The rich tapestry of the African-American experience — from slavery to Tupac Shakur — is now on display at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park in the exhibit “America I AM: The African American Imprint.”
The traveling exhibition is presented by Tavis Smiley — no relation to Guy Smiley — host of “Tavis Smiley” on PBS. The show fills two galleries with more than 200 artifacts, documents, clothing and other items. There are videos and multimedia sections and a rockin’ soundtrack when you get to the final exhibit area.
The exhibition begins on a somber note, of course, as it traces the early encounters of Africans in the New World and the rise of slavery. The exhibit’s most powerful moment occurs early on as visitors walk in a darkened hall past the dungeon doors from Cape Coast Castle, where captive Africans were held awaiting ships that would take them to America.
The doors were known as “The Door of No Return” since they were the final doors captives were led through before boarding ships leaving their homeland.
The exhibit recounts the role of African Americans in the American Revolution, the Civil War, the reconstruction era, two world wars, the civil rights struggle and more.
Among the highlights:
* The key and stool from the Birmingham cell where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was held following the 1963 Birmingham campaigns.
* Rosa Parksʼ fingerprint card from her 1955 arrest in Montgomery, Ala.
* Malcolm Xʼs journal and personal Koran.
* The first traffic signal, designed by Garrett A. Morgan.
The exhibit wraps up with a space dedicated to entertainers and athletes, featuring the typewriter used by Alex Haley to write “Roots,” a Michael Jordan jersey, one of Jimi Hendrix’s outfits, and Prince’s guitar.
Overall I was impressed by the exhibit and thought I’d learned a lot. When I walked out of the second gallery it was storming, so I figured I’d check out what else is on display at the Missouri History Museum. I usually come for the special event and never bother to check out what else is on display.
The museum has a very impressive hall dedicated to the 1904 World’s Fair. Living in St. Louis I get tired of hearing about the 1904 World’s Fair about as much as I get tired of hearing about The Arch, which is probably why I never bothered to check out this exhibit. It’s very good. Worth the time, even if it’s not raining.
There’s also a large room dedicated to everything you could possibly want to know about Charles Lindbergh. Since I didn’t want to know that much about Lindbergh, I made a quick pass through. Lindbergh obsessives would love it.
It was still raining so I made a pass through an exhibit marking the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which had some neat stuff, and an exhibit about a local school, which didn’t. It was still raining so I went upstairs to check out the ongoing exhibit on St. Louis history. It had a Chuck Berry guitar, which was cool.
By this time it was still raining, but it had stopped storming, and I had seen all there was to see, so I braved the rain and made my way to the car. I just told myself it was Purple Rain.
America I AM runs through Sept. 25. http://www.mohistory.org