In recognition of Black History Month, Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke is hosting “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow,” a poster exhibit that documents Black Americans’ continuing struggle for equality in the years following the Civil War.
The exhibit, organized and distributed by the New York Historical Society Museum and Library, is supplemented with artifacts and images from the Black Holyoke collection.
Connecting Point’s Iohann Rashi Vega spoke with Holyoke Historian and Wistariahurst Curator Penni Martorell about the exhibit and how it reflects the experience of the Black community in the Pioneer Valley.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: In recognition of Black History Month, Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke is hosting “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow,” a poster exhibit that documents Black Americans continuing struggle for equality in the years following the Civil War.
The exhibit, organized and distributed by the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library, is supplemented with artifacts and images from the Black Holyoke Collection.
Connecting Point’s Iohann Rashi Vega spoke with Wistariahurst curator Penni Martorell about the exhibit and how it reflects the experience of the Black community in the Pioneer Valley.
Penni Martorell, Wistariahurst Museum: I found it a few years ago during the pandemic. The New-York Historical Society is the group that put it together, did all the research.And in their mission, under the grant that they got, it was to share this information with other institutions. So, they put together an eight poster exhibit that outlines the laws of the Jim Crow Era and how that affected citizens, Black Americans across the nation. And so, we keep it on hand. So, it seemed appropriate this year that this would be the exhibit.
So, I’ve tried to enrich it a little bit with some local history. We had a scholar here, Erika Slocumb, who did a project called “Reliquary of Blackness” and did a deep dive into local Black history here in Holyoke, and has enriched that history for us and for future generations, because now we have these oral histories and scrapbooks to look at that document Black citizens in Holyoke. So, that’s great.
And, you know, the meaning of this exhibit, these Jim Crow laws that went into place, are really the underlying structure to what we see in institutional racism now. And so, it’s really important to understand what that fight was for Black Americans to overcome those Jim Crow laws and how much further we still have to go to get equality for Black Americans.
Iohann Rashi Vega, Connecting Point: When we see the work that Erika Slocumb has been doing for this past years, with the project that started with Black Holyoke, and now the “Reliquary,” what were some of those findings that you could connect between Jim Crow and what the Black community in the Valley had to experience based on the documents, or testimonials, or objects that now are part of that history?
Penni Martorell: Erika did a lot of oral histories with folks who grew up — were, well pretty much grew up in Holyoke and the subtle ways that these laws took place or manifested themselves in Holyoke. So, there was evidence of redlining through these oral histories — Black folks talked about how this affected their lives when they went to go buy a house, when they went to move into an apartment, the questions they were asked.
And so, this has just added to the history of Holyoke, you know, another layer, another perspective of our own history. But we can see how it connects to national things that were going on with redlining, and discrimination, and all of those things that were taking place.
Iohann Rashi Vega: This exhibit will be available for the public during February, being Black History Month, and aside of the posters, what else the public will be able to enjoy and to appreciate as part of this whole experience here at Wistariahurst?
Penni Martorell: The New York Historical Society has also included a video that we’ll have running to bring some of those things to — to life in motion. And they’ve supplied us with a curriculum and a whole list of other resources that people can take away with them, do their own research, look up things on the online, as well as some local historical pieces. We have – there was an organization here in Holyoke called the Monarch Club, which was an African American group that got together to advance and talk about their own causes.
So, little things like that that we have collected — a little bit we’ve collected — and tried to bring them out for people to see, as well.
Iohann Rashi Vega: When we talk about providing resources not only for the public in general but thinking how this could become another way to continue expanding and exposing people to history and the realities of what the Jim Crow era was and still today continues impacting not only the Black community, but in general, the whole narrative of what history is still today.
How do you think this exhibit has an importance for our community where we are diverse and yet, not enough represented when we talk particularly of the Black community?
Penni Martorell: So, I think the — the longer span of time that goes between laws that were in place and, you know, we think we’re advanced and yet, this underlying framework of Jim Crow has really provided a structure for the institutional racism that we see now. So, understanding what we had — where that came from can help us understand how we need to dismantle it. And that is the key lesson.
Iohann Rashi Vega: So, for the people who want to visit Wistariahurst, the gallery, and the Black Citizenship in the age of Jim Crow, when it will be available, how can they get access, and how can they get more information in general for this exhibit?
Penni Martorell: The exhibit will be open Mondays in the month of February from 10 a.m. — 10:30 a.m. till 12:30, and then Tuesday evenings from 4:30 to 6:30. So, if you want to drop in during those times, you’re welcome to do that and take a look at the — the gallery exhibit.
And, keep an eye on our website. If we have any special speakers or anything that we — we don’t have anything planned right yet, but that may come up. So, check our website wistariahurst.org is a good place to see what else is coming up.
Iohann Rashi Vega: How do you feel being able to put together this exhibit where — while these posters are a limited number compared to what other examples of exhibits have been displayed in this gallery, but the importance and the impact of what represents, particularly for the celebration and recognition of Black History Month means for you here, being a Holyoke historian, and being involved with Black Holyoke, and of course everything that is happening here at Wistariahurst.
Penni Martorell: Yeah, so, it’s not my story to tell in many ways. I didn’t put the exhibit together, I didn’t — I didn’t do the research, and I’m not Black, so, this isn’t my story. But at Wistariahurst, we want to be able to give space to other voices.
So, this is an opportunity to allow other voices, underrepresented voices, space to do that. And this exhibit is just one example of giving voice to a story that’s not always heard, not always learned. So, we get a fuller picture of history, not just one narrow view.
I really encourage people to come and see and learn, and yeah, perhaps there will be more stories that come to light. Oftentimes that happens, people come to see an exhibit and then we find another layer of history that we need to collect in Holyoke.