History professor Dr. James Eaton taught his students with the mantra: “African American History is the History of America.” As chair of the history department at FAMU, a historically Black University in Tallahassee, Florida, he was used to teaching students how to use interlibrary loan systems and how to access rare book collections for their research. But in the early 1970s, as his students' research questions got more in depth and dove deeper into Black history, he realized that there simply weren't enough documents. So he started collecting himself, driving a bus around South Georgia, South Alabama, and North Florida to gather artifacts.
That collection grew to become the Meek-Eaton Southeastern Regional Black Archives Research Center and Museum on FAMU’s campus. Today, museum director Dr. Nashid Madyun presides over one of the largest repositories of African American history and culture in the Southeast.
In this episode, Madyun describes how the structure of the gallery flights the compression of Black history, how the archive handles dehumanizing records and artifacts, and how a smaller museum can tell a major story.
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History professor Dr. James Eton taught his students with the mantra: “African American History is the History of America.” As chair of the history department at FAMU, a historically Black university in Tallahassee, Florida, he was used to teaching students how to use interlibrary loan systems and how to access rare book collections for their research. But in the early 1970s, as his students' research questions got more in depth and dove deeper into Black history, he realized that there simply weren't enough documents.
Nashid Madyun: And that helped him to realize that the understanding of Abraham Lincoln, the KKK , the rise of the Black middle class, Jim Crow, all of the stories where will forever untapped properly if there is no repository. And he found that as people die, they had material in their attics. But in this region: South Georgia, South Alabama, Northern Florida, there was no place to present these wares. So he started to try to enhance his classroom with these artifacts. He took advantage of an available bus and went around the region, asking people for material and they were happy to share and donate.
Nashid Madyun: And there was no formal museum practice or archive at the time. It was a professor of history trying to find a way to help the students see that there are two sides to a story.
That collection grew to become the Meek-Eaton Southeastern Regional Black Archives Research Center and Museum on FAMU’s campus, one of the largest repositories of African-American history and culture in the Southeast. This is Nashid Madyun, director of the museum.
Nashid Madyun: Hello, my name is Nashid Madyun. I'm director of the Southeastern, regional Black archives research center and museum at FAMU, that’s Florida A&M University.
Nashid Madyun: So this institution was founded in 1971. It opened its doors officially to the public in 1976. Professor James Eaton was able to collect artifacts to enhance the classes he was teaching in history, in African American history. And he was able to utilize this building in the mid seventies to present the rare memorabilia and artifacts that he found to interpret African American history as he saw it and present public programs.
The collection and museum are housed in the Carnegie Library on FAMU's campus. Dr. James Eton died in 2004, during the construction of a four story expansion building that was erected right behind the library to keep up with the growing size of the collections.
Because the archive was started from artifacts and documents gathered by bus, there is some geographic focus on the North Florida region. But today the Museums interprets Black history in general -- with objects from all across the country.
Nashid Madyun: The research we pulled together takes us to the entire Florida panhandle and South Alabama, South Georgia. So now we have what we consider amongst these four floors, 13 galleries. The highlight, the number one highlight would be our Jim Crow and KKK collection, an authentic uniform, the constitutions from the 1920s, the memorabilia that highlight the derogatory advertisements and propaganda of the Jim Crow era. We also have an authentic-style church highlighting the plantation churches of the TriCounty area, as early as 1830s and replicas of those churches. 64 churches were utilized for this exhibit.
Nashid Madyun: We also have a changing gallery upstairs that we highlight items or issues that address some point or some aspect of popular culture. Public culture now would be Black Lives Matter. And that movement has been going on for the past couple of years, so what we have up now is an exhibit objectively presenting the subject of newsprint from the 1700s to the present, how the violence and Black Codes and legislation and perspectives have been portrayed in print media. And so people have been very interested in that exhibit, so that's very compelling.
The galleries also include African Americans in the Military -- which features artifacts from the Civil War and the Spanish American War, and African American pioneers in medicine and science, which highlights FAMU’s role as a research institution.
With the way the gallery is setup, Madyun fights against the compression of African American history -- when I was studying Black history in Tallahassee, Florida as a high school student, we moved quickly from the Emancipation to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, skipping the time between.
