Knowledge Center

Return to Knowledge Center

Banking on KC – Dr. Carmaletta Williams of the Black Archives or Mid-America

publication image

Click here to listen now, or read the transcript below:

 

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on K.C. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Dr. Carmaletta Williams, the executive director of The Black Archives of Mid-America located right here in Kansas City. Welcome to the show, Dr. Williams.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

Well, thank you for the invitation. I'm happy to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us a little bit about the museum.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

It is an amazing place. It's a big, beautiful building. We have a fixed exhibition in the Ewing Marion Kauffman exhibition hall. The name of that is With My Eyes No Longer Blind, which is a Langston Hughes poem. And what it does is it traces the growth of black Kansas City and its relationship to the entire city. We also have an amazing collection upstairs. We have an archive at the archives. And we have many researchers who come and use the information in the facility. We also have rental space, so people are having training sessions and birthday parties, a baby shower. We've even had a celebration of life here. So it's an amazing, beautiful building. And we want people to know that we are the community's partner. We're looking for partners from the community, but also we want to be a good partner.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us a little bit more about why the archives was founded, whose inspiration it was, and what your mission is. You told us what it contains. But how did it get started? And what's its mission?

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

Forty-six years ago, our founder, Horace Peterson, III was collecting buttons and brochures and storing them in the trunk of his car. And he was telling people from the time he was in middle school that he was going to open a black museum. And they would go like, "Yeah, right. You're not going to make any money. Who wants that?" But he was determined to do that. So he kept collecting documents, artifacts, photographs. He went to the Smithsonian and took a archival course to get certified. And he kept that collection. If there was an abandoned building, he would go in it and see what people had left behind that was important to African-American life in Kansas City.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

From my count, this is the fifth archive facility. The first one was the trunk of his car. And the second one was Mr. Peterson had space at the Paseo YMCA. It's now the Buck O'Neil Learning Center. When we made the documentary about the making of The Black Archives for our 45th anniversary last year, we discovered that he then rented an apartment, and the archives was in an apartment. Then after desegregation, when the firehouses were desegregated, he was able to get the black firehouse at 2033 Vine, Firehouse Number 11. And that's where he housed the archives. And that was the last place that Horace presided over in a sense. He drowned as a young man in the lagoon at Swope Park. So he never saw the archives in this building. But people who knew him said he would be very happy to see what we're doing here and to see this facility.

Kelly Scanlon:

And your current location is where?

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

We're at 17th Terrace and Highland, right behind the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. We share a parking lot with the Urban Youth Academy and with the Greg Klyce Community Center. We're a beautiful gold building. And we back up to Woodland. You cannot get in from Woodland, but we're in the one closest to that street. And you come down Highland or come down Vine or come down Paseo and we're at 17th Terrace.

Kelly Scanlon:

How did you get involved in The Black Archives? At what point did you join and why?

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

Well, I got a phone call. I had retired from Johnson County Community College. Then I went to China and taught at Central China Normal University for a year. And then my son and I opened a publishing house. And I got a phone call, "Dr. [Carma 00:04:10], this is a 9-1-1 call." And usually when I got those, people were calling to see if we could help them with funeral programs and writing obituaries and those kinds of things. So I said, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Who passed?" And they said, "Well, nobody died." I'm like, "Well, then why is this a 9-1-1 call?" And they said, "The Black Archives is in chaos, and we need you to come and run it for us." And I said, "No, I like working at home in my pajamas." And they said, "Well, will you come and talk to us about it?" And the Board chair called me and some board members. So I agreed to come and talk to them.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

And I just fell in love with the place. This is an amazing place. So I said, "Yes." And the rest, as they say, is history, and history is today. I remember when we were working with kids on the George Floyd protest, I had to remind them that they are making history.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

History is today, and The Black Archives preserves that history. So we're having fun here. We're doing an amazing amount of work.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

But it's coming together, and it's beautiful, and we're functional. So that's the good news.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are some of your favorite items there in the archives?

