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At Detroit's Wright Museum, a clash over representation and Jefferson exhibition

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Some members of Detroit’s activist community are concerned about the future of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

They want more grassroots community representation on the museum’s board, and a voice in selecting its new permanent leader. They also object to a planned exhibition about life on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation during Black History Month.

Abdul Aquil is with the Coalition for Black Legacy at the Wright Museum, and the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations. He says most current board members have corporate affiliations, and don’t have roots in Detroit’s marginalized or African-centered communities.

“And I’m understanding that one of the criteria of them being a board member is the ability to raise funds. Well, that excludes a large portion of the African American community right there,” Aquil said.

“African Americans who find themselves a part of the corporate elite have a corporate mentality, which a lot of times is antithetical to the African experience. And we resent that.”

Gloria House, another coalition member and retired professor of African American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, says members did meet with some Wright Museum officials, and “they rejected all of our ideas.”

House says coalition members are concerned about a possible shift away from the “insightful programming” the museum offered under former CEO Juanita Moore, who left the Wright earlier this year. House says a request to put more community representatives on the search committee for a new, permanent CEO was swiftly denied by museum leaders.

Coalition members also spoke at length about their objections to a planned exhibition called “Paradox of Liberty,” which examines the lives of enslaved people at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation.

House called the exhibit “totally inappropriate."

“It seems highly insensitive, in this particular political climate with the rise of open white supremacy, to--during Black History Month--propose an exhibition that somehow tries to recast the history of the Jefferson plantation,” said House. 

House and other coalition members are especially outraged about its depiction of Jefferson’s relationship with a slave, Sally Hemings. It’s now widely acknowledged that Jefferson fathered at least some of Hemings’ children.

“We see this exhibition as part of a current trend to try to re-tell the history of slavery in this country, and to make it seem less heinous, less horrific, less brutal,” House said. “It’s objectionable to us at this point in our history.”

House says there are other exhibits that “our children could have been informed, educated, and uplifted by. This board needs to hear more community voices, and not take us in some direction that doesn’t celebrate our ancestors, our history.”

But Wright Museum spokeswoman Delisha Upshaw says plans for the Paradox of Liberty exhibit began under former CEO Moore’s leadership.

“It's a powerful exhibit that tells the story of Sally Hemings and other families who were enslaved at the Monticello Plantation - from their perspective,” Upshaw said in a written statement. “We're proud to work with Gayle Jessup White, a Hemings and Jefferson family descendant, to tell the important, often forgotten stories about these families, their tremendous contributions to our country, and their legacies that live on today."

As for the leadership and representation concerns, Upshaw says the Wright values community input, and has “taken steps to address concerns from this particular part of the community. We are also considering how a broader representation of the community can be included and represented.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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