Celebrate Black History Month
Yearlong exhibit showcases African-American experience in Iowa
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UPDATED: 21 January 2014 | 3:06 pm ::
The black-and-white photograph shows six teenage girls, dressed in track suits, holding tennis rackets.
Five of the girls are white. One is African-American.
That isn’t the only difference, though. Only one of the girls wears glasses. Only one girl has blond hair.
“All of us have been ‘the only one’ at one time or another,” says Michelle Poe, the director of education at the African American Museum of Iowa.
That is the focus of The Only One exhibits at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids and the Johnson County Historical Society in Coralville.
The two-part exhibit, which opened at both museums in January and continues through December, showcases photographs of Iowa’s African-American population. In many of the images, dated from the late 1800s to present day, there is only one person of color in the picture. The pictures show what it was, and in some cases still is, like to be a minority in Iowa.
“I’m still carrying that baggage around that kids today don’t have. They need to know (about), but not experience,” the discrimination, says African American Museum of Iowa Executive Director Tom Moore, who grew up in Ohio.
It was a challenge for the museums to design exhibits that enhanced but did not duplicate each other.
The Only One exhibit took about two years to plan, with the last year focused on gathering images and artifacts to display. Both exhibits also feature oral histories from African-Americans in the area, all who share their experiences being “the only one.”
“The oral histories are effective because the details are exclusive,” Poe says. “You can see what they feel as they tell the story, how their voices change.”
The exhibits at each museum tell similar stories, with the one at the Johnson County Historical Society focusing on the African-American experience in Johnson County.
“I’ve had people look at the pictures and say ‘Wow, this happened in Johnson County, in my own backyard,’” says Leigh Ann Randak, curator of the Johnson County Historical Society.
Already, several students from Cedar Rapids area school districts have toured the exhibit at the African American Museum of Iowa.
“It makes me wonder why they had to have separate rights,” says Jayden Wood, 9, a third-grader who visited last week with her classmates from Hiawatha Elementary School.
And after viewing an exhibit that showed clubs and organizations African-Americans started because they weren’t allowed to join other groups, she wanted to know: “Why it was so important to keep them separated?”
Those are just the sort of questions this exhibit seeks to evoke.
“People tell me they are stories that need to be told,” Poe says.
The museums also wanted to do more than shine the light on one group.
“We want people to be able to make a connection between their own lives and what’s happening in the photographs, what happened then and what’s happening now,” Poe says.
MORE EVENTS at the AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM OF IOWA
Feb. 16: African American History in Iowa presenation at the Hiawatha Public Library. Start in Western Africa and make your way to present day struggle and accomplishments including Iowa's role as a civil rights leader.
Feb. 25: At 11 a.m. "Meet Harriet Tubman." Harriet Tubman will talk about her life and the Underground Railroad.
From noon to 3 p.m. will be a "Carnvial of Greats" where we'll have games and activitites about great African Americans.
OR check out these Black History month events.
- The Only One exhibit runs through the rest of the year at both the Johnson County Historical Society and African American Museum of Iowa.