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The African-American Legacy

Spartanburg Herald Journal
January 31, 2003
By Linda Conley
Staff Writer

For centuries, roiling racial discrimination in America's melting pot obscured the rich heritage and social contributions of African-Americans.

The celebration of February as Black History Month, begun in 1925, has illuminated the truth and continues to focus attention on the ever-growing achievements of people of color.

In that spirit, area exhibits, events and programs will provide information about black culture and heritage, along with facts about early black leaders, schools and hospitals, over the next 28 days.

A field trip to learn about some of these accomplishments can begin at the Spartanburg County Museum of Art , where there is an exhibition of West African art. This particular region of Africa is well known as part of the Middle Passage, where millions of African people were rounded up on ships and taken from their homelands to become slaves.

This month, the museum is featuring Limestone College's Burde-Monroe Collection of African Art. The exhibit contains almost 50 pieces of art collected from expeditions in 1912-13, 1917 and 1947 from areas around the Niger River and Guinea Coast of Africa. The areas where the pieces were collected are the present day regions of Mali, Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

" African art from the mid-1900s had a profound impact on contemporary artists," said Scott Cunningham, museum exhibit coordinator. "I believe you could say that African art had as much impact on Western art as the camera."

Cunningham refers to famous painters such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and others who were inspired by tribal art, especially from Africa. In fact, both artists owned a number of tribal art and masks. Many painters during the early 1900s were interested and inspired by non-European cultures.

The Burde-Monroe collection contains a variety of objects such as masks, altar figures, ancestral portraits, ceremonial staffs and utensils. They were made out of wood embellished with raffia or plant fibers, feathers, fur and leather with some bronze, brass, iron, terracotta and stone.

Limestone was given this art collection more than 15 years ago by Beverly Monroe, class of 1956, and her longtime companion, the late Dr. Roger de la Burde.

The collection was displayed for the first time in January 1992 during a Black History Month program at Wofford College. The collection hasn't been displayed again until now.

" Limestone College is proud to have this wonderful exhibit," said Andy Cox, chairman of the Art Department. "The college is working on a way to display it because it is rare to receive an entire collection that can be exhibited."

At the Spartanburg County Regional Museum of History , viewers can take a look at the old legislative desk used by State Rep. Brenda Lee, D-Spartanburg, who became the first African-American female legislator in the county in 1997 and continues serving in the House. Other items displayed include a stained glass window from one of the city's oldest black churches, Silverhill United Methodist Church, established around 1869, and memorabilia from Carver High School, the city's all-black high school from 1938 to 1969.

While Spartanburg is displaying collections reflective of the past, Union County is hosting a play about issues affecting the present.

The drama team of Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Cowpens is performing a play about reaching out to the homeless entitled, "Who Are You," written by Linda Askari of Spartanburg.

" This play emphasizes how we get caught up in vehicles, job titles and material items and overlook people without," Askari said. "The point is we have to take a real look at ourselves."

Drama team members have been performing plays written by Askari for about a year. The group was formed at the church because the Rev. C.D. Rector encouraged Askari to use some of her talents to work with the church.

Over the years, she has written six plays and the group has performed two of them to sold-out audiences in Cherokee, Union and Spartanburg counties. Askari said anyone is allowed to audition for the plays, which usually have roles for almost 20 characters. So far, people from Spartanburg, Cherokee and Greenville counties have auditioned for roles.

" These plays are inspirational and motivational, but I don't see them as gospel plays," she said. "The themes are about what is going on in society."

Askari said after the first few performances, she discovered people viewed the productions as filling a void for black theater.

" We hope that this start of black theater will continue and not stop," she said.

Those interested in learning more about the civil rights struggles from the past and present can check out the collection of videos, books and pamphlets at the Malcolm X Center for Self-Determination in Greenville.

The resource center has a wide collection of information beginning with the start of the African struggle through integration to the Black Panther Party to the present day. After reviewing that information, visitors can look at a variety of African and African-American art.

" There is so much history here, and people can learn more about it if they want to," said Efia Nwangaza, attorney-activist, historian and coordinator for the center. "People can come to our center any time because history lives here 365 days a year."

About an hour away in Charlotte, the Afro-American Cultural Center has a larger collection of art, history and resource information. Mary T. Harper and Bertha Maxwell established the center in 1974 as an outgrowth of the Black Studies Program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Some interesting items to see at the center include two restored "shotgun" houses dating back to the 1890s. The facility has become a focal point in the community, where groups conduct classes, lectures, workshops and other programs.

In Atlanta, visitors can go to the area's premiere African American Panoramic Experience, or the APEX Museum. The museum was created almost 25 years ago and is designed to interpret and present history from an African-American perspective.

The goal of the museum was to have a place where the accomplishments of African-Americans could be highlighted. The museum has programs, exhibits and interactive tours to help people learn more about African-American culture and history. And while there, visitors can take a stroll down Auburn Avenue and see the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., along with other historic sites.

After taking an afternoon, a day or a weekend traveling to some of these locations and viewing all of the exhibits, programs and events it doesn't take long to realize that African-Americans have contributed so much that it takes more than a month to learn about all of the contributions.