Washtenaw United: Building a brighter future through understanding local Black History
February is Black History Month. Every Monday in February, WEMU's "Washtenaw United" will explore the history being made today in context of, where we've been, and where we're going. The African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County is a beacon, exploring and preserving the rich local history of the African American community. Museum president and CEO Joyce Hunter joined WEMU's David Fair about the need for greater education and the personal importance of building and creating a new and better future.
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County 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.'
ABOUT JOYCE HUNTER:
Joyce is a founding member and the President/CEO of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. Under her leadership, the Board has implemented a number of programs and opened their doors on October 24, 2021 to the public. The Museum is now open on Saturday and Sundays from 12 – 4 PM.It is located at 1528 Pontiac Trail. Her motto has been “An idea with action remains a Dream." When she retired from Ann Arbor Public Schools, she was serving as the Assistant Superintendent for Secondary schools which included supervising all the middle and high schools in the Ann Arbor District.
The African American Cultural and Historical Museum was featured in our Equity Challenge so we are expanding the footprint in hopes that people will engage in learning more about the history of our community. Lifting up nonprofits in the area, BiPOC led, in hopes of deepening the understanding of how important it is and not whitewashing it. UWWC feels helping people connect with history during Black History Month is important to help understand where we have come from in order to move forward with where we want to/should be.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and as you know, February is Black History Month. I'm David Fair, and with each of our Washtenaw United features throughout the month, we will look at an aspect of Black history and culture and the history that's being written today that will move us closer to equity and full opportunity here in our community. Our guest today is Joyce Hunter, and Joyce is a founding member and president and CEO of the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. Joyce, thank you so much for the time today.
Joyce Hunter: Thank you for asking us to participate.
David Fair: On a personal level, what does Black History Month mean to you?
Joyce Hunter: Well, it's an opportunity to highlight and share the contributions of African-Americans, not only locally but nationally.
David Fair: I'm sure you're aware that there are critics of Black History Month from both white and Black people. There are movements in some communities in the U.S. to make the month optional, allowing students and parents to opt out of participating. Some call for a White History Month. Actor Morgan Freeman once called for abolishing the month, saying we should stop defining one another by our color. The month of observation has been around for a long time and officially became recognized by the federal government during the Gerald Ford presidency, coinciding with the bicentennial in 1976. In your view, why is it so important we continue to observe Black History Month?
Joyce Hunter: It's important because it's not taught in schools on a regular basis, so, oftentimes, students don't even hear about contributions that African-Americans have made. And so, until it becomes becomes part of the history in our schools, it still needs to be taught or it still needs to be highlighted because it's not taught.
David Fair: Much of our education system, as you pointed out, the textbooks that we use to provide to teach American history is focused on a great number of dead white men. And yet, there is no American history without African-American history. After all this time, how significant a barrier is historical whitewashing to reaching a place of equity and equality?
Joyce Hunter: I think it's very significant, because those are the people you hear about. And, once again, not the contributions of African-Americans at all, or very few people know certain things about those contributions. So, it is a big barrier, if that's the question you're asking me.
David Fair: Washtenaw United continues on 89 one WEMU as we marked the first week of Black History Month. We're talking with Joyce Hunter, the president and CEO of the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. And, Joyce, I don't have to tell you Washtenaw County is rich with African-American history. I think most are aware of the connection to and the importance of the Underground Railroad in this area. What are some of the other connections that should be, but are not, common knowledge?
Joyce Hunter: Well, one of the things that we've done as the museum in partnership with Ann Arbor District Library, we've actually started interviewing African-Americans that have lived in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti areas all or most of their lives. And so, when we interview those individuals, or have interviewed them, we find out about things that other people aren't aware of. I learned things myself. For instance, the Kerrytown area, at one point, was predominantly Black in that area. There was a Black business district there. And we recently done a Livernois history walking tour, so that people can actually get a map and walk around and see some of the areas that were predominantly Black in that area. So, people certainly don't know that we had a Black business district in that area. And there also was one in the Ypsilanti area as well.
David Fair: So, through that experience and that project, when people, regardless of color or race, visit the museum and then talk to you about the experience, what do you learn about who we are as a community?