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

Well, I love Aunt Lucy's cabin. And the story is that Horace Peterson and his friend, [Tillman Stewart 00:05:34], who was one of the Board members here back in the day found out that there was a cabin where an enslaved woman had lived in Trenton, Missouri. So the family said, "Yeah, you can have it." And they took it apart, put it in the back of trucks, and brought it down to 2033 Vine to that archive. And then they reconstructed it. And when they moved into this building at 2012, they recreated it downstairs. So we have Aunt Lucy's cabin with artifacts in it, and we can see how Aunt Lucy lived. We call it Aunt Lucy's cabin. It's really just Lucy's cabin, but we feel a kinship to her.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

We had partnered with the Equal Justice Initiatives Community Remembrance Project. So we are building an exhibit for victims of racial violence, racial murder, lynching victims. And we know who they are. We know their stories. We know where they were lynched. So far, we have gotten a sizable donation from [KCF and M 00:00:06:33]. And so we've had a young artist. His name is [Charlie Suave 00:06:38], and he has painted the mural. It's powerful in that section. And then we're putting in podiums, and we will gather the soil from the places where the people were lynched, put their names on jars, put soil in the jar, and honor those people. So I'm really excited about that.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

We're also opening a gift shop and a coffee shop. We're really busy around here. And those are exciting things too. We want to be a place where people can walk and sit down and have a cup of tea or a cup of coffee and work and relax and be a part of this institution. We want people to come here and to enjoy The Black Archives.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

We're also trying to collect computers so that we can set up a genealogy center. We have the space, and we had some computers that were donated to us, but they were so old that they wouldn't run the software. So now we need 10 computers so that we can establish the genealogy center. We have partnered with the Midwest genealogical center in Independence, and they've told us what software we need to buy, and they will come over and train us. We just need to get those computers.

Kelly Scanlon:

So you have quite a lot coming up. You've got a coffee shop. You've got a genealogy center. You've got a gift shop, all kinds of things. So it can be a real gathering spot it sounds like for the community. Tell us about the role that the museum can play during these times. Do you see it as a unifying force for the city?

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

Oh, absolutely. I see us as the linchpin of the black community because we house all aspects of African-American life and culture. These events that are going on now and the purposes and the causes, we house those. They're important to us. They're a part of what we collect and what we store and what we share and what we exhibit and what we teach. We're an educational facility, a research facility, as well as an exhibit hall and community space. So we see us as a complete partner in these ventures and in keeping this part of history alive and structured and preserved for posterity.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

I have a 7-year-old grandson. I wanted him to be able to bring his kids to this spot and to see and to tell them about his part. He went to marches and what it was like for him. So it has to be preserved. We can't act like it's not happening or that it never has happened. And what we have to do is we have to acknowledge it, we have to preserve it, and we have to teach it. African-American history in Kansas City is the history of Kansas City. We're all entwined. And we may not want to acknowledge that or to see us as a collective, but we are.

Kelly Scanlon:

Is the museum open right now? I know that we're living in some times where we're not sure what's open and what's not open because of the different orders that are in effect because of the virus. So is it open right now? And if it is, what are your current hours?

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

We are open. We're open Monday through Friday, 10:00 to 5:00. We haven't reopened on weekends yet. We're not doing large tours, but it's a big building. We can do small groups, family groups. Individuals can come and tour. People have been having meetings here, reserving the facilities for meetings, but they have to practice social distancing, and they have to wear masks. We have signs all over every entry that in order to come in the building, you must have the mask. And we have some, catch those who don't come with one. We are following the guidelines, and we're being careful. But yeah, we are open.

Kelly Scanlon:

Now, do you have people who come from all over the country?

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

We do.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. You mentioned it's an educational and a research facility as well. So tell us about that larger, broader reach that you have.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

We do. In fact, this week, we have researchers here from New York. They are making documentaries, a documentary on Alvin Ailey, and they are here going through our collection and finding resources for their documentary.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

We have had researchers from Sweden, London, South Africa, China, from all over the world. And others have accessed our database to do research. We're working really hard to get as much of the collection as possible digitized and in our web base. It's a slow process because we don't have any money. And we have a limited staff. But we're working on that.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

But we are open. Our research and reading room is open. People can schedule research time. We put them in the room, put white gloves on them, make them sign a paper, and bring documents to them. So, yeah, we're still open and working.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are your goals for The Black Archives moving forward? What would you like to see?

