KETR

Museum preserves art, history of African-Americans

Feb 3, 2015

Fair Park in Dallas is known for The Cotton Bowl and the annual State Fair of Texas, but the historical site is also home to fascinating exhibits and museums.

Among the cultural treasures at Fair Park is the African-American Museum, which researches, presents and preserves visual art forms and historical documents which relate to that community. Mary Clark recently visited the museum on the same date of Dr. Martin Luther King's birth.

Story Transcript:

"Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual birth date is January 15th and this year a visit to the African American Museum in Dallas seemed appropriate.   After a hefty soul food lunch at Sweet Georgia Brown’s, we decided to also explore the area for signs of MLK’s influence and presence as well as the history of Dallas’ historical black community.
  

Many towns and cities have a street named after the civil rights leader and Dallas is no exception.  MLK drive leads from Interstate 45 to the Fairgrounds and was lined with banners promoting events for Monday’s holiday.  The street also passes other entities named for King – M.L. King, Jr. Recreation Center, M.L. King, Jr. Library, and most importantly, the M.L. King, Jr. Complex containing a tiny Civil Rights museum.  There we discovered a January, 1963 photo of King in Dallas with local activists gathered to protest the Texas Poll Tax.  Texas was one of five lingering states in 1963 that still charged to vote - $1.75.  Abolishing this tax was one of the major goals of King’s civil rights movement.  Later that year, an election in Texas was held to do just that.  Even with both parties supporting the abolition, the tax survived, thus requiring federal courts to strike down the law in 1966. 

Also in the community outreach center was a traveling exhibit called “the Pathway to Freedom”.  Last year, a Freedom Ride Tour took 60 students and chaperones to Little Rock, Memphis, Montgomery and Selma in an effort to relive history and continue the legacy of Dr. King.  As with any movement, it’s easy to become complacent and unappreciative of rights bought with blood.  I’m sure Dr. King would be disappointed and sad to learn of the low turnout of African American voters in most elections.  The Freedom Ride Tour is meant not only to educate participants of their heritage but also to encourage involvement in the ongoing need to protect civil rights.    Outside the MLK Center, a larger-than-life bronze statue of King stands, depicting him in motion with his suit coat folded over one arm,  the other arm upraised as if he were talking, convincing others of his cause.  

A local cause realized was the African American Museum on the State Fairgrounds.  It is a beautiful structure with window and floor design taken from an Ethiopian church.  Opened in 1993, its mission is to preserve visual art forms and historical documents that relate to the African American community. .The entry area drew in light from windows on two levels, lifting our eyes to the wooden circular roof, reminiscent of an African thatched hut.   As a small time collector of folk art, I enjoyed the museum’s folk art collection that included works by Clementine Hunter.  In the fine arts section, artist John Biggers is represented with a work I thought paled in comparison to his piece at the Paris Public Library.   Most intriguing was the Freedmen Cemetery Exhibit that detailed a thriving black community near downtown from the Civil War to the 1970s. 

The highlight of our visit was time spent with LaToya M. Hobbs, an artist originally from Arkansas, currently living in Baltimore.  Her solo exhibit filled one hall with large, strong paintings and collages of African American women, all known to the artist.   As Ms. Hobbs wrote, her works are “an investigation of the point where the notions of race, identity and beauty intersect concerning women of African descent. “  A particular emphasis was on the variety of color and texture of the subjects’ hair, a common discussion in her community.  It pained her that women of color would still judge others by the tone of  skin and texture of hair when all should be celebrating their diversity within the race.  In the center of the room were stacked paper bags printed with answers given by her subjects to the question of the color of their skin – golden, chocolate, high yellow, caramel, dark chocolate, roasted chestnut, and bronze.  As my companion, Sherry Scott, noted, Ms. Hobbs’ exhibit was the most politically charged experience we had as the artist continued Dr. King’s legacy of promoting respect for those different than you.

The day ended as we explored surviving buildings near downtown that once housed parts of the prior African American community – The Grand Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythia where George Washington Carver demonstrated his sweet potato products in 1923 to a crowd of 800,  Booker T. Washington High School, for years the only black high school in Dallas but now a formidable arts magnet school, and St. Paul United Methodist church, long a political, cultural and social center.   We could just detect the outline of the past African American community, now bisected by a freeway.   It was a part of Dallas new to us and worth the time to explore.  I just wish there were guided tours available.  Maybe next time."

For more about Mary's adventures, visit the Mary Clark Traveler Blog.

Traveler is heard Tuesday afternoons at 4:50 or 5:50 during All Things Considered on KETR.