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Larger than the Lorraine: Local Black history museums you haven't heard of

Dr. Carnita Atwater with a selection of her African-American history artifacts.

Dr. Carnita Atwater's message is that African-American history goes beyond slavery.

Dr. Carnita Atwater and the archives of her museum at the New Chicago Community Development Corp.

Dr. Carnita Atwater showing the bags slaves used for picking cotton.

A replica of Ku Klux Klan garb on display at the House of Mtenzi museum.

Civil Rights-era artifacts at the House of Mtenzi.

It's My Time, a standalone event venue, regularly hosts arts events.

Hyper-local museums run by Memphians bring a personal angle to the dominant narrative of the city's fight for civil rights.

There is history on the streets of the city of three kings, Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tourists visit Memphis from all over the world for blues, barbecue and music with a list of must-see attractions like Graceland and Beale Street as well as the National Civil Rights Museum located within the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. King's assassination. Each location has strong ties to black history in Memphis.

As the internationally recognized gems are visited by tourists and locals, several lesser-known sites are thriving with unique stories and experiences to offer as well.

The House of Mtenzi, located near the Memphis Medical District, delves specifically into the local impact of one family on the city of Memphis.  The New Chicago Community Development Corporation in North Memphis features local, national and international historical artifacts of African-American history.

The owners of these hyper-local museums hope to share their personal place in black history, highlight the stories they have to tell and the importance of their organizations in shaping a larger historical narrative of Memphis' struggle for civil rights.

A family’s struggle told through art

Located at 1289 Madison Avenue, the House of Mtenzi museum and entertainment hall is red and blue. The colorful exterior stands out from the nearby strip retail and gas stations along Madison Avenue.

The side facing Madison has the words, “It’s My Time Entertainment Center” painted on the side of the building. The side where one enters the museum has the words “It’s My Time” inside of a painted moon and “H.O.M Museum” beside it.

The interior of the House of Mtenzi museum at 1289 Madison Avenue.
The inside of the museum seems almost cavernous. Every nook and cranny of the building is filled with artifacts of personal and historical significance. The word Mtenzi means artist in Swahili, and art is the connection between one family's history and the greater narrative of the fight for civil rights.

The owner Stanley Campbell Sr. started It’s My Time nearly 20 years ago. The event hall still hosts events and art shows. The adjacent House of Mtenzi is a newer addition. The eclectic museum, which is open Monday through Friday from 11 A.M. to 6 P.M. with a $5 admission, was created six years ago and tells the history of Campbell’s family and their personal and sometimes historic imprint on Memphis.

The walls are lined with personal mementos such as pictures, records, letters, and men’s suits with descriptions for a self-guided tour explaining the significance of each item.

 A photo from 1977 of Michael Jackson on top of the Woolco Department Store in Memphis roof stands out next to an encased suit with a gold mask sitting at the neck meant to represent the Runaway Man, a character of Campbell's creation. Near that display is a replica of a Ku Klux Klan uniform. 

Stanley Cambell opened the museum as a way to bring to life the memories of his mother, who has Alzheimer's.
Family history bleeds into historical significance when Cambell talks about his mother Thelma, a sharecropper turned activist.

Thelma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years ago. That's when Campbell decided to open the museum.

“That’s why the museum is here,” Campbell said. “My mom was a major activist in the City of Memphis feeding the homeless, helping to campaign for (Harold) Ford Sr. in the 70s and 80s. She was neighborhood president in South Memphis. That right there was a challenge.

In the 70’s and especially in the 80’s when crack started hitting the scene. She ministered to the dope pusher, to the crackhead and…she was just an all-around queen I would say.”

Stanley Cambell's collection includes artifacts of local significance, like picket signs from the 1968 sanitation workers' strike that drew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis.
Thelma began picking cotton in 1938 as a child. In 1966, she brought Campbell, who was born in Como, Miss., to Memphis after she decided she was tired of cotton fields and wanted to start a new life. One of the first exhibits in the House of Mtenzi is a replica of Thelma’s home in Mississippi accompanied with a recording of her singing.

“I taped her a year and a half ago. One thing I do know, my mom is a God-fearing woman.  She may at this moment, forget who I am or my name, but she knows God and she knows gospel songs. It’s just rooted in her heart,” Campbell said.

“She would stop singing and say, Ok...so who are you? She would say that to me, but she would sing like that (referring to audio in the background of Thelma singing).”

The colorful entrance to the House of Mtenzi museum.
Support from his family and memories shared by his mother helped shape the exhibits. One of the many signs and messages on the walls of the museum is the “Nine Mustard Seeds of Faith,” meant to represent Campbell and his eight brothers and sisters.

The museum is a more than 2,000 square foot comprehensive visual of his family’s history and a personal angle to Memphis’ dominant civil rights narrative.

