we knew more about our history."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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