Name of Museum: Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
Type of museum: History museum
Location: Detroit, Michigan – Midtown Cultural Arts District
Admission cost: Adults $8 (ages 13-61), Adults $5 (over age 62), Youth $5 (age 4-12), Free for children 3 and under
Hours of operation: Tuesday-Saturday: 9am to 5pm; Sunday: 1pm to 5pm
Museum contact information: PH: (313) 494-5800; Website: www.thewright.org
Q: Can you introduce yourself and what do you do at the museum?
A: I am LaNesha DeBardelaben, Director of Archives and Libraries.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about your museum?
A: The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History provides learning opportunities, exhibitions, programs, and events based on collections and research that explore the diverse history and culture of African Americans and their origins.
Founded in 1965 by Detroit obstetrician Dr. Charles H. Wright, this 125,000 square foot museum is located in the heart of Midtown Detroit’s Cultural Center. Key to the experience is And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture, the Museum’s 22,000 square foot, interactive core exhibition, which attracts and enthralls thousands of visitors yearly. Thousands more enjoy a wide array of spectacular events including concerts, film screenings, lectures, performances, and health and fitness classes. Moreover, exhibitions such as Inspiring Minds: African Americans in Science and Technology and the Children’s Discovery Room is sure to engender surprise and wonderment for all. New digital history projects produced by the Wright Museum, such as The Underground Railroad: The Struggle Against Slavery, reaches international audiences.
The Wright Museum is home to a number of unique and important historical collections, including a portion of the Malcolm X Papers and Coleman Young Papers, as well as the extensive Blanche Coggan Underground Railroad Collection and the Horace Sheffield Collection.
Q: What is your day-to-day job like? What’s the best part of your job?
A: The Wright Museum is an exciting place to work…everyday! My tasks include managing the Museum’s archives and library where cataloging, processing, and digitization projects take place, supporting museum programming, working with donors, and collaborating with partners. Working at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History aligns with my passion. It stretches me, but at the same time, it nurtures me. I love public history, literacy, education, and making African American history meaningful to others.
Q: What are some of the upcoming programs/exhibits your museum is doing?
A: We are excited about what’s ahead in 2014. We just finished our our annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, which took place on Monday, January 20, 2014. It’s the single busiest day of the year at the museum with lots of activities for the entire family. The day began with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Breakfast, and programming continued throughout the day. We also just opened a lovely new exhibition entitled Point of View: African American Masters from the Elliot and Kimberly Perry Collection. Classic works of renowned artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Elizabeth Catlett, James Van Der Zee and others are on display until April 20th. 2014 is starting off on a fantastic note. We have a calendar full of insightful programming for February such as a weekly theatrical production of Jordan Anderson Writes a Letter about slavery and freedom, and a film screening and panel discussion about Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice on Saturday, February 22, 2014 as well as more throughout the year. I encourage people to continually watch our website for the numerous programming offerings.
Q: What would the museum do if it had more funding?
A: The Museum looks forward with optimism that funding will increase and that we will be able to expand our programming initiatives, outreach endeavors, dynamic exhibitions, unique historical collections, and special events. More funding would create an even greater impact on the communities we inspire.
Q: What is one of your favorite objects in the collection? Why did you pick it?
A: Our object collection is extensive and inspiring. Our collections include both unique items on display in our And Still We Rise exhibition as well as items that are preserved in our collections area. One of my favorite objects is an 1866 rare book from our Blanche Coggan Underground Railroad collection. The book is entitled Aunt Sally: or, The Cross they Way of Freedom: A Narrative of the Slave-Life and Purchase of the Mother of Rev. Isaac Williams of Detroit, Michigan (Cincinnati: American Reform Tract and Book Society, 1858).
First published by the American Reform tract and Book Society in 1858, Aunt Sally was written as a children’s book to capture the interests of children by recounting the experiences of Sally Williams, enslaved in North Carolina and Alabama. It was reprinted on the eve of the Civil War in 1860, during the Civil War in 1862, and after the Civil War in 1866.
This rare edition has the signature of “Sarah M. Bascter, Richmond, 1867” inscribed in it. The author of the book, Isaac Williams, was a Methodist minister. In his preface of the book, he wrote,
“The writer hopes that this little story may be the means of leading those who read it to think and feel deeply upon the truths which it involves, and that many more similar books may be written for our Sabbath Schools, so that the young may grow up imbued with the spirit of liberty, and rejoicing to labor for that oppressed and unhappy race which “Aunt Sally” represents, so, at length, this unfortunate be slaves no longer, but shall find that, to them all, the Cross has been the Way of Freedom” (p. 4-5).
I chose this object because it symbolizes the rich involvement that Detroit had in the struggle against slavery. Because of its close proximity to Canada, or “The Promised Land”, Detroit was named “Midnight” in Underground Railroad jargon. Numerous African American abolitionists resided in Detroit such as George DeBaptiste, William Lambert, Dr. Joseph Ferguson, and numerous others. Many of these abolitionists were members of Second Baptist Church of Detroit, Michigan’s oldest African American congregation. These 19th century civil rights leaders hosted visits from national civil rights figures such as Frederick Douglass and John Brown. Detroit’s important 19th century contributions to the fight against slavery cultivated an activist tradition that carried over into the 20th centuries.
Photos Courtesy of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History,
Blanche Coggan Underground Railroad Collection.