Guardians of History
Museum will gather the story of African-Americans in the Southwest
By Marisa Demarco
People tend to think there's no African-American presence in New Mexico, says Rita Powdrell. The only time you might catch an exhibit about their history in the Southwest is during Black History Month, she adds. "But it's not in your school systems," she says. "We've been here since as long as the Spaniards have been here. We've had quite an influence on the culture of the state."
Powdrell, also a co-owner of the famous Mr. Powdrell's Barbeque, is president of an organization that's been working for more than five years to install a permanent home for relics of African-American history in this region. It will be called the African-American Museum and Cultural Center of New Mexico, and it will be housed, along with the Holocaust Museum, in the Rosenwald building on the corner of Fourth Street and Central.
The city purchased the building for just under $1,700,000 using moneys secured from the State Legislature. The museum, however, will be an independent project run by organizations who will rent the space. An opening date hasn't been determined, and Powdrell predicts the building will have to undergo six months of renovation. Staffing is not yet in place.
Powdrell put an exhibit together many years ago called New Mexico's African-American Legacy: Visible, Valuable and Vital. For the project, she gathered oral histories with members of some of the founding African-American families in the state. Through the process, she discovered a problem: This history wasn't really visible, and precious information was leaking away. "People store it in their bedrooms," she says. "There are people who are natural historians, but they have no place to leave history. When they pass away, the descendants might throw it away. We're continually losing artifacts or history."
Many exhibits have cropped up over the years, and historical work on the subject has been done for many years, Powdrell says. "The office of African-American Affairs said, Why don't we pool all these resources and come together and develop the concept?" In addition to locally created installations, the museum hopes to bring in traveling exhibits, some from the Smithsonian, and possibly an African-American rodeo.
Powdrell recalls attending UNM while the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and seeing many books by and about African-Americans on library shelves. But after the presence of the movement dwindled, so did the libraries' collections. She says she hopes the museum will serve as a continual presence in the state, regardless of the political climate. "It's something that originates within the African-American community but is about how our community touches all communities and how our history is intertwined with all history."
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