Campbell said he’s currently training a successor that will hopefully help the museum continue to grow into a larger venue in the next 20 to 30 years. Just a little over three miles away, Dr. Carnita Atwater said she hopes to accomplish the same for her unique black history museum housed at the New Chicago Community Development Corporation.

The self-appointed preservationist

As Dr. Carnita Atwater talked about important African-American inventors and acquiring pieces from Sammy Davis Jr.’s estate, including investigations papers from the FBI, she picked up a leather whip. It was braided with green flecks. The four other people in the room stood back as she steadied herself. One knee bent forward as her right arm reached back. 

Crack.

Dr. Carnita Atwater demonstrates using a whip at the New Chicago Community Development Corp.“Never forget the sound. And just think of when they would take that whip and hit them on the back and the flesh would come off and they would put salt in the wound to agitate it,” Dr. Atwater said. “Never forget.”

Crack.

“Just the sound of that whip,” she said.” You see how we are just so blessed today to have our freedom. That’s why it’s imperative that we never forget our history and what we went through as a people.” 

Located at 1036 Firestone Avenue, the NCCDC hosts more than 30 years of historic artifacts from all over the world valued at $15 million, according to Atwater.

She estimates her total collection has approximately 4 million pieces, including 450,000 African artifacts with at least 5,000 African masks, signed documents by Thurgood Marshall and Coretta Scott King, original parachutes and masks from the Tuskegee Airmen, 4,000 pieces of sheet music and more.

Each piece goes through an appraiser to be authenticated before becoming part of the museum, she said.

Some pieces were behind glass while others Atwater encouraged visitors to touch.


“Some of my artifacts come from estate sales and auctions. People know that I deal in antiques. When they have an artifact they will call me up,” she said. “I have traveled all around the world to collect these artifacts—Italy, Germany, Japan, Africa, and Canada.  Wherever someone had an estate sale, I would go.”

NCCDC is open Mon-Saturday from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. and Sunday by appointment only. Admission is $10 for adults and $6 for children. Atwater said that if you don’t have any money, you won’t be turned away from the museum because her vision and goal is to educate as many people as possible about African American History, emphasizing that the story begins before slavery. In February, Black History Month, Atwater received more than 3,000 visitors.

Dr. Carnita Atwater shows shackles used for an infant's ankles.
“I do this because I have a love for culture and a love for the African-American experience, not only in the city of Memphis but the whole world.  I have Godly love for our babies that need to know their history.  When I say our babies, I am not talking about just African American children,” she said.

“I am talking about children from all races and nationalities.  If we are going to be the backbone for the next generation, then we have an obligation to teach our children true history in its entirety.”

Atwater’s depiction of “true history” can be painful to witness.

Atwater said one her most memorable pieces is a pair of baby shackles she found at an estate sale in Alabama.

“What would possess someone to make a shackle for a baby? This touched my heart. These shackles keep me grounded, every time I think of someone shackling a baby, an innocent child. That tells me, we still have a long way to go,” she said.

The interior of the African-American history museum that Dr. Carnita Atwater directs.
“How they shackle today, physically they do not shackle you, they put shackles on your mind. They put shackles on your soul. When you do not give people food, that’s enslaving them," she said.

"When you do not give people decent houses to live in, that’s enslaving them, when you overtax the poor and give tax breaks to the rich, that’s enslaving them.”

All 4 million of Atwater’s pieces are not currently on display. She estimated that would take a seven-story building. On the second level of the NCCDC are rooms filled with plastic bins stacked to the ceiling of historical artifacts.

As she excitedly pulled out original photos of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Black Panter Party paraphernalia, and copies of Jet Magazine with Shirley Chisolm on the cover, Atwater talked about how her museum fits into the larger narrative of Memphis history.
Early 20th century toys and dolls that depict stereotypes of African-Americans.
“I am doing all I can to bring this museum to the forefront. I have been back in Memphis about 10 years and have attempted to purchase a permanent home for this museum,” Atwater said, adding that she had her eye on Clayborn Temple, the Hunt-Phelan mansion, the Universal Life building and the former Police Department building on Adams Street as potential permanent homes for her extensive collections.

“But those doors were closed to me,” she said. “I cannot understand why the city of Memphis will not embrace it because most people know about the museum.”

Atwater said she refuses to water down history and believes it’s important to tell all aspects of black history.

“I do not want to start with slavery. (African-American history) started in Africa with royalty, kings and queens.  I want to talk about the transatlantic trade and middle passage. I do not want that to be hidden in history books,” she said. “I am going to do everything I can to keep it in the forefront of America.”

Read more articles by Erica Horton.

Born and raised in Memphis, Erica Horton is a freelance journalist that loves to learn and write about almost anything. Email her story ideas here
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