New Funding Will Help Highlight Five Black History Sites in the American South

Museum interior with photographic exhibits
The Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum preserves photographs and artifacts from the civil rights movement. Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum

A memorial to the victims of a 1973 munitions plant explosion and a monument honoring enslaved women who were the subject of medical experiments are among five Black history sites set to receive grants from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). As the Associated Press (AP) reports, the Montgomery, Alabama–based advocacy group is offering each recipient $50,000 to support current and future programming.

“As communities of all sizes around the globe confront racism, discrimination and oppression, the commitment of museums, to tell the stories of their communities, in addition to the commitment to diversity equity accessibility and inclusion, has never been more important than it is today,” said Tafeni L. English, director of the SPLC’s Civil Rights Memorial Center, at a briefing announcing the grants.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which includes 56 members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, assisted the organization in choosing where to direct the funds. The recipients are the “Mothers of Gynecology” monument in Montgomery; the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts in Eatonville, Florida; the Thiokol Memorial Project in Woodbine, Georgia; the Fannie Lou Hamer Civil Rights Museum in Belzoni, Mississippi; and the Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum, located in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

Unveiled in September, the Montgomery monument recognizes three women—Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey—who were unwilling subjects of experiments by 19th-century physician J. Marion Sims, often called the father of modern gynecology. Sims developed his gynecological techniques by practicing on 11 enslaved women in the 1840s, writes Dennis Pillion for AL.com. He conducted the experiments without anesthesia because he believed Black people didn’t experience pain the way white people did.

Montgomery artist Michelle Browder created the sculpture, which stands at almost 15 feet tall, reports Linda Matchan for the Washington Post. Browder says she chose the women after learning about the experiments more than 25 years ago as a student at the Art Institute of Atlanta. She hopes the monument will serve as a counter-protest to a Sims statue, located in front of the Alabama State House.

metal statue showing stylized images of three women
The “Mothers of Gynecology” monument recognizes three women, Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, who were among the unwilling subjects of medical experiments in the 1840s. Drmies via Wikimedia Commons under CC SA 4.0

“No one talks about these women and their sacrifices and the experimentations that they suffered,” Browder tells AL.com. “And so I feel that if you’re going to tell the truth about this history, we need to tell it all.”

The Zora Neale Hurston museum will spend its grant on improvements to the facility and its programing, as well as a billboard pointing visitors to the institution, reports Desiree Stennett for the Orlando Sentinel. The funding comes as the museum kicks off an annual festival celebrating its namesake, a renowned writer and anthropologist. 

“This couldn’t have happened at a nicer time,” says N.Y. Nathiri, executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, which operates the museum, to the Sentinel.

The Thiokol Memorial Project is dedicated to honoring the 29 people killed  in a 1971 explosion at the Thiokol munitions plant in Woodbine. The factory made trip flares for use in the Vietnam War and employed mostly Black women. Memorial organizers have collected firsthand accounts from survivors of the disaster, now in their 70s and 80s, and worked tirelessly to win recognition for the victims.

“Those employees were working to help our country during wartime,” Georgia Representative Earl Carter told Jerry Grillo of Atlanta magazine in 2017. “It would be irresponsible of us if we didn’t do something to remember what happened.”

The Fannie Lou Hamer museum has been sharing the history of its subject—a civil rights icon who helped organize Freedom Summer activities and voter registration drives with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s—for 21 years, reports Lici Beveridge for the Clarion Ledger.

portrait of Zora Neale Hurston wearing a dark hat in front of a pattered cloth backdrop
The Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts is receiving the grant as it kicks off its annual festival celebrating its namesake, a renowned writer and anthropologist. by Carl Van Vechten via Regan Vercruysse via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

SPLC’s grant, says director Helen Sims, “will allow us to do much-needed work around the museum so we can continue to reach younger generations who haven’t heard the stories.”

The final grant recipient is a museum dedicated to Cecil Williams, a photographer who spent decades chronicling the civil rights movement. U.S. House Majority Whip and Black Caucus member James Clyburn tells the Times and Democrat’s Dionne Gleaton that Williams was a constant presence during the congressman’s time as a SNCC founder and activist.

“He recorded almost everything that we were doing regarding the civil rights activities,” says Clyburn. “… Wherever there is something taking place, there was Cecil Williams taking pictures.”

Now 84, Williams created the museum to preserve and share memorabilia, photographs and documents from the civil rights movement in South Carolina. 

“This is the kind of assistance and funding that we need to help to sustain the history that I have gathered,” Williams tells the Times and Democrat. “Before the Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum in Orangeburg, the state of South Carolina did not have a single museum that really told our story.”

Comments are closed.