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

Well, I want it to be sustainable. I want to make sure that it can function year after year. So we need that. But I also want to make it interactive. We've had so many young people come, school groups, summer camps, et cetera. And they're very polite, and they really enjoy the exhibition hall. And they put on their headsets, and they listen to Michael Patton talk about the exhibit and the panels. But I want it to be interactive.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

For example, the area where we're putting in the Community Remembrance Project, I want a hologram in there. The first jar of soil that we got was a man named Erastus Brown who had been lynched in Union, Missouri in 1897. We know his story. We know he was on his way to the pharmacy to get some medicine for his 4-year-old daughter who was very ill. Something happened across town. He was a lone, black man walking the straight. They got him, drug him. The sheriff said, "He'll be safe in the jail. I'll take him to the jail." They took him to the jail. They broke in the jail, drug him out, and murdered him. They hung him. And we also know that his daughter died because she didn't get the medicine. We want to do an enactment of Erastus Brown telling us his story. I want this place to be interactive, and not just for young people, but older people also like lights, camera, and action and so that they can feel something moving. They can feel the energy.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

I have some folk now who are working on music. I think we need a theme music for that area in particular where Lucy's cabin and the lynching project will be. But I also think that in the major hall, we also need some kind of music that exemplifies, that brings people in and helps them to share that experience as they go through the hall. So I want it interactive. I want things that young people can do and engage this place more intrinsically.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, very experiential. Because right now you have photographs, you have letters, you have things that are, you can see them, but you want something that really engages the whole person.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

Absolutely. We do have... And we have temporary exhibits. I don't want the exhibition hall to be an I've seen it kind of place. Periodically, we were trying for once a month, but COVID shut us down so we haven't been able to rotate in anything else, but we put in temporary exhibits also in this space so that there's always something fresh and new to see. For example, last year we did a tribute to Tall Paul Alexander who was the doorman at the Crown Center for over 40 years, almost 50 years. And we have an exhibit for him, which was fabulous and so well-received. Right now, we have an exhibit by a local artist named [Jerome Berry 00:00:14:37]. Jerome realized that his little sister, when she was a little sister, didn't have much self-esteem, and he'd say, "You're beautiful." And she would say, "Oh, no, not really." So he started a series of women's empowerment graphic novels, and they are absolutely stunning. We have them on the exhibit now in the Kaufman Hall.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

So we rotate those things in. There's going to be a couple of more exhibits that we have lined up for the end of this year. Hopefully, things will open up. If not, people will come and see them two at a time. But we want to keep it fresh and active. And people are bringing these ideas to us, which is the really amazing part. These are the things that they think is important to recognize and to acknowledge and to historicize in African-American culture. And that is amazing.

Kelly Scanlon:

If people wanted to get involved, what is the best way to engage with you?

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

They can write Dr. Carma at Black Archives dot org. They can come into the building, 1722 East 17th Terrace. They can call us (816) 221-1600. They can write us a letter. We're fully accessible and ready, willing, and able to join with people to help advance this institution. They can come and volunteer. That's a great help.

Kelly Scanlon:

Would that be to do tour guides? Would it be in caring for the exhibits? What would that look like?

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

Whatever they want. The volunteers that we have now love working in the archives. They're working on identifying pictures, and scanning, digitizing, sorting, filing, et cetera. So far, I haven't anybody who said, "Oh, I would love to be a tour guide." But we would love to have a tour guide. So we're doing that with our summer interns and with our regular staff and me. I lead a lot of tours. We need front end people to welcome people into the archives, get them to sign in so that we can get them into our database. And once we open the new part in a couple of weeks, we'll need people to help us out in the gift shop and the coffee shop.

Kelly Scanlon:

Thank you so much for being on the show today. We really appreciate you taking the time to share this gem with us.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams:

Oh, thank you for considering The Black Archives of Mid-America. We appreciate you.

Joe Close:

Hello. This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Dr. Carmaletta Williams for joining us this week to share the mission of The Black Archives of Mid-America and walking us through the exhibits and important history the museum preserves. Dr. Williams is one of our local unsung heroes who works to create awareness of our shared Kansas City history. As she and others endeavor to keep that history alive and accessible to all, it compels us to recognize and acknowledge that we are all entwined as a community. Importantly, it helps us understand our own ability to create positive and lasting change. As Dr. Williams said, our history is today. As president of Country Club Bank, a community bank that strives to be an agent of care for businesses and individuals alike, I ask that we all challenge ourselves with this question. What am I doing today to create a history that future generations will say made our community better? Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.