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Washtenaw United: Building bridges with 2nd Annual Black History Month exhibit in Ypsilanti

Riverside Arts Center


Dr. Debby Covington

Dr. Debby Covington, chair of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County.
University of Michigan Office of Culture, Community and Equity
Dr. Debby Covington, chair of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County.

Born and raised in Ann Arbor. MI. Alumnus of Michigan State University, University of Michigan, and two-time alumnus of Ashland Theological Seminary.

Through her work in CoE as the Director of Partnerships, Outreach and Recruitment, Debby has demonstrated extraordinary passion, dedication, scholarship, and experience in her positive and transformative impact on our students’ experience and in creating an inclusive climate for everyone. Among her many specific contributions, we want to highlight her development of the Anti-Racism Change It Up! Program and her work on a new Anti-Asian Racism initiative. Her leadership efforts in the AUC-DDEP pipeline program, bringing undergraduate students from Atlanta HBCUs to Michigan Engineering undergraduate degree programs, have helped make U-M a national leader in attracting, mentoring, and supporting these students successfully through their graduation. She has also impacted graduate education through the creation and redevelopment of U-M PUMP (University Partnership for Underrepresented Minority Participation) and EMERGE (Explore Michigan Engineering Research & Graduate Education). Beyond the University, Debby serves on the board of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County.

Ronnie Peterson

Ronnie Peterson
Michigan House Democrats
Ronnie Peterson

Former Representative for the House, 54th District from 2017 to 2023. Former Washtenaw County Commissioner and Ypsilanti City Council Member.

As a civic and community leader, Rep. Peterson is deeply committed and has been engaged in public service for more than 30 years. He served his community as an elected member of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. As a county commissioner, Rep. Peterson served as chair of the Ways and Means Committee and sat on the Retirement Pension Board and Money Purchase Board. Before countywide service, he was a member of the Ypsilanti City Council for two terms.


African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County (AACHM)

2nd Annual Black History Month Art Exhibition — "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?"

  • Closing Reception: February 23, 2024, from 6 – 8pm
  • Additional arrangements can be made by appointment for groups of 4 or more.
  • Contact aachmwc@gmail.com or info@riversidearts.org for arrangements.
  • Free of charge. $5 donations encouraged.

AACHM on Facebook

AACHM on X (Twitter)

Riverside Arts Center

Riverside Arts Center on Facebook

Riverside Arts Center on Instagram


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And I'd like to welcome you to another Black History Month edition of Washtenaw United. I'm David Fair, and over the past three weeks, there's been a rather special art exhibit at the Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti. It is the second annual Black History Month art exhibition, and, this year, its theme is derived from the title of a book written by Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. It's called "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?" It is also addressing a specific community need. There is a decided lack of opportunity for local Black artists, and the work they produce is underexposed. The exhibit--it's winding down and will close on February 23rd. So, our guests today partnered up to bring this exhibit to the community. We're going to find out more about it together. Doctor Debby Covington is the board chair of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. And Ronnie Peterson served on Ypsilanti City Council, on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and in the state House of Representatives. His wife, Gloria, who is also a sponsor of the exhibit, couldn't be here today. But thanks to both of you for making time for us.

Ronnie Peterson: Thank you.

Dr. Debby Covington: Thank you. Our pleasure.

David Fair: Debby, how did the museum partner with the Petersons decide that art exhibit was a good way to highlight Black arts and culture in our community?

Dr. Debby Covington: Well, thank you for the question. And it really all stemmed from Ronnie reaching out to me and saying, "Debby, I want to help put this African American Cultural and Historical Museum on the map in Ypsilanti, Michigan." We have a long history of activities in Ann Arbor. AACHM is the acronym for the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. So, there's been a dearth of activity of the AACHM in Ypsilanti. And I jumped on the invitation because I'm very passionate about making sure that our reach is throughout the county. And I spent a good portion of my life as a child in Ypsilanti for church every Sunday morning. And I know that there's this false divide between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. And we're hoping through these programs to bridge that divide, as well as elevate artists throughout the county.

David Fair: And, Ronnie, why do you see art as an avenue to create those kinds of bridges and highlight all that is good in Ypsilanti?

