“Anyone who lived through the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. almost can’t come through the National Civil Rights Museum because the event is so vivid in your mind. It’s chilling. You almost relive some of what you yourself may have experienced in those days,” says President Beverly Robertson, referring to the historically significant Lorraine Motel in Memphis where the slain civil-rights leaders spent his last day.
“When Colin Powell, one of our Freedom Award recipients, came through the museum, he said he and his wife could hardly make it … because they almost broke down in tears,” recalls Robertson. “It causes you to reflect on how far we’ve come … and the tremendous amount of pain, suffering and death that it took to get us where we are today.”
For many, discovering Black history becomes a personal journey toward understanding one’s self and society. It causes profound introspection—and this experience can occur in hundreds of museums across the nation, from Washington, D.C., to Detroit to downtown Los Angeles.
“Instead of Black History being recognized one month out of the year, it’s something that needs to be recognized throughout the year,” says Robertson. “And I think [Black history museums] are particularly significant because you must remember that so much African-American history, so much history about the civil-rights movement and the accomplishments of African Americans, are not studied in our schools.”
Not only are individuals taking tours through Black history museums for the educational experience, corporations are getting involved as well because Blacks, Latinos and Asians make up nearly 34 percent of the nation’s work force, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And corporate leaders need to be more knowledgeable about and sensitive to the cultural backgrounds of employees to recruit, develop and retain all talent.
As a result, organizations, including several on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list, are financially supporting these institutions, sitting on their boards and utilizing their facilities for diversity training and annual meetings to take diversity management to the next level. To read this story in the DiversityInc February 2010 digital magazine, click here.
National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum chronicles major episodes of the civil-rights movement, from the early 1600s when African slaves first arrived, to the Civil War, to the formation of Black organizations, to the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and, later, the Voting Rights Act and integration of Little Rock High School. Attracting about 200,000 visitors annually, including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and former President Bill Clinton, the Lorraine Motel was originally owned by a Black couple and was “one of the only places in the ’60s where African Americans could go and not have a problem checking in,” says Robertson. Two of the most popular exhibits include the interactive Montgomery bus, in which visitors are ordered to “move to the back of the bus,” and Room 306, known as the “King” room.
“You’re vicariously transported back in time when you’re standing looking into the room where Dr. King spent his last day,” says Robertson. Listening to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s “Precious Lord,” Dr. King’s favorite song, visitors look out the motel-room window to the boarding room across the street where James Earl Ray’s fatal shot was fired.
“It should be the law that you must pass through the National Civil Rights Museum before you’re allowed to vote,” writes a 42-year-old white man who had returned from the site. Having toured the museum and stood in Room 306, where the Dr. King spent his last day, he continues: “I was not prepared for this experience. I was not prepared to see a Klan outfit. I was not prepared to break down in tears … nor was I prepared for the anger that rushed through me.”
The National Civil Rights Museum also attracts corporations such as Minneapolis-based Best Buy. For several years, the company has anchored its three-day transformational leadership-development program in the museum, inviting thousands of its retail managers to Memphis. (The program has recently been expanded to all employees.) After touring the museum, the retail giant holds a series of employee workshops and discussions. The company reports that programs such as this add to its bottom line by instilling cultural awareness and tangible diversity leadership skills into its work force.
Other retailers, such as JCPenney (No. 35 in the DiversityInc Top 50), are involved in a giving program that allows consumers to shop online, and a portion of each purchase is donated to their favorite cause, including the National Civil Rights Museum.
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
In Detroit’s cultural district, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History offers the largest Black history museum in the world. For the past 45 years, it has provided learning experiences, exhibitions, programs and events, such as the Africa World Festival, that explore Black history and culture. The 120,000-square-foot museum, which attracts about 200,000 people each year and includes more than 30,000 artifacts and documents, is located in one of five cities considered “gateways to freedom” for tens of thousands of slaves seeking refuge in Canada, making it an appropriate home to the Blanche Coggin Underground Railroad Collection and Harriet Tubman Museum Collection. While numerous temporary exhibits, ranging from the influence Joe Louis had on America to the celebration of Black women’s hats and head coverings, are on display, the core, permanent exhibit is “And Still We Rise.” This interactive, multi-level journey begins in prehistoric Africa, moves to the middle passage of a slave ship and then goes to present-day Detroit.
“The reaction that we often get is that it’s overwhelming,” says President and CEO Juanita Moore. “When people go through the slave ship, they’re moved to tears. Sometimes people have to come out of the exhibition space to gather themselves. It’s a moment of great reflection. It’s a place to pay homage. But it’s also an opportunity to get introspective and learn.”
Currently, the museum’s curators are collaborating on a project about the deindustrialization of Detroit and its impact on the Black community with Michigan State and about 30 corporations. And over the years, the financial support of corporations and foundations such as Ford (No. 47 in the DiversityInc Top 50), AT&T (No. 4), Target (No. 44), PricewaterhouseCoopers (No. 3) and others have helped the Wright Museum continue to enhance its educational and historical experience.
