John Shearer: Attending African American History Museum Opening

  • Sunday, June 23, 2024
  • John Shearer

As I reached 701 Hooker Road in Alton Park Saturday morning from South Chattanooga and St. Elmo via lots of turns off 40th Street, Fagan Street, Workman Road, and Wilson Street, I realized I had come upon an old school.

It is now called the Chattanooga Civic Center at Mountainside, and even houses radio station WPTP 100.1, but it quickly became obvious it was originally a school built in the mid-20th century. A plaque from the initial opening on the inside said it was the former Piney Woods Elementary designed by architects Derthick & Henley and built in 1963 by C&I Specialty Co.

An interesting lobby wall tile pattern of some children of different colors dancing or exercising added some additional mid-century charm to this former city school from the days before the merger with the county system.

While this building next to the Emma Wheeler Homes is used now by the Alton Park Development Corporation, officials hope learning of history will begin anew there, just like in its old school days. And the topic might include learning about a famous speech made in Washington, D.C., by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the same year in which the building was constructed.

About two dozen people gathered at 10 a.m. for the ribbon cutting and opening of the African American Education and Heritage Museum there. While the museum is currently somewhat modest with mostly framed mementoes or stories of the black experience in America along with a few other eye-catching items, including an interesting model of a slave ship of old, it was not hard to tell a lot of work and thought had gone into it.

In fact, you could see much pride on a couple of faces of officials, as if they were working for a famous art museum in New York adding a new wing. Dr. Elenora Woods, the president of the Alton Park Development Corporation that is opening the museum, said the facility has come about through a vision and a dream. And, she said, the motivation for it was due to what she saw as a lack of attention on certain parts of history.

“I’ve been with this organization since 1998, and when we were blessed to take ownership of this facility, one of the things I wanted to do, and the people in the community wanted to do, was learn about African history,” she said. “If you watch the news and study it nationwide, that’s one of the things that is hard to do is find African history courses.

“And we thought, ‘What if we partner with this facility and make it an African American history museum and also make it an educational and heritage museum. Not only are you just looking at pictures, but you also have an opportunity to study.’ ”

She said that veteran local teacher Harold Bryson has also agreed to teach on a variety of related topics for those interested. Raised in West Tennessee at the dawn of more equal opportunities for different races, he was later educated at Lane College and Washington University.

During a brief presentation, he said he is interested in the topic that Africa is the cradle of civilization, as some believe. He also said he follows Malcom X’s quoted line regarding the rewards of historical research.

A former colleague of Johnny Holloway of Operation PUSH, he summed up in an upbeat manner his plans for the classes by saying, “This is not going to be about racism. This class will be about facts, African history and how it is related. All we want to do is talk about the truth.”

Dr. Woods added that she hopes the museum becomes a place in which the school system can bring students for enrichment. She wants it to be a facility for people of all cultures to learn, and she hopes to coordinate with the school system to bring children there for free.

“It is all across cultural lines,” said Dr. Woods, a dentist who also offers dental care there and grew up in the Westside and ran for mayor in 2021. “It’s not just black kids or Hispanic kids and Indian kids. It’s also white kids. Everybody wants to know the history of African Americans.”

The museum – which is slightly different from the Bessie Smith Cultural Center that focuses in large part on the Chattanooga black history story -- also hopes to draw visitors from out of town. And part of the way is by offering different exhibits, with some paintings by Jerry Allen depicting the slave era now on exhibit and for sale.

The ribbon-cutting ceremonies were attended by a relatively small number of people, but a few dignitaries were spotted. On hand were Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp, County Commissioner Joe Graham, state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, and Local News 3 anchor LaTrice Currie, who was there with several sorority sisters from Alpha Kappa Alpha. Ms. Currie at one point as the ceremony ended grabbed the microphone and saluted the work of Dr. Woods.

The highlight of the day, though, might have been drummer Mawre Kofi from Ghana West Africa, who played the drums and even got the small group to rhythmically chant along with him as he pounded away. Six members of the Howard High band dance team also performed, and a belated Juneteenth day of activities on the grass around the building also took place after the ribbon cutting.

Mayor Wamp in his remarks endorsed the museum. He even offered a praising look at African American history in Chattanooga and hinted that it is a noble part of the city’s overall history.

“To understand Chattanooga’s history and to understand the history of Hamilton County, you have to understand African American history,” he said. “They are completely intertwined like no other city in the South.

“It’s a community that, going back to the Civil War, was the southernmost point of Union sympathy. This was not just a place of Union sympathy, this was also a place to support emancipation.”

He also told the group that his young boy was named for Daniel Trewhitt, a little known former white state legislator who supported the Union and opposed secession when the war was starting. He was buried at nearby Forest Hills Cemetery and has a statue-like marker there.

The mayor also referred to the first superintendent being a black man, apparently a reference to the Rev. Ewing Tade, who helped start Howard High and the public school system in the late 1860s here. That was a few years before a white public school system began and Chattanooga High opened.

As I left the old former school building after being there less than an hour and piggybacking on the initial dignitaries’ tour as a member of the media, I silently wished the place well and once again noticed the tiles of the children of different colors.

I hope many real children and others get to exercise their minds in a harmonious and freeing manner about history through the museum, just as the ceramic youngsters were doing in a physical manner.

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Those wanting to know more about the museum and its programs can call (423) 713-7614.

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