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African American Museum of Iowa exhibit sheds light on protests, movements

Art activists Donte Hayes (right) and Savannah Simmons (standing, left) guide community members in painting a large mura
Art activists Donte Hayes (right) and Savannah Simmons (standing, left) guide community members in painting a large mural during the Unwavering: Art Creation in Defense of Black Lives event at the African American Museum of Iowa in southeast Cedar Rapids on June 27. The mural is one of two created for the “Unwavering 21st Century Activism” exhibit now on display at the museum. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Visitors have to walk through a powerful past before they can step into the powerful present in the African American Museum of Iowa’s new exhibit, “Unwavering: 21st Century Activism.”

Nearly a year in the making, including two community participation projects, “Unwavering” is on view through Aug. 7, 2021. During the current pandemic, hours are noon to 6 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays. All visitors must wear masks and follow the one-way arrows through the museum.

Doing so means visitors first step through The Door of No Return and into a representation of the slave ships that brought Africans to America, beginning the museum’s journey tracing the Black experience in Iowa, through the Civil War, the Underground Railroad, segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, up to a large 2008 photo of then-Sen. Barack Obama and his family on the night he won the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucus — deemed the first step on his way to the presidency.

The rich history of Blacks in Iowa includes a replica of Katz Drugstore in Des Moines, site of 1948-49 sit-ins Edna Griffin organized that forced the owner to obey the state’s Civil Rights laws and serve Blacks at his dining counter.

Then turn the corner into the new exhibit, to immerse yourself in the causes and activists that have continued to shape not only Black history, but LGTBQ and #MeToo history.

A detailed timeline shows the progression of social causes through the 20th and into the 21st century, beginning with the Niagara Movement in 1905, which in 1909 became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Curator Felicite Wolfe took a deep dive into history to find Iowa ties, noting that Iowa attorney George H. Woodson was one of the Niagara Movement founders, and in 1915, another attorney, S. Joe Brown, organized an Iowa NAACP chapter in Des Moines.

“The Iowa history is even harder to find when it comes to African-American history,” Wolfe said, “so I was excited that I could find some things to add the local component.”

It also was a learning process for her.

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“What I haven’t had a chance to do a lot of research on was the ’60s,” she said, “and the fact that Waterloo had riots and there was a big Black Panther presence in Des Moines — I believe Waterloo, also — I haven’t really been able to have time to dig into it.”

Key people on the local and national scenes are highlighted with short bios, as well. Edna Griffin of Des Moines has her own spot on the wall, as does Viola Gibson, who reactivated the Cedar Rapids NAACP chapter and fought to let Black children, like her nephew, swim in the new Ellis Park pool. An elementary school now bears her name. Malcom X is there, too, as the founder of the Black Power Movement, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee in silent protest, and “became a symbol of the modern athletic protest movement.”

The timeline features a mix of seminal and lesser-known moments: The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 that ended bus segregation in Alabama; the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, which led to the Civil Rights Movement; Brown vs. the Board of Education in Topeka in 1955, which ended racial segregation in public schools, and the Little Rock Nine who tested the law in 1957; the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a Dream” speech; the Black Arts Movement of 1965-75; the 1966 founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW), still fighting for women’s rights; the Stonewall Riots of 1969, triggered by the actions of Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender female, protesting LGBTQ discrimination; #MeToo, put forth in 2006 by Black activist Tarana Burke, who worked with Black female sexual assault victims; Black Lives Matter, written in a 2013 Facebook post after George Zimmerman was acquitted for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin; and #SayHerName, #MeToo MEN, #AllLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, #BeHEARD, #TakeAKnee, #LoveIsLove.

So many people, so many causes, meticulously outlined in words and videos.

But the exhibit, divided into four spaces, also features vivid bursts of artwork in signs and murals created by the community during museum workshops in June, as well as piercing quotes from Black writers; a remembrance room where visitors can write the name of the deceased on a paper dove and attach it to fencing; community reflections generated by an all-ages, all-races online writing project, also conducted in June; and an opportunity to chart your own privilege, according to gender, heritage, race and religion.

It ends with a call to “honor the past, speak about the present, imagine the future, (and identify) blind spots.”

“I hope people learn something (and) grow — that’s my whole thing,” Wolfe said. “If somebody learned something they didn’t know before, if it just gives you a little bit more awareness of yourself — and a lot of the topics are not comfortable. Most of them are not, and you’re going to feel uncomfortable, and that’s OK. You could feel angry, that’s OK. If it sparks some kind of emotion in you, great, I feel like I’ve done my job.”

At a Glance

• What: “Unwavering: 21st Century Activism” exhibit

• Where: African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• When: Through Aug. 7, 2021

• Hours: Noon to 6 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday

• Admission: $6 adults; $5 seniors; $3.50 students and youths; free under age 5 and museum members; discount admission for SNAP recipients

• Details: Blackiowa.org/unwavering/

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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