Scholar and historian Asa G. Hilliard III once said, “Whatever you do, never let them begin our history with slavery.”
In destinations along the Civil Rights Trail, local museums feature special exhibits that tell the stories of African-American experiences and how the civil rights movement impacted the communities. These museums take visitors back to the ancient kingdoms of Africa before European colonization, show guests the thriving black communities that survived during the Jim Crow era and lead groups through the American civil rights movement, including the Freedom Rides and the voter registration campaigns.
Visitors to these museums will learn about President Harry Truman’s executive order to desegregate the military and how his insistence — and the start of the Korean War — helped speed up the process. Groups will also learn about Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood and Little Rock’s bustling West Ninth Street business district.
The APEX (African-American Panoramic Experience) Museum in Atlanta is housed in a 1910 building on Auburn Avenue. When visitors first arrive, they step into the Trolley Car Theater — and onto a trolley — to watch two videos: “The Journey” and “Sweet Auburn: Street of Pride.”
Another exhibit, “Africa: The Untold Story,” begins in Africa 8,500 years ago and delves into the technological, agricultural and architectural advancements of ancient Egypt and other African societies before European colonization.
From there, guests delve into the trans-Atlantic slave trade. They will step through a replica of the Door of No Return — the original is located at Elmina, a trading post the Portuguese built in 1482 in modern-day Ghana — and into the hold of the White Lion replica slave-trading vessel.
“When they walked out that door for the last time, they saw their shores for the last time,” said Deborah Strahorn, the museum’s special projects coordinator and storyteller-in-residence.
Visitors will see authentic shackles, an authentic slave patrol badge and several slave tags.
The museum’s re-creation of the Yates and Milton Drugstore in Atlanta, which was owned by the first black certified pharmacist, features many items that were in the original store.
Groups can also arrange for Strahorn to perform a historical character portrait of Adrienne Herndon, the wife of one of America’s first black millionaires, who “has her own story to tell,” Strahorn said.
Freedom House Canton Civil Rights Museum
Glen Cotton’s grandparents owned a small duplex in Canton, Mississippi. At one time, it housed an apartment on one side and an ice cream parlor on the other.
When the city sent Cotton a letter in 2012 telling him to fix it up or tear it down, “I started researching, and I ended up deciding I was going to turn the house into a museum,” he said.
That’s because the duplex is the only remaining Freedom House in Mississippi. Beginning in 1963, it served as the Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE’s) office and Madison County base and even welcomed Martin Luther King Jr. and James Meredith when they visited, although they spent most of their time across the street at Cotton’s grandparents’ house.
At the house, CORE organized protests, marches and voter registration drives. The humble structure even survived an attempted bombing in 1964: The bomb ricocheted off the house and exploded on the sidewalk, Cotton said.
Cotton renovated the building and amassed a collection of artifacts and memorabilia, including pictures of people from the movement in the house. Residents in the community donated items and help, and the Canton Freedom House Civil Rights Museum opened its door in 2013.
“We still have a few people who live in Canton; they still feel like the house is sort of like their church,” Cotton said.
During a tour, Cotton tells about how George Raymond came to connect with his grandparents to use the house as a CORE office, how doing so led to a boycott of his grandparents’ grocery store that sat across the street and how his grandparents also allowed CORE to use their neighboring house for a Freedom School and living quarters for activists and volunteers.
Mosaic Templars Cultural Center
Little Rock, Arkansas
The Mosaic Templars of America was a black fraternal organization founded in 1883 in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center was going to be housed in the Templar’s original 1913 building, which was being renovated for the museum when a fire destroyed the structure in 2005.
The loss of the original structure, however, opened a door to build a larger, state-of-the-art museum on the same site, and the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center opened in 2008.
When people think of Little Rock and civil rights, they often know about the integration of Little Rock Central High School, but “they don’t know much about the dynamic of black culture and life, especially in Arkansas,” center director Christina Shutt said.
The museum’s “City Within a City” and “Entrepreneurial Spirit” exhibits focus on the thriving West Ninth Street business district and the area’s black culture, black community and black-owned businesses when Jim Crow laws kept residents from shopping and using services elsewhere in the city.
The museum has “a great collection” from Velvatex College of Beauty Culture, the oldest operating beauty school in the state of Arkansas; the school has been owned by black women for its entire 90 years.
At the center, visitors are often surprised to learn about Hoxie Schools, a school district that integrated “relatively peacefully” before Central High, Shutt said.
In addition to guided tours, groups can arrange for custom presentations in the center’s 400-seat auditorium. For example, the center arranged for the filmmaker of the “Dream Land: Little Rock’s West Ninth Street” documentary to speak to a group of college students.
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum
On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order declaring “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” The order also created a committee to integrate all branches of the military.
The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum places Truman’s civil rights decisions in the broader context of Truman’s bid for election in 1948.
“People think of civil rights and the election as two separate things, but they’re really going on at the same time,” said education director Mark Adams.
In February 1948, Truman delivered a special message to Congress on civil rights. In July, the Democratic Party split at the Democratic National Convention, with three dozen Southern Democrats walking out in protest of Truman’s nomination. Less than two weeks later, Truman signed the executive order to desegregate the military.
In the museum’s Decision Theater, groups learn about Truman’s civil rights efforts and his decision to recognize Israel, and then vote on his motivation: Was it to gain votes in an election year? Was he following his conscience? Or was there some other motivation?
At a replica train car like the one Truman spoke from during his whistle-stop campaign, visitors can pick up handsets and choose from 75 different Truman speeches, many of which discuss civil rights issues.
Visitors will also see political cartoons, campaign buttons and an original copy of the infamous newspaper splashed with the incorrect headline “Dewey Defeats Truman,” complete with Truman’s handwriting on the top.
Groups of 15 or more can arrange guided tours at least four weeks in advance.
Freedom Rides Museum
Twenty Freedom Riders stepped off a bus on May 20, 1961, at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, Alabama. Though none of them were older than 22, they had prepared wills and farewell letters — and they had prepared to remain peaceful in the face of violence as they protested racial segregation in public transportation. Despite officials’ promises to protect the Freedom Riders, police were nowhere to be found as a mob of about 300 angry segregationists attacked the peaceful protestors that morning.
Today, that very bus station is a historic landmark and home to the Freedom Rides Museum, which opened in 2011. The current exhibit, “Traveling Down Freedom’s Main Line,” features photographs, original works of art and videotaped oral histories of Freedom Riders, “some of whom were among the students who were attacked here that day,” said site director Dorothy Walker.
The bus station also features the original colored entrance, something that is relatively rare today. The museum included the now blocked up entrance as part of its interpretive experience because most segregated entrances have been entirely erased. Groups learn about how, when black passengers stepped through that entrance, they still found themselves outside, waiting on the bus platform, “so it was extra layers of humiliation,” Walker said.
Guests have to ask themselves, “Was this the cheapest, fastest thing to do, or did they think they would need it again?” she added.
In addition to discounts and guided tours for groups, the museum may be able to arrange for a presentation from an original Freedom Rider.
“There’s nothing like hearing the story of what happened to a young Freedom Rider and listening to them recount their experiences in that space,” Walker said.