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Missouri Exhibit Recognizes Black Ancestors of ‘Huck Finn’ Era

In an effort to rebuild relationships with local Black community members, college and museum officials in Missouri have vowed to publicly exalt the state’s rich Black history and confront its slavery past.

After months of dialogue with African American groups, officials of the renowned Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum recently unveiled a new exhibit — “Stories of Our Lives: African-Americans in Hannibal” — which explores the Black roots of the city of Hannibal. 

Hannibal is the famous childhood home of Mark Twain, the writer of American

classics such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry

Finn. However, since their publication, these books have been so controversial that they have been banned from many reading lists and classrooms across the country because of  what some describe as racially charged language.

Nevertheless, in recent years some have criticized Hannibal and Missouri state officials for turning a blind eye to the region’s Black ancestors who are credited with impacting Twain’s writings and had a critical hand in the development of the Mississippi River town. But officials say that the new museum addition, which features 20th-century artifacts, photos and memorabilia, has helped enhance honest dialogue surrounding the issues of racism, injustice and slavery.

“I think it (the exhibit) has been a good first start to beginning the dialogue (with the community),” says Dr. Regina Faden, the museum’s executive director who notes that the exhibit has helped improve relationships among the city’s 17,000 residents. “I think it makes people feel comfortable to come into an institution where they didn’t feel welcomed or recognized before.”

Faden, who also teaches American history at Hannibal-LaGrange College, notes that the new exhibit is part of a larger effort to transmit the message that Black history is not separate from but rather a critical component of American history and culture.

“We did try to put it in its national context…overall, we tried to frame it in such a way that was accessible to everybody,” Faden says.

Hannibal resident Joe Miller says the new exhibit has brought excitement to the community and has helped bridge the gap among the city’s African-American and White residents.

“People were able to present their pictures, their stories, and their memories (through the exhibit),” says Miller, 69. “For people to be interested in your life, your history, and your community, it gives you a new feeling of inclusiveness, because in many instances the Black community has felt left out…and for someone to take the time to want to know about you, it makes you proud and gives you a new perspective about the attitude of your community as a whole.”

Officials note that the new Hannibal exhibit has also served to increase awareness about the museum’s diverse educational programs. Students and teachers across the country converge on the museum throughout the year to attend various lectures and workshops.  For example, Faden and other local professors assist in the organization of an annual teachers’ workshop, which trains participating educators from around the country how to more effectively present and discuss Twain’s writings in the classroom. Many summer workshops are accredited through Illinois-based Quincy University, which allows teachers to receive graduate credit, adds Faden.

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