The gem that is the Amistad Research Center serves a worldwide assemblage of scholars, but also the New Orleans community at-large.
Local playwright and director Tommye Myrick, who was then acting director of the Department of African & African-American Studies at Southern University at New Orleans, was outraged by the omission of African-American soldiers from most every aspect of the new D-Day Museum’s grand opening in 2000. After calling for Blacks to boycott the institution (now renamed the National World War II Museum), she called Amistad for help. “I contacted the Center and asked ‘Can I come in there to see what you have?’ I practically lived in Amistad.”
Because of her research, “we had a seven-day celebration of African-American soldiers of World War II. We produced a pictorial book, called Souls of Valor, in February 2001, and Amistad Research Center started documenting oral histories of World War II veterans like Felix James, Bennie Francis Sr., Calvin Moret, and others,” Myrick says. The result of these interviews is the Double Victory Collection housed at Amistad.
Myrick, now Artistic Director of Voices In The Dark Repertory Theatre Company, says, “Amistad Research Center is guarding, protecting, and harnessing our history. Myrick has used the collection as a resource for her historical drama, Le Code Noir. She credits Amistad for helping her with accuracy of the work and collaborative efforts to document the play’s first performances. Amistad was helpful in connecting Myrick with other community organizations, like the Historic New Orleans Collection. For her most recent production, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, Amistad assisted with a symposium about the revolutionary work of Hansberry and her impact on Black female writers.
One way Amistad builds cultural capital in the community is by allowing other arts nonprofits, like Myrick’s, access to its collection for their own exhibition purposes. The New Orleans African American Museum’s current exhibition, curated by Amistad, is a chronology of the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood from 1700 to the 1960s. Photos and other artifacts are culled from Amistad holdings to tell Tremé’s rich story. “It is a tremendous collection of work. It really allows creatives an opportunity to delve into a wide subject matter,” says Gia M. Hamilton, Executive Director and Curator of the museum.
Collaborative programming is another area where Amistad excels. Carolyn Barber-Pierre’s job as Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs in Tulane University’s Office of Multicultural Affairs is to “enhance the educational experience here on campus.” After 35 years on staff, she has utilized Amistad “for years, on a number of things,” including outreach to community contacts, research on segregation at Tulane, to plan Week For Peace activities, and while gleaning information on the Civil Rights Movement.
For the past two or three years, Barber-Pierre’s office has collaborated with Amistad Research Center on the popular “Conversations in Color” speaker series. As partners, the two organizations have brought Pose FX writer and producer and trans activist Janet Mock, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza; Andrew W. Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles Blow and the Dr. Rev. William J. Barber, II, of the Poor People’s Campaign, to campus. All of these events are available through Amistad’s Vimeo account.
“These are important voices we want to come to campus,” Barber-Pierre says. “These are voices neither of us can do on our own because of the cost.” She calls the research center “real, true partners, particularly under the leadership of Kara Olidge.” Barber-Pierre also notes how “very helpful” Amistad’s staff is.
“Amistad is a constant source of information. In particular, on African Americans and their history,” Barber-Pierre says. “You’d be surprised at how many people utilize the center for research. In a city that is 60 to70 percent black, it’s incredible to have that kind of world-class resource here.”
Amistad Research Center doesn’t just bring world scholars to New Orleans, it offers all takers a true lens to view influential African and African-American movers, shakers and creators. The center recently acquired performance sculptor-installation artist Senga Nengudi’s papers. Nengudi, 76, was named one of the Most Influential Living African-American Artists by online art magazine Artsy, in a February 2019 editorial. The Colorado Springs, Colo.,-based artist’s upcoming exhibition at Lenbachhaus in Munich has afforded Amistad yet another partnership – this one, global in scope.
“This is an exhibition in Germany of a prominent contemporary African-American artist, whose papers are at Amistad. We have been working with Lenbachhaus to digitize portions of the papers for use in the exhibition and its accompanying catalog,” Amistad Deputy Director Christopher Harter says. The eponymous Nengudi exhibition opens Sept. 17 and closes on Jan. 19, 2020.
Clyde Robertson knows the power of the awe-inspiring archive in Tilton Hall. He’s utilized Amistad for decades. As a doctoral student, Robertson relied on Amistad while completing his dissertation on Alexander Pierre Tureaud while a student at Temple University in 1996. Today, Robertson is an associate professor of humanities at Southern University at New Orleans. He is also director of the school’s Center for African and African-American Studies.
While working for New Orleans Public Schools in the 90s, Robertson helped establish Amistad’s Afrocentric Archive. This collection holds works by eminent thinkers Molefi Kete Asante, Jacob Carruthers and the young James Nazier Conyers, a “prolific author,” now working from the University of Houston. These days, Robertson is working with Olidge to do more community engagement. For Black History Month, they worked to bring political analyst and author Donna Brazile back to her hometown to give the Charles Frye Memorial Lecture at Southern University at New Orleans.
“This is the largest independent repository of African and African-American culture and intellectual property in the country. Harboring African-American history is significant to all, regarding its place in American and world history,” Robertson says. “[Amistad] is vital to that mission for securing and perpetuating the history of America’s major population in this country. One that contributed mightily to its progression.”
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