Liberatory Education: The Importance of African American Museums

African American museums are often born out of lack. Lacking presence in a community. Lacking public awareness of African American impact. Lacking knowledge of the fraught and powerful history of African American influence. However, from the lack, comes activism, profound stories, and testaments to the continual assertion of humanity on behalf of African Americans. This theme of capitalizing on lack and finding community, as a result, unites the African American Museum of Iowa and the DuSable Museum of African American History.

From the moment I started my work with the AAMI as a program researcher, I wanted to go to a nascent African American museum. The fact an African American museum exists in Iowa is remarkable considering the state is predominantly white. Thus, I began with no literacy in how museums centered around racial history conduct themselves in communities. Since I have worked this summer to research the ethics of experiential learning at the nexus of slavery education, in addition to offering preliminary program designs for an underground railroad education program, I desired to take a pilgrimage to another African American history museum to “talk shop” about the unique racial constraints of museum pedagogy at an African American cultural institution.

Entrance to DuSable Museum of African American History.
Entrance to DuSable Museum of African American History.

Located in historic Hyde Park, the DuSable Museum was started in 1961 by Dr. Margaret Burroughs, and other leading Chicago citizens, who desired a cultural and historical institution to preserve the stories and experiences of their community. Similarly, the African American Museum of Iowa was started by a small group of members of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids in 1993. The church provided meeting space and money to launch the organization. Both of these institutions are united in the struggle of African American individuals taking it upon themselves to have their history preserved.

I traveled to Chicago with a few conditions. I stayed in Hyde Park and only supported Black-owned or operated business and restaurants. When I went to the museum, I gave myself the time to learn from the current exhibits and the story that brought the museum into existence. I discussed with museum staff the challenges and affordances of educating, students and adults alike, about African American history. These conversations were invaluable for my research and efforts for the AAMI. In addition, I was lucky enough to attend the museum while they had a special exhibition about Dr. Margaret Burroughs and her work as an activist and placemaker in Chicago. Her art, her story, and her tenacity were on full display through various artifacts. It was remarkable to witness her story laid bare and consider the importance of black organizing for the establishment and preservation of black history.

My experience visiting the DuSable Museum reinforced the critical obligation these institutions have for community knowledge. Without museums, such as these, the stories of African Americans are all too easily washed away by memory projects that favor the histories of white America. I’ve learned from my research on slavery education, and numerous interviews with professors, teachers, and educators, African American museums are burdened with a specific obligation to tell the stories of those deliberately forgotten and misremembered for the service of the American ethos.

Walking through the DuSable museum, and reflecting on the activism vital for its existence, aided in my work designing an underground railroad education program. It reminded me that I was not merely at the museum to retell the story of enslaved peoples asserting their humanity. Instead, education programs, like the one I am developing, must work towards liberatory, anti-racist ends. The program I am designing must ensure students are keenly aware of how the story of the underground railroad was peddled to hide Northern racism and complicity in slavery, but also, the radical local networks of both free and enslaved black folks who liberated countless lives. It is not just about teaching about the covert communication channels, the Quaker abolitionists, or the precarity of fugitivity. Students have to learn the history of African American presence in the United States is not simply about a retelling. It is a radical act of resistance.