SEATTLE (AP) – Hear the tremor in Jerrelene Williamson's voice as she recalls the day, when she was a young grocery checker in Spokane, that a customer said if he had a child like her, “I'd take it out and I’d drown it.”
See the light play through a stained-glass window that graced Seattle’s Mount Zion Baptist Church when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. Swing open the door of an after-hours jazz club and poke a jukebox offering the sounds of Quincy Jones, Ernestine Anderson or Jimi Hendrix.
Or look quietly at the dark, reddish-brown links of a metal collar that once confined a human being as a piece of private property.
Bring a range of emotions when you enter the Journey Gallery, the anchor exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum, opening Saturday in Seattle's former Colman School. Amid its displays are stories of struggle and injustice, pain and perseverance, triumph and accomplishment, fellowship and celebration.
“It was so important … that we show our community in all aspects of human behavior,” said Barbara Earl Thomas, the museum's deputy director/curator. “What happens often is that we do get focused on the struggle, which is important, but that is not the full palette of what African Americans have experienced.”
Fifty-five paces from end to end, the former school corridor takes visitors through time and space, tracing the routes African Americans took to get to the Northwest, exploring what drew them here and how they lived, worked, socialized and helped shape the region's character.
Over the past three years, museum staff members and volunteers attended countless meetings and traveled thousands of miles to gather and select the contents of the gallery, tapping sources as near as the museum’s own Central Area neighborhood and as far away as Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia.
Timelines, video loops, artifacts and question-answer exhibits are intended to engage museum-goers on various levels. Newscasts from civil-rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s light up a black-and-white TV in an old wooden cabinet, with the sound played over a vintage rotary-dial telephone.
Most visitors, regardless of race, will likely find familiar bits and pieces of history – “touchstones” of their own lives, Thomas calls them, blended with people, facts and stories that may be unknown, less familiar or unexpected.
“When you help place a person in a context and they see where they came from and how they fit into the bigger picture,” Thomas said, “history comes alive in a different way.”
A range of faces
Take the opening display, a dozen life-size cutouts against a wall, lined up as if to greet visitors.
Norm Rice and Ron Sims are depicted, of course: the first African-American Seattle mayor and King County executive.
But here, too, is John “Dick” Turpin, of Bremerton, who in 1917 became the Navy's first black chief petty officer and helped perfect a technique for underwater welding. And nearby is Thelma Dewitty, who became Seattle schools' first black teacher in 1947 after pressure from groups including the Seattle Urban League and the NAACP.
The first myth to discard upon entering the gallery is that there is a singular “black experience” in the U.S. or the Northwest. Yes, many African Americans arrived on this continent in the holds of slave ships – as many as 15 million between 1650 and 1860, one display points out.
But slave ships didn’t bring anyone to Seattle or Spokane, Boise or Vancouver, B.C. Those journeys were made by train, ship, car, wagon, horseback, even a 2,000-mile trek by foot across the Oregon Trail.
These travelers came to work the coal mines of Roslyn, the shipyards of Tacoma and Portland, the bomber-production lines at Boeing. Some came to flee racism and violence, some to find room to spread out, some to join loved ones already here. Today, African Americans make up about 6 percent of the population of King County and about 3.5 percent in Washington state.
“Journey” is an apt metaphor for the $22.6 million museum, itself the subject of a long and sometimes-contentious process triggered in 1985, when the school was closed because of the expansion of neighboring Interstate 90.
African-American activists occupied the building and stayed for years, demanding it become a black-heritage center. In 2003, after disagreements with the original occupiers, the school district sold the site to the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, which hired Carver Gayton as the museum's executive director and Thomas as its curator.
Photos and a timeline just inside the building’s entrance depict the history of the school and its transition into a museum.
The Journey Gallery is one of three main exhibit spaces in the 19,000-square-foot museum. Others are the Northwest Gallery, in which rotating, in-depth displays look at the work and contributions of specific individuals, and the Legacy Gallery, which will host performances, meetings, community events and traveling exhibits.
To help shape the museum's content, volunteers in two-person teams visited churches, heritage groups, civic and community organizations. Over and over, they asked a set of questions:
What brought your family to the Northwest? What was your neighborhood like? What would you put in a museum? And this fill-in-the-blank statement: “If I went to the Northwest African American Museum and didn't find _____ , I’d be disappointed.”
“What we heard most of all,” Thomas said, “was they would be disappointed if they didn't see some ‘regular people.’ That it shouldn't be only the quote-unquote famous people.”
That feedback confirmed one thing Thomas already knew: Many people whose names don't make headlines are critically important in their field, their neighborhood or their social circle, and it was imperative to include some of them.
But Gayton noted the museum could not become a “Christmas tree,” bearing everyone’s favorite item or incident. Telling stories effectively meant zeroing in on ones that form a representative sampling, even banking some stories for future use.
To expand the focus outside the Seattle area, education director Brian Carter put 8,000 miles on his Jeep Cherokee, hitting Spokane, Portland, Walla Walla, Bremerton and many points in between. An 11-minute video, “We are the Northwest,” includes personal stories of some of the people he met.
Another video, “African Perspectives,” combines quick looks at Northwest residents who've traveled to Africa with stories of recent African arrivals. Hear Agnes Oswaha, a law student in her native Sudan, tell about living in hiding for six months in fear of Islamic fundamentalists before she could come to America.
Artifacts sprinkled through the exhibit include the nicked-up helmet worn by Seattle Fire Chief Claude Harris, placed near a photo and brief introduction to the man who became the city's first black firefighter in 1959 and rose to become its African-American chief in 1985.
Another story centers on the starched white cotton shirt worn by James Kirk of Seattle, a railroad porter in the 1920s. Not only were railroads important conduits to the Northwest and a source of jobs for African Americans, the largely black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters would become one of the earliest organized advocates for racial equality.
The museum’s “journey” isn't confined to the past; it's happening now. A display called “We are the Future” features photos and observations of local teens, as well as a photograph of this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day march, with a smattering of “Obama” signs in evidence.
With limited space and staff, the museum doesn't attempt to be comprehensive or exhaustive. Most stories are told in a sentence or two, and for each person depicted, Thomas said, dozens more have made significant contributions to the lives of Northwest residents.
For Gayton, who's spent much of his adult life in education, the museum will succeed if it strengthens connections among generations, and helps young people gain “a sense of pride, a sense of self-worth, a sense of hope in terms of what they may be able to do in their lifetime, because of what they see their ancestors have accomplished.”