While a new exhibit by Kathleen Stafford at the Alexandria Black History Museum in Virginia stands as a testament to the incomparable talent and vision of its widely-revered artists, the museum itself, attests to the rich culture and legacy of the black community that has been built around it.
The museum, located at 902 Wythe St., in the heart of a 250-year-old town that still boasts cobblestone streets and quaint shops, is distinguished as the first black library in the area. It was built in response to a 1939 sit-in at the segregated Alexandria Public Library – and years later in 1989, when it became a city facility, the historic edifice was used to present black history programs.
"We currently offer a wealth of history about the community," said Audrey Davis, museum director and curator. "Because we know people still have a lot of artifacts we can display, we're looking to acquire more of our history through them and being that kind of repository for Alexandria." Davis, 48, who succeeds Louis Hicks as museum director and curator, has been with the museum for the past 20 years.
In expressing the museum's devotion to the city's black historical legacy, Davis, noted that through exhibits such as depictions of slaves dressed in period attire, "we try to tell visitors about Alexandria's early African-American life, the enslaved community and the free black community that co-existed around the same time." Among those exhibits, she said, are a "freed blacks register" from 1797 that recounts how free blacks and mulattoes were required to go to the area courthouse and register.
Meanwhile, Stafford's "Watercolors and Collagraphs," is part of the museum's African Encounters – from Coast to Coast" gallery that opened in November.
Stafford, 61, has been painting and printmaking in Africa for more than 25 years, and among her vibrant masterpieces, which are on display through Jan. 24, is a stunning rendering of a "Nubian Boy," based on a little boy in Cairo holding some sugar canes.
Stafford said she thought that her exhibit – which is about Africa and provides a kaleidoscope of breathtaking color and variety – would be a good fit.
"I've gone back and forth to watercolors and collagraphs, depending on my situation, because I can't do any printmaking overseas [in Northern Sudan] where I live," Stafford said. "So every time I get evacuated ... or when my husband [ a U.S. diplomat] has to go to some place dangerous like Iraq, then I'm able to go to the Torpedo Factory [in Old Town Alexandria]," she said. That's where she worked on her recent exhibit.
The museum, which depicts African-American life in various stages from 18th century slavery through the Civil Rights Movement, has also become a popular gathering spot for the city's black community. In addition to providing a venue for some of the region's most talented performers, the museum offers a reading room, and just a short distance away on Duke Street, sits the African American Heritage Park that's part of the museum, as well as Alexandria's first black burial ground.
Hicks, 61, served as the museum's director for 13 years, prior to handing over the reins to Davis in August.
"Alexandria is a little unusual than most cities, in that the African-American community is dispersed around the city, rather than having been relegated to poor areas," Hicks said. He recalled that some of the museum's most popular attractions have been the traveling exhibitions, "The Jazz Age in Paris," and "The Blessings of Liberty," for which he said museum staff conceived the idea, then conducted research and collected artifacts.
But Hicks said Stafford's exhibit is unique.
"Mainly because it starts in Africa and takes a different stand from most American exhibits that basically begin in America," he said. More importantly, he said the exhibit provides a link as to why slavery developed, and how people of African descent came to exist in the United States.
Davis said she's excited about what the future holds.
"We're coming up on a really exciting year," Davis said, alluding to events that will include the museum's cemetery memorial in honor of blacks who came to Alexandria in search of freedom, the 100th anniversary of the birth of attorney Samuel Tucker who staged the 1939 sit-in and celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation.
"We're really there for the community, providing a variety of experiences and programs for every age," Davis said.