To Cap African American Heritage Fest, Charlotte Museum Allows Visitors In For Siloam School Exhibit
In 2019, the Charlotte Museum of History’s African American Heritage Festival was going strong. The event was just in its second year, and it had already attracted a crowd of more than 1,000 visitors to the museum’s campus on the city’s east side.
And things were going strong in 2020, when the festival — then in late February — was the museum's last in-person event before the coronavirus started tearing its way across North Carolina, forcing closures, crowd restrictions and other safety measures.
For 2021, the festival moved to June.
“This time last year, we certainly weren’t thinking about a thousand people being together in the museum,” Charlotte Museum of History President and CEO Adria Focht said. “This year, we decided to spread it out.”
The festival has been going on all week, and it’s a mix of virtual and in-person events. There’s already been a West African dance demonstration from the Charlotte Ballet, a session with historians about the Rosenwald Fund that helped build thousands of schoolhouses for Black children across the South in the early 20th century, and a conversation about African American food, hair and fashion with playwright and actress Lakeetha Blakeney.
A JazzArts concert for Friday night quickly sold out, but there’s still a Museum on the Grounds event Saturday to close out the festival. There will be a Drums 4 Life performance, a first-person historical narrative demonstration and a live painting event. Four local artists — Makayla Binter, Abel Jackson, Kalin Renée Deveone and Ricky Singh — will paint portraits of Black figures from Charlotte’s history. The finished portraits will be displayed at the museum.
Jackson will paint a woman named Nance, who was one of at least 17 people enslaved by Hezekiah Alexander, the namesake of the 1774 homestead that sits on the museum’s grounds.
“There were no portraits that were made in contemporary times of these individuals,” Focht said. “While we do have a statue of Hezekiah Alexander at the homesite, we don’t have any visual representation of any of the enslaved people there. … This is our first attempt to really create a visual representation of one of those individuals.”
Saturday is also the first day that the general public can tour the inside of the museum since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Between safety restrictions and renovations, the museum’s interior has been largely closed off, though guests have been allowed on the grounds for outside events since the fall. And starting June 26, visitors will be allowed in on Saturdays, with guided tours of the Alexander rock house also available.
When guests make it inside the museum Saturday, they’ll be greeted with a new exhibit: a photo-heavy display of the historic Siloam School. The dilapidated, wooden building in north Charlotte is one of Mecklenburg County’s oldest remaining African American schoolhouses. It’s also the county’s last Rosenwald school.
Focht says Siloam represents a community that is “almost all but lost to time.”
“I think that nationally, there's a big gap in K-12 curriculum as it relates to the long march from civil war to civil rights,” Focht said. “And in our telling of the Jim Crow South period, we don't have a lot of immersive historical experiences here to help students and adults understand the history of segregation… When we're talking about the Black experience in Mecklenburg County, we're not talking about points in time. We're talking about a long span of a continuum of history.”
The Charlotte Museum of History wants to relocate the Siloam School, shore up the building and outfit it for tours. The museum has raised more than half of its $1 million goal, either through direct money or in-kind donations, like offers to install the HVAC system or help with the physical relocation. Both the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have donated money to the project, and Focht says relocation could happen by the end of 2021 — “fingers crossed.”
Museum staff were still putting the final touches on the exhibit last week. But Lauren Wallace, education specialist at the museum, was more than happy to show it off in a preview.
Prints of Siloam’s walls and classroom line a hallway along with informational displays. Smaller artifacts from the building are in cases, and a panoramic view of the schoolhouse’s interior greets visitors in a circular room — complete with a desk in the middle. There’s also a way that people can use their phones to go on a virtual walkthrough of the Siloam School while in the museum.
Wallace thinks the exhibit will help raise awareness — along with donations to help complete Siloam’s relocation and restoration.
“It’s a community project,” Wallace said. “The community built the school, and the community is going to save it.”
Tickets to in-person events at the Charlotte Museum of History’s African American Heritage Festival are free but limited due to social distancing. Learn more at charlottemuseum.org.