Griot Museum of Black History: A place to acknowledge a rich past

News-DemocratFebruary 23, 2014 

— Darryon Grissolm stood in a doorway of the Griot Museum of Black History. It was the end of his after-school group's tour and the experience had left him thinking.

"When I saw what they did, that's not right -- to put them in that boat like that."

The soft-spoken 12-year-old was reflecting on one of the museum exhibits, a replica of the deck of an 18th-century slave ship. He'd spent considerable time looking at the full-size figures of black men, women and children, all chained below deck in a space so small they could barely crawl. Above them, a slave was being beaten by a sailor.

"They're human beings, too," he said. "Different color, but no difference from that. We've all got the same arms and legs and stuff."

Museum founder and executive director Lois Conley said that for many young people who visit, it is their first experience not only recognizing how blacks were treated as slaves, but with how they overcame adversity and made great strides to find a place in St. Louis and American history.

"We needed to acknowledge that, the impact," she said of creating a museum that focuses on blacks in St. Louis. "Nobody in St. Louis had been successful in documenting our history in a formal way. We wanted to create some awareness because there is such a long history of not providing that kind of education."

Lois began the nonprofit museum 17 years ago as the The Black World History Wax Museum, seeding it with her own collection of documents, artifacts and figures. The name of the museum was changed in 2011 to The Griot Museum of Black History.

Loosely translated, Griot (GREE-oh) is a West African word that refers to "a highly respected member of the community who collects, preserves and shares the stories and objects of the community," said Lois.

Deputy director Erika Neal has been with Lois since before the museum opened.

"We primarily focus on education," she said "We want to see all ages, all ethnicities. Everybody."

The museum is housed in an imposing 1916 building that was once a boarded-up, former Catholic grade school.

"We wanted a space in a community rather than in a commercial or business area," Lois said of a neighborhood in transition, with its share of boarded-up and renovated buildings.

Exhibits take visitors from slave ship to settling the West to Abraham Lincoln's household to 20th century business people to black protesters, musicians and artists.

On that afternoon, about a dozen fourth- and fifth-graders from Meramec Elementary School had each accepted pencil and paper from Erika and were off on a "history hunt" to find answers to questions, such as "She created Mary Todd Lincoln's stylish wardrobe" (Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley), "He was St. Louis' first African-American fire chief" (Sherman George), and "Name a place William Clark named after York" (Yorks Islands in Broadwater County, Mont., is named after Clark's slave companion.)

Even Donnie Nelson, who had brought the students, was surprised to discover an exhibit and life-size figure of George Washington Carver, scientist, botanist, educator and inventor.

"I didn't know he was from here," she said. (Carver was born into slavery in 1864 in Missouri.)

Students slipped through a roofless cabin that had once been the home of slaves on a tobacco farm in Jonesboro, Mo.

They stopped to examine figures of people as varied as entertainers Clark Terry and Josephine Baker and history-changers Martin Luther King Jr. and Dred and Harriet Scott.

Toward the end of the visit, students made their own "protest" signs.

Dearra Ryan, 10, bowed her head toward her piece of paper as she wrote in crayon: "We are not slaves anymore. You can be free and live."

D'Ambra Roby, 11, took Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous speech in a personal way. Her sign read "I have a dream and so does Martin Luther King," but she had some thoughts about her future: "My dream is to be famous for singing and acting."

The Griot Museum of Black History

Location: 2505 St. Louis Ave., St. Louis.

Directions: From Illinois, take Interstate 70 west to exit 249A/Madison/North10th streets. Follow North10th to St. Louis Avenue and turn left (west). Follow to 25th Street. Museum is on the right, at the corner of St. Louis Avenue and North 25th Street.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays

Cost: $7.50, adults; $3.75, children 12 and under

Information: 314-241-705, thegriotmuseum.com, thegriotmuseum@aol.com

Special exhibit Feb. 19 to March 17: Freedom, A History of US. (Free with admission.) A touring exhibit of documents and photographs from the Civil War that depict the lives of men and women who forged the nation, whether they arrived by choice or in chains.

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