Arts & Culture

The Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum — Art. Soul. Community.

todayApril 14, 2019 30

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>> Article originally published in St. Pete Life Magazine <<

When you first walk into the Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum (also referred to as the Woodson), you will always be met with the smell of simmering potpourri. It never fails, and I personally feel a sort of reassurance knowing there are some things you can just count on. It’s a small yet memorable thing that not only appeals, it speaks to the homey intimacy and warmth of this space – hardly adjectives you would think of for a museum, but true nonetheless. It even looks like a home. It has windows and french doors that lead the lovely ”Legacy” garden. The layout is simple and inviting – bright and airy. There are shelves full of books. You just feel good to be visiting for any of the multiple reasons you would have to do so. If you’ve visited the Woodson, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t…..well then, your experience of St. Petersburg is woefully incomplete.

Located in South St. Petersburg, on the “Deuces” as the area along the 22nd St. South corridor is known, the Woodson, for good or bad, has become the keeper of the area’s rich African-American cultural legacy. Good because they are more than up to the task. Bad, because so many iconic venues of the past have fallen away, leaving a great responsibility to the Woodson to tell the stories, share the art, and celebrate the residents. This is truly a team effort with an actively engaged board, like current president Dana Battle, and incredibly dedicated volunteers. But the force behind what makes the Woodson all that it is, is the unstoppable Terri Lipsey Scott.

Scott joined the Woodson in 2008 as a board member, then became chair and ultimately took the mantle as Executive Director last year. She brings with her a unique love of art, education, and community – all the elements that bring diversity, engagement, and dialogue to each and every exhibit and event. The house is packed for every museum happening, and Scott knows how to throw a party. The food is always delectable, the decor always impressive and elegant, the activities memorable and thought provoking. To accomplish this predominantly through volunteerism? – It’s just damned impressive.

The Namesake

Carter Godwin Woodson, a scholar, journalist, and historian, is known to be one of the first to study African-American history and is credited with originating African-American history week in the 1920s. Jimmy Carter later designated the month of February as national African-American history month. Woodson also founded “The Journal of Negro History”, as well as what became the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. Currently based in Washington D.C., the ASALH’s mission is “to promote, research, preserve, interpret, and disseminate information about Black life, history, and culture to the global community.” It seems only fitting that Woodson is the inspiration for the museum that bears his name, for that is exactly what they do every single day in imaginative and colorful ways. Dr. Woodson would surely be proud of this living tribute to his consequential life.

St. Pete’s Forgotten History

Surrounding the Woodson’s current location are the echoes and ghosts of a bygone era that harken to memories of a significant African-American cultural epicenter. The Manhattan Casino was once and for many decades, a mecca for jazz and musical greats like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and too many other icons to name here. With declining attendance, the music at the Manhattan was silenced forever only recently. The nearby Royal Theater, opened in 1948, was one of only 2 theaters African-Americans were permitted to attend. Along with films, it

hosted community talent shows and with its luminous marquee, was the jewel of the neighborhood. Though it still stands, it is no longer the “Apollo” theater of the South that it once was. Jim Crow laws and the segregation of the times forced St. Petersburg’s African-American community build their own (Mercy) hospital, pharmacy, schools, business associations, and infrastructure. However, they did it with pride and tenacity, and many memorable personalities emerged to forge the legacy that the Woodson protects today. For the most part, only residents of a certain age remember these characters – these heroes of a rich history and proud culture. Residents like 104-year-old Bonnie Johnson whose birthday was celebrated at the Woodson, is a perfect example. In addition to the elegant party, Miss Bonnie was treated to red carpet treatment including Limo, make-over, and spa treatments. If you ask residents outside of the corridor, or in North county, many are surprisingly unaware of all the people and places that made this neighborhood so remarkable. The Woodson as legacy keeper is making strides, through superior programming, in helping us all look back with more informed eyes and truly appreciate all that came before.

Looking Forward

Understanding the past cannot be overstated but creating a rich and meaningful future legacy is equally important to Terri Lipsey Scott (pictured right) and she makes it a priority for the mission of the Carter G. Woodson African-American History Museum. “We are creating new traditions that educate and celebrate children, and programming that enhances dialogue and understanding.” Scott is so dedicated to her community, that her recent (and ongoing) advocacy of the threatened adjacent Jordan Park neighborhood, inspired an appointment to the housing commission by the Mayor. Scott and the Woodson facilitate partnerships with many not for profit organizations to create mutually beneficial events and exhibits. Substantive new art by African-American artists, featuring African- American culture, is curated and hung every other month. It acts as both focal point and backdrop to all the other activities that are conducted. Book clubs for young and old foster literacy and encourage dialogue. Annual events like the recently held ”Diversi”Tea”, celebrate our differences and our commonalities….all with fancy hats and scones. The “First Ladies of African American History” annual event celebrates excellence and the achievements of woman in our community. The annual “Silver Spoon Tea Party” celebrates girls by treating them to beauty treatments, limo rides, and a special party that plant the seeds of confidence and pride. This is just a small sampling of the multitude and variety of events that are not only entertaining, but highly impactful in the lives of all that attend.

Holiday Joy

The holidays are especially joyful at the Woodson starting with the presence of the many diverse members of “One City Chorus”. Starting in October, organizers Jon Atherton and James Mack, a married couple who met through their mutual love of and background in choral music, hold packed house rehearsals each Monday evening. Members sing with purpose about freedom and equality under the loving and humorous guidance of conductor, Jon. As a result of their 3-year partnership with the Woodson, the chorus participates in “First Night”, and performs several other shows including a finale-like performance at the Palladium in February. See for more information. The exhibit adorning the walls for the holidays, and through January, features the vibrant and beautiful work of artist, Kenneth Falanna. This 30+ piece feast for the eyes is a must see and the perfect accompaniment to the highlight of the season – the “Bring on the Dolls, Balls and Books” event. Massive numbers of toys are collected, the halls beautifully and lovingly decked, and then it’s time to bring in the children. They get to visit and tell their dreams to a Santa that looks like they do, eat delectable treats, and unwrap a bounty they might never have known otherwise. “Doing this and seeing their faces means everything,” says Scott. “It makes my year.”

Coming Full Circle

Today, the Deuces and South St. Pete are making a comeback. Places like the Enoch Davis Center, and the James Weldon Johnson library are central to community life. The city manages an “African- American Heritage Trail” tour as part of its cultural outreach programming. Artist studios with proximity to the Warehouse Arts District, and great restaurants like Chief’s Creole Café and Callaloo/Pipo’s are making an impact as well as all the small businesses guided and promoted by associations like Deuces Live St. Pete. The Woodson helps fill a void left by the Manhattan by welcoming some pretty famous people: St. Pete native, Angela Bassett, Rep. John Lewis, Dr. Cornell West, Andrew Gillum, playwright Kenny Leon, Ambassador Patty Aslop, John Hope Franklin, and the famous folk artist Miss Ruby C. Williams, just to name a few have graced this place and delighted the citizens. But one of my favorite stories is about Duke Ellington band member and world famous trombonist, Buster Cooper. Born in St. Pete, Cooper never missed a chance to entertain here long into his retirement. Now, after his passing, Cooper’s niece, Broadway alumni and rising jazz vocalist, Siobhan Monique entertains at the Woodson regularly. I just love the symmetry of that.

The Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum is open Tuesday – Friday 12-5. Find them on Facebook or to learn about special events.

Written by: #HeliumRadio

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