Ronnie Peterson: One of the things I think that is important that artists often express their feelings and their commitment or their passion, and that's one of the things I've enjoyed about supporting--me and Gloria supporting this effort--because artists express themselves, and I think many people who follow art and understand how to, let me say, read the artist's work in a sense in how they're expressing themselves. I have a deep appreciation for it. Many times, an artist doesn't talk a lot. They show. And that's one of the things I like about it. They have a vehicle to communicate. And then, it's an opportunity just bring us together in a peaceful way to appreciate the, let me say, the work of the artist, but also bringing a community together that can appreciate one another and what we do.

David Fair: So, Ronnie, you are a child of the Civil Rights Movement. You spent a civic life working for equity and opportunity. When you experienced the art that is on display at the Riverside Arts Center, you say it says a message. How did it speak to you?

Ronnie Peterson: Well, some of it speaks in a struggle, which we struggle every day. A lot of it speaks to, let me say, African American women, some of the artwork. And it speaks to what they encounter every day. And, as I say to people, sometimes people cannot sometimes express how they feel, but they can do it in their renderings, or they could do it in speech or in their words. And many times, poets express themselves. Artists express themselves. And, to me, it let me know that the commitment still rests there. You don't have to have a protest sign, but you basically send a signal through your work and art.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United, and we're talking about the Black History Month art exhibition at the Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti. Doctor Debby Covington from the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County is here, along with former state Representative Ronnie Peterson. Debby, the fight against institutional racism--it is ongoing in all aspects of American life. The art created by African Americans simply doesn't get seen or displayed as much. Now, there's a rich history and tradition in this particular artistic realm. What do we miss, as a community, as a society, when we don't make the effort to expose ourselves to the stories that these works tell?

Dr. Debby Covington: You know, that's a wonderful question. And the first thing that comes to mind is that we miss linkages. We miss progression. And what I mean by that is that artists tells stories over time. And it's beautiful. One of the things that I love about this art exhibit is that a lot of the artists are young, and I can see the linkages between what they are talking about now and what Goodwell talks about in his art, or John Lockhart talks about in his art. You can see these linkages and connections, and it also talks about progression because their ideas are new and fresh. One of the pieces there that are on exhibit right now gripped me the minute I saw it. And there's a young artist, and her name is Tiana Clemons, and she has a picture of young Black children who are astronauts. Now, to me, that's visionary. To me, that speaks to young people. And it says you can go to the moon literally and figuratively. You can do extraordinary things. You can do things that are out of this world, and you have that potential. So, I think that art has that power to speak to, an individual's destiny. It also has the power to give vision. It also has the ability to paint a picture of what can be and make it real in the lives of individuals. And one of the artists said that they grew up without seeing themselves represented in art. And so, everything he does includes representation of people who look like him. And, at first, he waffled back and forth whether he should do that or not. And then, he just decided. When he had children, it was so important for his children to see images that look like them. And thinking about institutional racism and how we help artists break through those barriers, I'm so happy and proud of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum, because, on December 9th, 2022, we purchased a piece of property. And we're currently renovating it. It's at 3261 Laurel Road, and it is owned outright, no debt, free and clear, owned by the African American Cultural and Historical Museum. And what that means is that now we have a place in a space where we don't have to get permission or try to jockey or be political to get artists into a space where they can exhibit their work. We own the space, so we will continually exhibit their art at that space when we open. And, currently, we have exhibited art for Black artists in our current location, and we have a long history through our focus on the arts program of elevating Black artists. So, this is such an exciting and an important piece to bring to Ypsilanti. And I'm so grateful for the partnership with Ronnie and Gloria Peterson, because we are really bridging the divide and challenging institutional racism on a number of levels.

David Fair: And, Ronnie, I want to go down that exact path. It's not lost on me that the museum was founded and located in Ann Arbor, and this exhibit is in Ypsilanti. We often talk about that US-23 divide.

Ronnie Peterson: Right.

David Fair: In some ways, it is a segregating line. So, do you see efforts like this art exhibit as another way to start erasing some of the racial, social, and economic divisions that are created between east and west of that highway?

