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New Black history museum opens in Portsmouth

Jordan Crawford | 12/30/2013, 12:38 p.m.

The Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum had its grand opening last Sunday. The building has humble beginnings as the city’s first public library for Blacks during segregation.

Now, the 900-square-foot building, which has been moved twice since 1945, holds artifacts that tell the story of Blacks in Portsmouth.

Museum visitors are greeted inside the entrance by a ball and chain and an iron headdress that prevented slave escape. The headdress is in front of a mirror so visitors can imagine themselves wearing it. Slavery is the beginning of Black history in Portsmouth and the beginning of the story the museum illustrates.

“In setting up the exhibit, we wanted messages that people could see and experience,” said Dianne Swann-Wright, a guest curator from Baltimore who was hired to define and organize the museum’s inaugural display, “Forever Free: Portsmouth Stories of African American Strivings and Successes.”

The title was inspired by Frederick Douglass, whose portrait hangs prominently in the museum. Douglass, who visited Portsmouth in 1867, once made a speech in which he said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

He was making the point that literacy was the key to escaping bondage, Swann-Wright said.

“I wanted the museum visitor to not just see a library was created, but the reasons why,” she said. “The challenge was to present the museum's artifacts in a way that did justice to those who came before us.”

Some of the artifacts, gathered over many years by the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth, initially appeared not to fit into the exhibit. The ball and chain and headdress, for example, were from Brazil.

But Swann-Wright said as she considered them, she realized those implements of slavery were meant to keep people in place, just like Virginia laws of the time.

“When you enter the exhibit, you make the comparison,” she said.

The exhibit flows from slavery to the era of Jim Crow segregation, when the library was established. A sink embossed with the word “colored” hangs on the wall. Next to it are several artifacts and photographs that illustrate Black stereotypes of the day— a “mammy”-type figure with large hips and lips. In contrast nearby, the reality— photographs of petite, well-groomed Black women with neat hair and clothing.

“African American women were not considered tidy or beautiful, so they pressed their clothes, carried hankies and did their hair,” Swann-Wright said. “They pushed back against the stereotypes.”

Swann-Wright said Blacks of the era were challenged to not accept what people said was reality and to show by their actions they were different.

Since Blacks were banned from joining existing civic and social organizations, they created their own benevolent societies. A portion of the museum exhibit is dedicated to such Black organizations that helped their community. Those organizations, as well as Black churches, offered assistance to the needy, and ceremony and pomp that made their members feel special, Swann-Wright said. They also supported literacy in the Black community.

The museum includes displays regarding the creation of the library, with books, furniture and items originally found in the small book depository. A section dedicated to its first librarian, Bertha Edwards, includes one of her dresses, her scrapbook and other personal memorabilia. A bicycle similar to that used by the library courier to ferry books borrowed from the “white” library hangs from the wall.