Nashid Madyun: I like to integrate new possibilities and ways to tell stories that are hidden or not properly told. We call this particular exhibit Jim Crow and KKK, aside from Slavery to Freedom. So the exhibit previously had all of these words together. And I wanted to separate those two so that we could see that there was a split and time: there was bondage and then there was amancipationand freedom, and there was a gap from the 1880s to the 1930s, when cotton was king, tobacco was strong. You had the rise of the Black middle class and the rise of the Black middle class, the mobility of the Black middle class specifically coincides with the three waves of the KKK.
Nashid Madyun: So we present the derogatory material in the face of the public and say, this is how it was, and this is why it was, you had people who feared this rise.
Nashid Madyun: And so. You can interpret it how you want to, but we presented based on the information we have. We could talk about the rise of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the introduction of dentists and lawyers, the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, all of these movements just so happened to coincide with the exact time frames of these waves of the KKK. And that's what's going on. And so I don't believe that any part of our history, whether slave chains or breathing beds or KKK robes should be hidden.
The depth and breadth of the collection enables The Museum to tell a much broader story than just a historical house -- or a museum that is tied to a single event. For museums that interpret Black history, that’s still somewhat rare, but Madyun sees it as the beginning of a trend.
Nashid Madyun: I've been in museums for 20 years and when I came into museums all the museums, the majority were mainstream, there were only a few African American museums. If there was an African American museum, it was an African American historic house, right? And so the idea that a major story can be told by a small museum in our new virtual world is possible.
Nashid Madyun: It was not possible 10 years ago. Definitely not possible 20 years ago. So we have the opportunity. Unfortunately, we still need to catch up to the digitization that’s needed so that we can compete. Major museums, some city museums, you know, especially art museums, they receive city funding, even if they're attached to universities. And now we're starting to see that happen with the Black museums. And my role is to take advantage of these resources and bridge the gap.
Madyun says that part of the gap is technological -- that museums are always trying to catch up to where visitors are. An example that he cites is seeing his student visitors not being able to read cursive handwriting.
Nashid Madyun: We had an exhibit last year that we thought was wonderful and opened it up. And the students are coming in and looking at manumission, actual bills of sales from slaves, you know, former slaves buying their sisters and brothers and wives, buying their freedom. And so we're waiting for that jaw dropping expression, and they're looking at it like it's art.
Nashid Madyun: I'm like, “oh, they don't know how to read cursive writing!” Here's a letter from Zora Neale Hurston talking about her ex and going through that divorce, you know, she's from Florida, understanding that the cost of a slave was $800 and pulling these details that you would normally get. And there's a generation gap. I'm in my forties and beyond, but the new generation that are not learning to write long form or manuscript or cursive writing. So now we're able to go back and look at some of these exhibits and enhance them and align them properly.
It turns out, the museum has time to go back and enhance some of the exhibits because of the pandemic.
Nashid Madyun: Because of the time we live in with the pandemic the idea of digitization has, really been propelled into a stage that is front and center. People were at home doing summer wondering what they could do. They wish they could go visit the museum. You've had three or four years to get to the museum in your hometown. Now we wouldn't really want to get out and get to the museum. We began to walk through the museums and pull out artifacts and have virtual tours. It's been a very good, very productive summer. Partly because we've had no guests so we've been able to focus on all of these very practical logistical projects. And we're going to come out a nice polished, shiny diamond able to look at K through 20. So the students on campus and the counties that surround us, the exhibits will be aligned to support curriculums. Students and teachers will be able to go to our website and pull down scavenger hunt and coloring pages or discussion questions and see artifacts to help illuminate that.
The Meek-Eaton Southeastern Regional Black Archives Research Center and Museum is part of the Florida African American Heritage Network, which we discussed in episode 85 of this show. For Madyun, the increased focus on Black museums in the state and the slow progress towards more historic markers on Black history are stepping stones.
Nashid Madyun: It's a stepping stone. These are the first step into establishing and acknowledging stores sometimes. And hopefully stories are our objective, but at the least you are able to identify the initial point of interest and organizations, nonprofits, grassroots communities can come together and expound on that. Whether they erect a structure, a walking park, an activity, but across the South specifically, and I'm from Arkansas, across the South, it's been wonderful to see places that have monuments, or a historic house, or parks or demonstrations where there was once just a marker.