“That’s what we’re called on the street,” says Director Terri Lifsey Scott, “the sanctuary.” Old churches of many colors lean shoulder to shoulder along 9th Avenue South, but across 22nd Street, the Woodson is the living heart of Jordan Park. A warm yellow, bungalow-style building, it envelops all neighbors and visitors with a generous welcome, a passion for art, and a very present devotion to African American history. Entering, you become part of one never-ending teachable moment. Whether you are a browser from downtown, or a little local kid looking for homework help, open arms and wise minds are present and willing. Light and color bounce off every surface here.
“African American museums are so much more than most people recognize,” says Director Scott. “They are community assets that reflect so many untold or unheard stories.” Glowing from the walls as she speaks are the lush Florida landscapes of “The Highwaymen,” an “untold” group of 26 black Florida artists. Beginning in the 1920s, a few still at work today, these men (and one woman) painted what they saw from the roadsides and sold their art from the trunks of their cars. “These folks,” says volunteer docent Lynette Hardy, “often created 15 to 21 works a day. They sold their art to pay their way, and, since many worked construction jobs as well, they painted on Upson Board and framed their work with leftover pieces of crown molding.” Looking at the quality of their work, it scrambles the mind to know how it came into being – and to realize that no southern museum would hang the work of a black artist, well into the 1960s. “Part of our mission,” says Scott, “is to create a multicultural encounter with artists who, despite their talent, have no other venue available to them. Our next exhibit, to be hung January 31st, will be the works of Eluster Richardson, a Tallahassee native painter with great skill.”
In the meanwhile, the Woodson pursues its daily role of community education and enjoyment. “There are powerful spoken-word art and storytelling, Black Cinema Conversations, forums and panel discussions with community leaders, Book Club meetings,” Scotts says, listing only some of the more regular events at Woodson. All presentations at Woodson, regardless of subject, include experienced presenters with state-of-the-art knowledge, lively in-depth group discussions, and….fantastic food! “It’s part of our culture,” Scott says, “to have very good and abundant food here for all who attend.” She is not overstating the quality of their hospitality. At a recent Woodson ceremony, Mayor Rick Kriseman was observed in a rare moment of silent, serious communion with a plate of homemade chicken wings. He was not alone.
For all its generosity, the Woodson is sustained by shoe-string-level grants, donations, and the energetic spirit of its all-volunteer staff. If proof of their dedication to the community is needed, listen to this unwritten “mission”: “The Carter G. Woodson Museum is the only museum in the city of St.Petersburg to never charge admission fees.” It’s understood here that a twenty-dollar bill is the wall that stands between places of art and history, and thousands who want badly to experience them. Real life is spoken here at the Woodson.
And how did this museum come into being? Truly, it took the combination of a riot, a subsequent visit by the US Secretary of Housing, the demolishing of a deteriorating 1940 Jordan Park Project in 1990, the scattering of a community, and a rebuilt Jordan Park in 2001. Lynette Hardy looks out the museum’s back door at its beautiful formal garden. “I remember when this was the sandlot baseball field for the kids from Jordan Park,” she says. The creation of Woodson came at the request of the new residents: “They wanted a black history museum,” says Terri Scott, “and so the city donated this building, which had been the old administration building for the projects. We started with a Hope 6 Grant – and not much else!” The dedication of inspired leaders – and a lot of sweat-equity from volunteers – turned the site into the “sanctuary” it is today. “Sadly,” says Director Scott, “this building was not constructed to be a museum.” She looks out her office door at the tiny communal entry-room: “Where else have you seen art hung up in a lobby? We are perfectly situated in the community, but my greatest hope is to have the funding to re-configure and expand this space in order to do justice to the art.” And the Woodson stands on hope, as well as history.
Carter G. Woodson’s greatest hope was that African American History would become an integral part of the American Story that we all learn in school. Meanwhile, in 1915, he founded an organization of noted black scholars, historians and activists. He named it ASALH (The Association for the Study of African American Life and History). A serious and enduring project, ASALH remains alive and vibrant today. In 2015, the Carter G. Woodson Museum became one of the 25 recognized branches of ASALH. If you are serious about learning Black History in the company of noted scholars, a visit to an ASALH Presentation is a must. These events are unvarnished explorations of subjects which were touchstones of African American life and history. (If you think you already know about these, come prepared to be surprised!)
The Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum is located at 2240 9th Avenue South. For more information, call (727) 323-1104 or visit www.woodsonmuseum.org. Please call for hours before visiting.