“History feeds the spirit and the soul,” says Moore. “You understand that bad things have happened before and it passes.”
National Underground Railroad Freedom Museum
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, based in Cincinnati where the Underground Railroad operated extensively during the Civil War, is dedicated to telling the story of the struggle for freedom, both historically and in modern times. The museum’s narratives focus on the antebellum activity, in which enslaved Blacks fled to freedom and were often helped by sympathetic whites who were “conductors” along the Underground Railroad’s informal network of escape routes and safe houses.
“The Ohio river was a major commercial artery as well as a crossing point for slaves,” says Chief Communications Officer Paul Bernish. Bordering on a slave state, “the same issues that divided the nation at that time divided Cincinnati. We had abolitionists and pro-slavery people living right next to each other. You had free slaves working and you had escaping slaves hiding … so from a historic standpoint, this is an ideal location for the museum.”
The 158,000-square-foot, three-pavilion museum’s largest exhibit, “From Slavery to Freedom,” covers the nation’s history of slavery of all people from the 1500s to the Civil War and includes the economic, social and cultural underpinnings of slavery. The most popular exhibit is a two-story slave warehouse, originally built in Mason County, Ky., that held upwards of 70 people.
“For most that come here, it’s a stark and dramatic confrontation with the history of slavery in America,” says Bernish.
One of the Freedom Center’s biggest benefactors, he says, has been Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble (No. 25 in the DiversityInc Top 50). With a work force that’s 11 percent Black and mirrors its customer base, the consumer-products giant has not only been a corporate foundation donor, it regularly holds sales meetings at the facility and “often brings in suppliers to experience the museum,” adds Bernish.
America I AM: The African American Imprint
California Science Center in Los Angeles is home to the West Coast debut of America I AM: The African American Imprint. This 12-gallery traveling exhibition, presented by broadcaster and past DiversityInc event keynote speaker Tavis Smiley and sponsored by Walmart, includes numerous historical artifacts, including:
- The Door of No Return, from the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, in which enslaved Africans passed through to board ships to North America
- Alex Haley’s typewriter, used to write “Roots”
- Malcolm X’s journal and Quran
- Frederick Douglass’s clothing and letter from Lincoln, which enabled him to recruit Black soldiers
America I AM: The African American Imprint encourages all people to connect in a meaningful way with the foundations of democracy, cultural diversity, exploration and free enterprise, which began when the first Africans arrived in Jamestown,” says Smiley. “By telling the stories of the events of the past, we can help the leaders of the future set the stage for active participation in the democratic process for years to come.
Want to Learn More?
- Civil Rights Memorial Center Located in historic Montgomery, Ala., across the street from Southern Poverty Law Center, the center offers images of iconic civil-rights leaders, a 56-seat theater and the Wall of Tolerance, where visitors pledge to take a stand against hate by entering their names on an interactive wall.
- DuSable Museum of African American History This Chicago museum has been dedicated to the collection, preservation, interpretation and dissemination of the history and culture of Africans and Black Americans for more than 46 years.
- Hampton University Museum & Archives Located on the grounds of Hampton University campus, the museum, which was founded in 1868, is one of the oldest in Virginia. It features more than 9,000 objects, including African American fine arts, traditional African, Native American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Island, and Asian art.
- Idaho Black History Museum Housed in St. Paul Baptist Church in Boise, one of the oldest buildings constructed by Idaho Blacks, the museum presents exhibits and educational outreach, including workshops, literacy programs and music.
- International Civil Rights Center & Museum This newly opened exhibit and teaching facility, located in the historic F.W. Woolworth building in Greensboro, N.C., where four N.C. A&T freshmen set off a nonviolent sit-in 50 years ago, is a recreation of what the segregated South was like during the civil-rights movement.
- Museum of African American History in Boston Based in an African Meeting House, the oldest U.S. church built by free Blacks in 1806 has recently been restored, thanks largely to sponsorship from Walmart Foundation. It features stories of Blacks from 1638 through the Civil War.
- NAACP Interactive Historical Timeline Funded through a $500,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation, this newly launched online learning tool from the NAACP offers major milestones in Black history, biographies of legendary leaders in Black history and other educational resources. Verizon Communications is No. 22 in the 2011 DiversityInc Top 50.
- Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture Although the museum is currently being built on the National Mall in the District of Columbia, not far from what were once slave markets called “Robey’s Den,” a gallery can be found on the second floor of the National Museum of American History. And thanks to a $1-million grant of technology and expertise from IBM (No. 7), you can take a virtual tour at nmaahc.si.edu.
- DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti and National Civil Rights Museum President Beverly Robertson
- Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
- African American History Museum in Boston
- Smithsonian National Museum of African American History series
- National Underground Railroad Freedom Center