This article originally appeared as part of High Ground's "Larger than the Lorraine: Local Black history museums you haven't heard of," published May 2017. It is reprinted here with minor edits.
Dr. Carnita Atwater 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.
“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.”
“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.”
The New Chicago Community Development Corporation features local, national, and international artifacts of African American history. Atwater is its director, collector, and curator.
The museum is small but packed.
Atwater estimates the total collection has approximately 4 million pieces, including 450,000 African artifacts with at least 5,000 African masks.
She has documents signed by Thurgood Marshall and Coretta Scott King, original parachutes and masks from the Tuskegee Airmen, and 4,000 pieces of sheet music. The collection highlights important African Americans from inventors to Sammy Davis Jr. Atwater acquired pieces from Davis' estate, including investigations papers from the FBI.
Each piece goes through an appraiser to be authenticated before becoming part of the museum, she said. According to Atwater, the NCCDC hosts historic artifacts from all over the world valued at a total $15 million.
All 4 million pieces are not currently on display. Atwater 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.
NCCDC is located in the Matthew R. Robinson Resource Center at 1036 Firestone Avenue. The collection is open Monday through 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 if customers don’t have money for a ticket, they won’t be turned away. Her vision and goal is to educate as many people as possible
about African American History.
While the museum has many items related to U.S. chattel slavery, Atwater maintains and the museum makes it clear that black history began before the slave trade and continued after.
“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.”
Some of the museum's pieces are behind glass. Atwater encourages visitors to touch other pieces.
“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,” said Atwater. “I have traveled all around the world to collect these artifacts—Italy, Germany, Japan, Africa, and Canada.”
Dr. Carnita Atwater holds up one of the New Chicago CDC's most important and unsettling artifacts. The infant-sized shackles were used during the transatlantic slave trade. (Ziggy Mack)
Atwater receives thousands of visitors during February's Black History Month.
“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 artifacts and depiction of history can be painful to witness. One of the museum's 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?," asked Atwater. "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."
The shackles, she said, are a reminder of ongoing oppressions.
“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.”
As she excitedly pulled out original photos of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Black Panther 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.
“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,” said Atwater.
She said she's looked at several buildings including Clayborn Temple, the Hunt-Phelan mansion, the Universal Life building, and the former Police Department building on Adams Street but was unable to secure those spaces.
“I cannot understand why the city of Memphis will not embrace it because most people know about the museum," said Atwater.
She said she won't water down fact and believes it’s important to tell all aspects of black history.