A Revolution Still in the Making: “From Storefront to Monument” Today

Let’s face it: Andrea Burns is right. Her book, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, rightfully points out the disenfranchisement of African Americans in museums in the past, and describes the efforts to bring more African Americans to the table. What struck me while reading was the idea that, in the early 1960’s and through the 1970’s, advocates for black neighborhood museums were preaching some of the very things were are still trying to implement today; that is, an attention to your audience and your constituency (the people who come to the museum and the people who live near it), and building your museum around those people.

This realization got me thinking about organizations I had experienced over the years. One stood out to me, at least in this context, more than any other: the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville, VA. Located in the historic Vinegar Hill neighborhood, Jefferson School was once the African American junior high school for the City of Charlottesville. In 1965, following years of participation in the Massive Resistance movement to Brown v Board of Education, the school welcomed its first integrated class. It closed its doors in 2002, but the community, especially in Vinegar Hill, welcomed the opportunity to turn one of their most important-and controversial- sites into a community center and museum.

The Jefferson School, and Charlottesville as a whole, is a haven for artists and musicians. The thriving downtown, with bars that once nurtured the likes of Dave Matthews, also hosts a number of community art installations. In acknowledgment of the creativity their constituency values so highly, Jefferson School African American Heritage Center has begun to play a role in hosting artists from the community and beyond. Currently, the Center is exhibiting work by Lisa Beane, a Richmond-born artist who uses images of cartoons and commonly-found advertisements in her depictions of racial divisions and unity. The exhibit, entitled “Chapters,” opened on January 10. It marks the first time Beane has exhibited since her fiancée’s passing in 2008. Her art attempts to pull joy from a racially-charged chaotic jumble. One of her works, Firespitter, for instance, depicts a dark figure amid a more colorful background full of child-like symbols, including a bumblebee and a set of numbers. The exhibit strikes me as a meditation on love and loss, and on a Charlottesville community whose story has yet to be told.

In fact, the exhibit seems like a perfect fit for the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. As an organization, Jefferson School seems to have acknowledged is constituency- a neighborhood that is largely African American, and that appreciates creativity and social engagement. Their programming and exhibits conform to this goal. It does not feel to me to be hyperbolic to say that this organization is a culmination of the events of From Storefront to Monument. Burns discusses the humble beginnings of many African American neighborhood museums- limited funding, temporary exhibits. She rightly questions this assertion, arguing that, more often than not, the missions of those museums were anything but near-sighted. As an organization, and as an important member of the community, Jefferson School African American Heritage Center serves as an example of the numerous museums that have contributed to a reimagining of the public history of black neighborhoods.

 

[1] Andrea A. Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[2] “About the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center,” Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. (accessed 3/26/14). http://jeffschoolheritagecenter.org/jsaahcexhibitions.html

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