Mississippi to make history by opening civil rights museum

Nation's first state-funded civil rights museum breaks ground Thursday, along with new state history museum

Architect’s rendering of the Museum of Mississippi History (left) and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Miss.
Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives & History

JACKSON, Miss. — It's an unremarkable plot of land, nestled between the state's archives, fairgrounds and Capitol building, but history will be made there Thursday when state officials and civil rights leaders gather to break ground for the country's first state-funded civil rights museum.

It is being built in conjunction with a new state history museum erected on the same site, and both are scheduled to open in 2017, in time for the state’s bicentennial. The museums will be built “side by side,” as the locals say, and will be connected by a common entryway, sharing classroom space, an auditorium and resources.

With its violent history of hate crimes and staunch resistance to the civil rights movement, Mississippi might seem surprising as the first state to fund the building of a civil rights museum, signaling the beginning of a major change in race relations in one of the most historically segregated states in the country.

“This is going to make a powerful statement, I think, not only to the state but to the country,'' said William Winter, a Democrat who was governor from 1980 to 1984. "That in Mississippi, we now understand the importance of the participation of both races, of black folks and white folks working together, to build a state. And out of that come the mutual respect and understanding of our common humanity, at the same time that we understand the differences of the history that go into our respective backgrounds.''

Winter is a major supporter of what has been dubbed the 2 Mississippi Museums project, and for years has been advocating better race relations between blacks and whites in the South through the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

“I think it’s appropriate, I think it’s the right thing to do and I think this is the right place to do it,'' he said.

A painful discussion

Working images of exhibits in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum created by the design firm Hilferty and Associates.
Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives & History

Securing the funding was done “with great difficulty,” according to Democratic state Sen. John Horhn, who served on the state commission behind the legislation that made the museum a reality.

“I’ve not had in my 21 years being in the [state] Senate an experience where 10 different conference reports were drawn up for presentation to the Senate that were not brought to the floor,'' he said. "It was the 11th time that was the charm.”

To those not steeped in Southern culture and history, the two museums may still appear to be segregated, with the history museum on the left and the civil rights museum on the opposite side. They share an entrance, however, and natives of the Mississippi Delta would argue that the state is taking an honest and genuine approach to bring the races together.

The project, which will cost Mississippi close to $90 million, gives the state an opportunity to start an open discussion, albeit a painful one, about the atrocities that took place there during the civil rights movement. Those include the assassination of Medgar Evers in June 1963 and the murders of three civil rights workers a year later, which led to an investigation the FBI called "Mississippi Burning.''

It’s also an opportunity for the poorest state in the nation to join the growing boom in heritage tourism and to attract visitors from around the world.

“It’s going to mean thousands of people coming to the city, and it's going to mean thousands of people coming to the state and this museum,” said Robert Luckett, a professor of African-American and civil rights history at Jackson State University.

“We look at our sister institutions in Birmingham and in Memphis, and we know people are going to these places and visiting them and making them significant tourist attractions," he said. "So it also has a real economic significance.”

'A museum of conscience'

This civil rights museum is part of a national wave of interest in the civil rights movement; it’s one of at least seven institutions to be built or to begin construction in the last few years, though all the others were built with private funding.

“As a historian and a professor at an HBCU (historically black college or university), it amazes me how little my students know about their own history and their own culture, but also how much they want to learn about their history and culture,” Luckett said. “I have students whose parents and grandparents were civil rights activists, and they don’t know it because they don’t talk about it and they haven’t asked.”

Most museums are built and operated with private funds, and museums dedicated to the African-American story often have challenges raising enough funds to keep the doors open. Efforts to build a National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va., were abandoned when the organization filed for bankruptcy after failing to raise enough private funding to pay for construction and property taxes.

The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, N.C., built on the site of the 1960 sit-in movement, has been struggling financially since it opened its doors in 2010, running close to a $400,000 deficit each year and defaulting on a $4 million loan.

The Mississippi museum should be shielded from similar problems because of its funding from the state, but it will still need additional outside funding. The Foundation for Mississippi History is trying to raise a $4 million endowment that would be split evenly between the two museums; the interest from that endowment would potentially help fund programming and new exhibits.

“We know that we will have to continue to supplement that endowment with private funds,” said Lucy Allen, director of the 2 Mississippi Museums project, “and we hope that once we are open and we have our public programming established and see that we are valued in the community, the community actually uses us and wants to be a part of what we do in this institution, that we’ll have private funders who will want to continue to fund these types of programs and operations of it.” 

John Fleming, a consultant for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, said that people don’t realize what it takes financially to run what he called a “museum of conscience,” and that if civil rights museums want to keep their doors open they must diversify their income.

“It can’t depend upon revenue from the gate, from admissions,” said Fleming, a former president of the Association of African American Museums. “If you’re constantly having to raise revenue, then you are detracting from the true mission that you have, and that is to bring about change in society. One thing that I pointed out was that the African-American community needs to step up to the plate and support these institutions, just like they historically have supported the African-American church.”

The hunt for artifacts

The Jacqueline House, a treasure trove of African-American history in Vicksburg, Miss.
Dexter Mullins/Al Jazeera

As the two museum collections take shape, Jacqueline Dace, curator and project manager for the civil rights museum, will have to persuade skeptics to give or lend the institution their artifacts.

“You have to show up and prove yourself,” Dace told Al Jazeera. “We may have to wait until after the museum is open before we begin to receive those artifacts we’re seeking, because the trust has to be built. There have been several decades of a trust being broken down, and now the trust has to be built.”

From now until the museum's opening, Dace, currently on the hunt for a hand-painted sign from the 1963 March on Washington, will spend a lot of time traveling the country to persuade people to donate items to the museum rather than auction them off or turn to eBay.

Just about 40 miles west of downtown Jackson, a small house turned museum could be filled with some of the artifacts that Dace seeks.

Yolande Robbins converted her older sister’s home into the Jacqueline House, a local African-American history museum in Vicksburg, Miss., after her sibling's death in 1994. With its yellow paint and green trim, it stands out on the quiet street, adjacent to Robbins’ family-owned funeral home, where Yolande lives.

Inside, there isn’t an inch of wasted space. The walls are lined with photographs of black soldiers and pilots, letters from a U.S. president and class photographs from local high schools in the early 1900s, to say nothing of the handmade washboard or old-fashioned beauty-shop implements.

By Robbins’ count there are more than 20,000 items: photographs, manuscripts, books, music, newspaper clippings and other relics.

“It’s really surprising to me that more people haven’t done this,” Robbins said. “Even we have been amazed at how much history people have had and made readily available to us. They have these (items) in Bibles and wardrobes and tucked away, and there’s no telling how much of it has been lost when things have just been sort of dispersed throughout the family or given away without people realizing what value there is.”

Inside the Jacqueline House

An honest telling

Perhaps the museum's greatest challenge will be convincing people — African-Americans in particular — that it will honestly tell the story of the state's past, a hurdle it won’t be able to climb over until opening day.

Dace said that she often hears people say, "They're not going to tell the story, they’re not going to tell it in the detail it needs to be told, or they’re not going to tell the truth."

But, she said, "that's what I came for."

"I wouldn't be here," she said, "if it wasn't the concept that we're going to tell it in all its ugly, graphic detail."

While that may be a big challenge, Horhn said the state is ready: "If Mississippi can do it, anyone can do it."

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