Museum, curator recount a different “Time of Terrorism” in America
February 27, 2007
Filed under News
For those who have not yet seen the African American History Museum at Mesa College, Black History Month is a great opportunity to check out the exhibit. The collection of photographs, books, poems and historical items is on display in the ground floor hallway of the Humanities, Languages, and Multicultural Studies Building.
The collection recounts the suffering and atrocities endured by blacks in the South prior to the civil rights movement.
Starla Lewis is the museum curator and professor of Black Studies at Mesa College. Her original inspiration for the museum came while visiting the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. She decided that the African American story also needed a place to be told.
Since then, she has welcomed many students to experience the exhibit, not just from Mesa, but also National University, El Cajon High School and the Boys and Girls Club among others.
The photos on display are graphic and disturbing. Photographs of dead bodies of lynching victims tell their tragic tale, alongside letters written by the perpetrators.
The collection has two sections, one titled, “A Time of Terrorism” and the other, “A Time of Civil Rights.”
This collection presents the case that these events prior to the civil rights movement in American history mark an era of rampant terrorism on American soil. The terrorists, however, are not Middle Eastern, as we are prone to think of them today. In fact, the terrorists are white Americans.
And the victims were not chosen because of nationality, religion or political affiliation, but rather, the color of their skin. But the gruesome crimes depicted remind us that terrorism is not a 21st century invention, and that we in America have our own shameful terrorist history.
Lewis said that when she saw a photo in the San Diego Union Tribune several years ago showing the burnt and disfigured bodies of Americans hanging from a bridge in Iraq, it immediately reminded her of lynching victims here in America.
These lynchings, like the ones shown in the exhibit, employed “purposeful cruelty” in order to create fear and prevent blacks from “crossing barriers.” She also noted that most lynchings included castration, which symbolically stripped the victim of his power and manhood.
Lewis admits, “I know this exhibit makes some people uncomfortable.”
The current exhibit has been up since 2003. Ms. Lewis has heard that some people walk by the exhibit and remark, “They still have that shit up there?” She has considered replacing it with a new exhibit but says that the students resisted the idea, so it remains in place.
Lewis has plenty of her own stories about growing up under segregation. She spent some of her childhood in Missouri where she befriended the sister of Linda Brown. That proved both personally and historically significant for Ms. Lewis since this was the same Brown family of Brown v. Board of Education.
Interestingly, Lewis doesn’t remember feeling bad about life in those days. When she enrolled in Girl Scouts, the leader quit rather than have a black girl under her supervision. By contrast, the girls in the troop welcomed Lewis, saying, “We didn’t like her anyway.”
A passion for teaching is something Lewis brings to the classroom as well as to her exhibit. Her focus is on promoting respect for all people, revealing painful truths, and building confidence in her students.
That passion is clearly having an impact on her students. She was named Teacher of the Year her first year at Mesa. In fact, she has won that distinction she thinks seven times, but confesses that she is bad at remembering numbers.
She proudly recounts many successes and achievements her students have had, many of them overcoming all kinds of hardships.
With a smile she remarks, “You can tell I love teaching.” Indeed.