Gregory Barnes

Lonnie G. Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said it best, that the history and experiences of African Americans are “often forgotten or undervalued.” Whether explicitly or implicitly, the hardships and achievements of heroes of color were not (and still not) properly recognized. So through an intentional effort, this void in history culminated into what we now call Black History Month. Hopefully, one day African American history, rightly divided, will be integrated into American history. That day has not come, so the celebration of Americans of African descent is still desperately needed this month. According to Mr. Bunch, twofold goals of Black History Month still exist; “to inspire and instill pride of self and community among young black people; and to … confront the problem of racial discrimination through greater understanding, by making the black past accessible and meaningful to the broader white community.” 

But there is a need to expand the discussion. In the subtext of the Black History Month conversation, is it important to recognize the post-confederate struggles and achievements of African Americans in Baldwin County and the region? I would like to discuss the importance of celebrating regional socio-political and economic contributions African-Americans. Specifically, there is a need for a regional African American Cultural Center here in Milledgeville/Baldwin County. The African American Cultural Center would be a “living history museum” that focuses on the hardships and achievements of regional heroes of color who influenced the socio-political and economic mobility of this Region, the United States, and the world. Yes, African Americans, with roots from middle-Georgia, have influenced the world. I agree with Mr. Bunch as to why Black History matters; to instill pride of self among young black people and a greater understanding of the broader white community.” So let’s address the necessity of sharing regional African American heroes to the youth, especially Black youth. 

Cultural identification; According to a popular website, cultural identity … “ensures survival and enhances the feeling of belonging. Identity is the definition of ones-self. It is a person’s frame of reference by which he perceives himself.”… A great example of this is this DNA ancestry phenomenon — they seek to know the struggles and achievements of those in their family tree. Much like those seeking DNA ancestry, youth, especially Black youth, must be immersed in the trials, the hardships and achievements of regional heroes of color. They need to know/see the story. So, if not us, then who? Who’ll tell the youth about regional Civil Rights leaders like Beverly Calhoun, Oscar Davis Sr. and Collins P. Lee and others who fought to assure African American political-inclusion? Who’ll tell our youth about regional social entrepreneurs John McCown and Floyd Griffin Sr., who practiced social enterprise before it was a thing? Who’ll tell them about Jean Toomer, Gloria Walker, Nancy Butts and the Mighty Chevelles whose art/music is still influencing people around the world today? What about “the Strip” or “Hamp Brown Bottom,” or the significance of the Dunlap community? How will they know the socio-economic importance these areas were to Blacks? Even these regional heroes/places of color is a microcosm and underscore the need to aggregate regional history into one place via a cultural center. It will not happen without the support of the African American community, starting in Baldwin County. 

Where do we start? First, it starts with a conversation that answers this question; is it important to recognize the post-confederate struggles and achievements of African Americans in Baldwin County and the region? You know my answer, and others pursuing a similar agenda — but, what say you? Secondly, we find people and universities who have an interest in our ultimate agenda — an African American Cultural Center that serves the region, to seek assistance. A good example is work being done by Georgia College Library and Special Collections staff in their “History Harvest Days.”

On harvest days, GC serves community members by creating high-quality digital reproductions of family photos, diaries, scrapbooks, and other similar paper-based items and compiling these reproductions conveniently on a flash drive for personal home archiving purposes. Such reproductions can be shared via social media, electronically restored, copied, printed anew, or tucked away as backups in case originals are lost or destroyed. Community members are encouraged to allow GC to keep an electronic copy of their family keepsakes — such that digital reproductions of their items can archived in Special Collections for posterity — but are not required to make this digital donation in order to take advantage of this public service. Harvest Days, therefore, are about both helping community members preserve and share their memories, and ensuring that Special Collections’ doors are open to those who want their family archives to become a permanent part of this community’s collective memory.  

The history enthusiasts from Georgia College can assist in collections, but it’s the community’s responsibility to bring purpose to what was collected — i.e., An African American Cultural Center that serves the region.

Finally, but most important, go to Big Mama’s house, if she is still with you, have a conversation. Grab the photo albums and pull out any items with historical value, then get ready to share them, for future generations to see! The local and regional history of African Americans is just as important and needs to be cultivated and preserved. I will end this article the way I began, with a question- is it important to recognize the post-confederate struggles and achievements of African Americans in Baldwin County and the region? Let the discussion begin. 

 — Gregory Barnes is a local entrepreneur, activist and pastor and is the executive director of CREATE Inc. He can be reached at greg@createwithus.org. Also contributing to this article is Jessamyn Swan. She is the Community Engagement Archivist and Assistant Professor of Library Science at Georgia College & State University.

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