Charlotte couple’s exhibit portrays ‘struggle, progress’ in African American experience
Artifacts that tell the trials and tribulations of the Black experience throughout American history are on display Thursday in Charlotte, ahead of the Juneteenth holiday. The Homage Exhibit imparts an emotional and personal understanding of U.S. history, told through objects profound and mundane. It’s owned by a Charlotte couple who began collecting 20 years ago.
The exhibit includes artifacts from some big names like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, but also objects that give insight into everyday life — such as a 1926 flyer from the Dixie Labor Agency, a St. Louis staffing company.
At the top in bold it reads, “Colored Help Our Specialty.”
“They’re hiring drivers, porters and construction workers. But it also says this is the only establishment of its kind in St. Louis,” pointed out Nia McAdoo, who owns the exhibit with her husband, Morris McAdoo. “You have to think about what that means — what were the working conditions? What was the pay?”
The flier is accompanied by letters from eleven women responding to the ad.
“You can see the desperation. You can see the explanations on why they need work,” McAdoo said.
A personal collection becomes a public one
McAdoo is a former university administrator, who sold her printing company last year. She began collecting Jet and Ebony magazines, but a conversation with her grandmother during Barack Obama’s first campaign expanded her scope. Her grandmother sent her campaign letters, bumper stickers and newspapers so that McAdoo would have them to tell future grandchildren about the work it took to get the first Black president elected.
And her grandmother told her those stories must come from people of color who were involved.
“That was when my collecting sort of shifted from just things I really, really liked to something that would tell a comprehensive story, and I started to work filling in those gaps,” McAdoo said.
McAdoo wanted to make sure the collection included not only big names, but stories, events and groups that “really did the work to see change.”
Friends started encouraging the couple to exhibit their collection. Three years ago they did. The full collection includes more than 650 artifacts, documents and art. It travels the country, mostly to universities, middle schools and high schools.
‘The highs and lows in close proximity’
One of the couple’s favorite pieces is a document signed by Macon B. Allen. He’s thought to be the first African American attorney in the country. Originally from Indiana, Allen received his law license in 1844. After the Civil War, he moved to South Carolina, started the first known African American law firm, and was elected as a probate judge in Charleston. That court document is paired with a Charleston Courier newspaper from 1834 that has ads in it about runaway slaves.
“We're looking at highs and lows in close proximity ... so people can see the struggle and the progress and what that means. When we put things on display for civil rights, you might see a protest march with the debutante ball. It's how life was lived,” McAdoo said.
The exhibit begins with a deep low: an inventory from a Tennessee estate in 1801.
“What you see is that the most valuable item owned is a ‘negro wench,’” which is a black woman,” McAdoo pointed out. She’s listed right above the horses. “Looking at the inventory, you can tell that he's not wealthy. But one thing that I always point out when we show this is that it shows you that you didn't need to be wealthy to own a human being and it was very common for someone to own one or two.”
“It’s not uncommon for someone to see, especially this document, and have a physical reaction to it. We present the exhibit in a safe space, so we encourage the questions. We encourage that dialogue,” McAdoo said.
Acquiring objects that tell a meaningful history
Many of the items come from library and museum auctions, but some come from private ones. Acquiring one piece took McAdoo into uncomfortable territory.
The exhibit starts with a slave transport collar. It’s heavy, made of metal and features three prongs with bells on it.
“This would have been placed around the neck of someone who had run away or someone who they thought would run away. And so dogs can hear you as you move. Slave catchers can hear you as you move. If someone sees you, they know you’re out of place,” McAdoo said.
She bought the collar at a Confederate history auction.
“It was hard to hear the descriptions of the things that were being put up (for auction), because people have a very different view of some of this history,” McAdoo said. A nostalgic view, rather than a complicated history of brutality, heartache, strength — and joy, too.
McAdoo picks up a picture of a band playing to a jam-packed Marshall Park in uptown Charlotte in 1973.
“Everybody is just listening to the music and the drummer, the expression on his face is just so cool,” McAdoo said.
That full history is what McAdoo and her husband tell through the Homage Exhibit.
The collection will be on display from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday at Eastway Regional Recreation Center in northeast Charlotte. There’s a guided tour at 2:30 p.m.