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Museum exhibit sheds historical light on Atlanta University Center

Atlanta — Heidi Struve and her father, Larry Struve, had some time on their hands after attending a field hockey match on the campus of Morris Brown College during the Olympic Games in Atlanta. The Reno NV duo spotted an Olympic Arts Festival sign pointing to an exhibit on “The History of the Atlanta University Center” in the college’s Fountain Hall and decided to venture inside.

“I knew nothing about what the Atlanta University Center was and we had a while before the next event, so we went in,” Struve said.

His daughter said she had known about Morehouse, “But I didn’t know what the Center was or anything about the other schools.”

After spending about half an hour reading the history of the six colleges that make up the AUC and poring over photos in the exhibit, the Struves, who are white, say they have a better understanding of the AUC.

“I was not aware of the efforts to fund and staff schools for Blacks after the Civil War,” Struve said. “This exhibit has been very informative…I feel like I know a lot more about Black colleges now.”

This is the type of response that the curators of the exhibit on “The History of the Atlanta University Center” were looking for from visitors when the exhibit was designed. Exhibit curator and former Atlanta University graduate Louise Willingham said, “We wanted to reach those who don’t know what the AUC is.”

The exhibit on the six AUC schools was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, and is part of the Olympics’ African-American Culture: An American Experience series. There are 12,000 students enrolled at the AUC consortium schools — Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University (CAU), Morris Brown College, Morehouse, the Morehouse School of Medicine, and the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC).

Willingham, who worked with representatives from each school on the exhibit, said, “The focus was to show the rich history of the schools from after slavery to contemporary times … to show that the schools survived over the years and are still viable and moving into the 21st century.”

As visitors walk into the high-ceilinged room with elongated Tiffany stained-glass windows, the first mounted panel they see explains how from 1929 until 1958, the six schools came together to form the consortium — “the largest consortium of African-American schools in the world,” according to Willingham.

The exhibit includes a picture of one-time Atlanta University and Morehouse College President, John Hope, who had the idea for the consortium. “He felt if the schools worked together by exchanging faculty, students, facilities and other resources such as the library, they could save money while at the same time maintaining their independence and autonomy.”

The second panel focuses on how the schools were founded after slavery in spite of white opposition and the role the Freedman’s Bureau, the church, philanthropists, and others played in their establishment. The exhibit then takes visitors on a written and pictorial journey of each schools’ past and present accomplishments.

Randy Scallions of Athens, TN said that prior to seeing the exhibit, “I knew nothing about these schools.”

Scallions was in town to pass out religious material at Olympic venues and stopped by the exhibit with colleague Kay Lamb of Fairborn, OH. Lamb had heard of Spelman and Morehouse but said, “I didn’t know that Morehouse was for Black men only.”

Both said they were not aware of the famous people who had graduated from AUC schools, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and filmmaker Spike Lee. They were impressed with the photos of ABC Television’s Good Morning America broadcasting live at CAU, as well as the telegram from President John F. Kennedy congratulating the ITC on its founding in 1958.

Scallions was also “impressed with ITC’s graduation numbers. I didn’t know that 50 percent of U.S. Chaplains in the military graduated from ITC.”

In addition to including statistics on the schools’ successes, Willingham said she wanted exhibit visitors to have an idea of what life was like on the campuses from the early years to today. There are photos of industrial education classes ranging from sewing and cooking to blacksmith, leather making and printing classes at Atlanta University — which merged with Clark College in 1988 to become Clark Atlanta University.

One item of which Willingham is especially fond is a 1989 black-and-white brochure showing a large group of Morehouse students at an event called A Gathering of Men. “It made me think of the Million Man March, and that’s why I included it, to show that Black men have been getting together like this for a long time,” Willingham said.

In addition to giving information on campus life, the exhibit also showcases the international connections the AUC is well known for having developed, especially with Africa, since the early 1900s. Willingham said she and the committee she worked with wanted to make sure that foreigners and others who come to the exhibit are made aware of the schools’ long involvement in projects around the world.

There are references to the work in Africa of Dr. Horace Mann, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois and others who taught at AUC schools. Brochures are laid out from international conferences held by ITC including the 1988 Pan African Christian Church Conference. There are pictures of visits to the campus by foreign dignitaries such as South African President Nelson Mandela. There is also a photo of author and former AUC professor Dr. C. Eric Lincoln with Leopold Sedar Senghor, former President of Senegal.

To emphasize the strong connection that has always existed between Africans and African-Americans, all of the glass casings in the exhibit are lined with the Adire Eleko cloth of Nigeria which Willingham says symbolizes the unity between the two cultures.

Because the exhibit, which runs through September, is part of the Olympics and many visitors came here for the games, the sports history of the AUC campuses is also highlighted.

“I used sports shots whenever possible from the early years — like the Morehouse 1915 football team shot — to show our involvement in sports since then,” Willingham said.

More recent sports photos include Morehouse graduate and Olympian Edwin Moses and pictures of visits to the campuses by former heavyweight champions Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield.

Barbara Walker, an African-American native of Augusta, GA, said she had never been on the AUC campus prior to the exhibit. She came because she is thinking of sending her daughter to Spelman. “I didn’t know Spelman was named for [John D.] Rockefeller’s mother [Laura Spelman],” she said.

Walker was also pleased to find out that Morehouse was founded in 1867 in Augusta before moving to Atlanta. “It made me feel good to know that it started in my hometown.”

Tamala, Walton’s 13-year-old daughter who wants to be the next president of Spelman, said she learned a lot about each college’s history. She said she did not know that the Morehouse School of Medicine was independent of Morehouse and had “never heard of ITC …. I was impressed with information on the school’s U.S. and international rankings and with the well-known people who went here,” she said.

Like the elder Walker, a lot of the visitors leave the exhibit saying they learned something new about the schools. However, many former alumni and others who know the AUC well, thought more was needed.

Geanelvin Walton, who graduated from Spelman in 1968, said, “I’d like to see pictures of the older buildings and not so many new buildings. I’d like to see Herndon Stadium which was torn down at Morris Brown.”

Willingham and Morris Brown officials hope that funds can be found to make the exhibit a permanent display in Fountain Hall, the oldest building at the AUC. For now, Willingham is basking in having the AUC schools included in the Olympics Arts Festival.

“We all know the schools’ history and how great they are, but to have the opportunity to present it to the world is an opportunity of a lifetime,” Willingham said. “This will let people know we’re still viable, still educating young people and part of the international scene.”

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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