Joyce Hunter: Well, one thing I learned is that people really don't know a lot about Blacks' contributions in this area. They always are so pleased that to learn some of the information that we're sharing, to come and see the exhibits that we now. We have an exhibit now. We just put up the Sankofa exhibit, and it was the work of Jon Lockard. So, people come in, and some don't even know who Jon Lockard is. And he was at the University of Michigan Afro-American Studies department for 40 plus years. So, they don't know about different artists, different contributions. So, they're enlightened, and, oftentimes, they'll share things with us, but, oftentimes, people don't know and not learned or heard about this information at all.
David Fair: As that understanding grows, how do you see the ongoing evolution of the museum and its place in advancing community knowledge and understanding?
Joyce Hunter: One of the things that we have done--and we do really well--is collaborating. And so, we were a museum without walls for many years, because we didn't have a building. Now, we have a building. And so, we now have a brick-and-mortar location, but we also want to continue being a museum outside the walls. And that means collaborating. For instance, just last week, we collaborated with the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance on a conference called "Diversity and Belonging." And so, we presented information about the museum. They also took part of a revised, shortened Underground Railroad tour, and they actually came to the museum. So, that is the way of connecting and continue to communicate and reach outside the museum to the greater community.
David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Joyce Hunter from the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. And we need to touch future generations and the current generation of very young people. So, that brings us back to education for a moment. When you retired from the Ann Arbor Public School District, you were assistant superintendent for secondary schools supervising the district's middle and high schools, if you were still working in education today, would you be advocating for the teaching of critical race theory?
Joyce Hunter: Well, critical race theory is not taught at that level. It's taught at the college level.
David Fair: Then let's go back to the whitewashing of American history. Would you seek out better materials to educate students on how American history is predicated on African-American history?
Joyce Hunter: Certainly, I certainly would. But I would do that along where we have curriculums coordinated. We are building principals. So, I would work with them to do that. It wouldn't just be me, but it would be bringing in the team at the school district to take a look at materials that could be included to use and to also get in outside the schools--doing field trips, and visiting things like the museum and going to events, that kind of thing for students.
David Fair: And some of those changes would be landmark in nature. What is your message to those who so fervently oppose such teachings and such experiences?
Joyce Hunter: Well, you know, I think when we learn about other cultures, it helps us to grow. I know that, as I started as a classroom teacher, and I oftentimes really enjoyed talked to my students from other countries because I would learn and grow and also in traveling. So, when you get outside your little immediate circle or box, you begin to learn and to grow. And that's important.
David Fair: The theme of the 2022 edition of Black History Month is Black Health and Wellness. Is that in any way being incorporated into the exhibit you have in the museum now and your online offerings?
Joyce Hunter: It is not now, but it will. But I'm in other organizations that we're getting ready to do a workshop series on health as it relates to specifically now Black women and childbirth. So, I'm involved in a number of different things, but the museum is not doing it right now, but other organizations that I'm a part of.
David Fair: It's critically important to creating the equity that we say is our shared goal.
Joyce Hunter: That's true.
David Fair: When the history of 2022 is written, what would you like said about this year at the museum?
Joyce Hunter: That our work was not just for African-Americans, that it's for all, and that they grew and came and learned from the information that we were sharing.
David Fair: I know the pandemic had a dramatic impact on what you were able to offer in person. So, where are we now with your hours and the accessibility of the museum to the public?
Joyce Hunter: Well, during the pandemic, we did it shut down because we had been a museum without walls for years, we made the pivot, and we just started doing virtual programming. So, we continue with programming. But, in terms of your question, we're now open on Saturdays and Sundays were 12 to four. And, like I mentioned, we just put up this Sankofa exhibit highlighting Jon Lockard's work.
David Fair: It is entirely worthwhile. I thank you for sharing time and perspective today, Joyce. I'm very grateful.
Joyce Hunter: Thank you for asking us to do this. I appreciate it.
David Fair: That is Joyce Hunter. She is the founding member of and president and CEO of the American African-American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. And she's been our guest on Washtenaw United. For more information on the museum and links to all it has to offer, just go to our website at WEMU. This weekly series is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County, and you hear Washtenaw United every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is 891 WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti.
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