By Suzanne Ramsey
It’s called a “sankofa,” an African symbol meaning, “return and take from the past that which may have been forgotten but which will be of use today and in the future.” The symbol, of a bird glancing over its shoulder, also sums up the mission of the Legacy Museum of African American History, which uses it as their logo.
“What the Legacy Museum is about is reaching back to the past and looking for the stories of people’s lives and contributions that may have been sort of forgotten but are deemed to be important for moving ahead,” Carla Heath, museum board member, said.
Heath called to mind a phrase about knowing “where you come from to know where you’re going” and said that has been a challenge for people of African descent who, for a long time, had no history.
“In many cases, it was dismissed, as the people were dismissed,” she said. “[It's] important that those stories [be] told. Legacy has been as much about that as anything: the stories of the ‘you’s’ and ‘me’s’ of the world, not necessarily Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, but of local people who made their contribution.”
The Legacy Museum began as the Legacy Project with a singular painting called, “Lord, Plant My Feet on Higher Ground.” The painting, by local artist Ann van de Graaf, depicts many of the people and places important to the Civil Rights Movement in Lynchburg. Van de Graaf had worked with many of the people involved in the local movement and wanted to honor them. In her mural, she painted them–Garnell Stamps, Junius Haskins, Haywood Robinson, Anne Spencer and about 100 others–together, as a mighty throng.
The painting was displayed at local colleges and churches; presentations were made. Someone coined the phrase “Legacy Project” and a nonprofit was formed. Still, Van de Graaf and the other founders talked about doing more.
“We put on programs and things like that, but we realized there was so much more to African American history than the Civil Rights Movement,” she said.
What they needed, the group concluded, was a museum.
The Legacy Museum is located in a Victorian house at 403 Monroe Street in Tinbridge Hill, a historically black neighborhood. The property borders Old City Cemetery, a predominantly African American graveyard, and sits atop a steep hill locals call “thrill hollow.”
For a long time, the house–thought to have been designed by renowned Lynchburg architect, Edward G. Fry–was used as a bordello or house of ill-repute. When the Legacy Project acquired it in 1997, it was in deplorable condition.
It was in “horrible, horrible, horrible condition,” Jane White, longtime executive director of the Old City Cemetery, said. “It had some people living in it and some very bad activities going on inside and outside of it … but the house itself was a beautiful place.”
White, who was not only interested in improving the cemetery but also the surrounding neighborhood, heard the Legacy Project was looking for a permanent home. She couldn’t think of a better place than the Victorian house and called Van de Graaf with her idea.
“I called up Ann and said, ‘I’ve just got a wonderful house for you to call home, but somehow we’ve got to get a hold of it and we’ve got to get it renovated, but we would love to bring a museum into this Tinbridge Hill Community,’” White said.
After a lengthy legal process, the Legacy Project acquired the house. Architect Kelvin Moore and Tom Gerdy of Gerdy Construction Company took on the restoration. It was a daunting project. The foundation was damaged; the roof and siding were in bad shape. There was water damage and termite issues.
“It was a structure that had been completely forgotten and left to die, but luckily, people with vision realized it was a wonderful structure and it had a chance to have a second life,” Gerdy said. “It was one of those [houses] that some people would walk up to and say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ but we saw it as something like some of the visionaries saw it and saw that it could be saved and could be an addition to the community.”
Since opening in 2000, the Legacy Museum has been telling the stories of ordinary African Americans from Lynchburg and the surrounding counties through its exhibits and community programs. They have told of African Americans in the military and medical fields, and of life under Jim Crow. They have given a local face to the struggle for equal education and civil rights.
The current exhibit–”Celebrating Community!”–draws from a decade of oral histories, photos, documents and artifacts used in past exhibits. Many of these items came from the museum’s permanent collection. Others were loaned by people in the community or gathered by museum volunteers.
The volunteers “have a network of kin and friends and they use those social networks and family networks to find people who have things, and they go to those people directly,” Carolyn Bell, an interviewer for “Celebrate Community!” and a past board member, said. “Sometimes, they end up in basements and attics and barns, wherever things are stored. Those volunteer collectors are the key to any exhibit and the way we get most of the artifacts in our permanent collection.”
Some items might not look like much at first glance. For example, a tattered, hand-me-down textbook used at Dunbar High School might just look like an old book until one realizes it was all a student had to use.
“It had to pass through a lot of hands before it arrived at the African American who used it,” Bell said. “African Americans had to make do with the cast-offs from white schools because they were underfunded.”
Items like that “tell the story of ordinary, local people” and “put them in the larger context and relate them to the regional and national story of African American contributions and sufferings and progress and setbacks,” Bell said.
A new exhibit, “Trouble Don’t Last Always,” opens at the Legacy Museum in June. Dianne Swann-Wright, a Baltimore-based historian who has worked with Legacy on several past exhibits, is the curator.
The exhibit will tell the story of African Americans living in Central Virginia between 1860 and 1890. Swann-Wright called it a “transformative time,” when blacks could live together as traditional families and be paid for their labor. The exhibit will also tell little-known stories of slaves who worked in local hospitals and factories and even served in the Confederate Army.
“Trouble Don’t Last Always” is the title of a song, with “trouble” being a euphemism for slavery.
“[It] is taken from an African American spiritual that was sung during that era and is still sung today, and it means that there won’t always be these challenges,” Swann-Wright said. “One day, we’re going to have an easier life.”
The Legacy Museum is open from Noon to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday; and other times by appointment. The cost of admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, $2 for youth and children under six are free. Group rates and memberships are also available. Visit www.legacymuseum.org for more information.
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