Ronnie Peterson: That challenge remains with all of us. And, yes, I do see it. And that's a commitment we should all make in that we should find ways to bridge and community together for the best interests of all of the people. Not just some of the people, but all of the people. And, yes, I do see it as an avenue. I do see it. But we must come in as equal partners. We have to come up with some equity that Ypsilanti has always been in somewhat fighting for its identity in this county. And we remain doing that, but we look for partners to further our community for the best interests of our people.

David Fair: And, Ronnie, when this exhibit opened at the end of January, and you watched people taking in all that was provided by the artists in your conversations that night, did you get a sense that it has the ability to change and shift perception?

Ronnie Peterson: Yes, I think it does. I was very pleased to see people cross those border lies. But I also was very pleased that people came together and socialized together and were very comfortable with one another. This is the first time I've ever seen this, and, I was born here. And that was an important message to me that the future exists with us collectively working together.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. And we're talking about the second annual Black History Month art exhibition at the Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti. We're doing so with Ronnie Peterson and Debby Covington from the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. They are sponsors of this exhibit. Debby, closing night is coming up. What about the experience of the month at the Riverside Arts Center do you hope to infuse in the manner in which you approach your work at the museum?

Dr. Debby Covington: Ronnie talked about this energy that happened at opening night and continues to happen. This is the second year that we've experienced this rich vibrancy of a combined community. So, I hope that, as we close out this year, it will be at the next step or a stepping stone into 2025, when we come back, that we continue to build on this energy and this momentum. And I think it's interesting that Ronnie is a lifelong resident of Ypsilanti, and I was a lifelong resident of Ann Arbor, and Gloria and I were classmates. And to have these two lifetime members from different communities come together, I think it's important, symbolically, that we are bringing the community together. And so, just continuing in that vein, I think is going to be a wonderful night with Sean Dobbins. Last year, it was phenomenal. And this year, we expect the same and to continue to piggyback off of this relationship and do more throughout the year.

David Fair: Ronnie, the exhibit is called this year, "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?" Take your best guess. Are we going to have to go through a lot more chaos to create the community we so aspire to?

Ronnie Peterson: I think we got to go do a lot more work. Of course, the writing of that book and that speech came out of a meeting that Doctor Martin Luther King had with civil rights leaders. About 100 of them assembled in Atlanta. And if we had the conversation about "where do we go from here?" after major civil rights legislation--the voters' rights legislation--had been signed. And the question was put before them, and that question was put before us today: Where do we go from here? And I think every generation and every citizen should take that as a note that we all should work to collectively together to make this a better place to live. No matter where we choose to live, we have to make it better for ourselves, but also important for those others and, particularly, those less fortunate than we are.

David Fair: I would like to thank both of you for making the time today and sharing your perspectives and for sponsoring such an important, month-long community event.

Dr. Debby Covington: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.

Ronnie Peterson: Thank you, David.

David Fair: That is Ronnie Peterson. He is a former state representative from Ypsilanti. And Doctor Debby Covington is the board chair of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. The museum and Ronnie and his wife, Gloria Peterson, are the sponsors of the second annual Black History Month art exhibit at the Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti. It's called again, "Where Do We go from Here: Chaos or Community?" The show is going to close with a special event this Wednesday night, February 23rd. If you want more information, you can find it on the Riverside Arts Center web page, or we'll link you up when you visit our website at wemu.org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. We bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


This Black History Month, United Way is exploring topics, achievements, and individuals in our community that contribute to the rich history of Washtenaw County.

With the 2024 Black History Month theme being “African Americans and the Arts,” the African American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County teamed up with Riverside Arts Center and co-sponsors Ronnie and Gloria Peterson, to present the 2nd Annual Black History Month Art Exhibition – “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”

The art displayed in this year’s exhibition is inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book of the same title. Your attendance will enrich the cultural fabric of the community and contribute to a meaningful dialogue about the path forward in the spirit of unity and progress.

The rich tapestry of artistic expression at this event showcases a captivating display of prints, paintings, illustrations, and digital works. Last year’s exhibition theme was inspired by another work of Dr. King, “Why We Can’t Wait.”

The 2nd Annual Black History Month Art Exhibition will run until February 23, 2024, at Riverside Arts Center, 76 N Huron St, in Ypsilanti.

Find more African American art galleries, exhibits, and sales throughout the state on Pure Michigan’s website.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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