AAHC Forum: Forgotten Communities: Discovering and Recovering Baptisttown

This post is a part of the AAHC Forum. In the coming months we will invite current and past grantees to contribute their project experiences via blog posts on our UpNext Blog and then ask you to respond through the AAHC Virtual Forum. We hope you will add your voice and share your needs and opinions so that AAHC can continue to help African American museums thrive. Please visit the AAHC forum to continue the conversation.

By Brittney Westbrook
Curator, Evansville African American Museum

As curator and program director for the Evansville African American Museum, a position that was funded by an IMLS Museum Grant for African American History and Culture, I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to fulfill my childhood dream of interpreting history and protecting the artifacts of the past. I began working with the museum in February 2012 and since then have gained much insight into the community and its history. I have been able to conduct research and interpret the history of an area that many had been previously unaware of. This opportunity has allowed me to draw historical comparisons between the local history of this area and the larger experience of African Americans in the United States.

Exhibit board created by Harrison High School

Exhibit board created by Harrison High School CFCO students on a joint Baptisttown Exhibition Project with Brittney Westbrook. The panel highlights African-American businesses on Lincoln Avenue within Baptisttown.

Located in Evansville, Indiana, the museum is the last remaining building of the Lincoln Gardens Housing Complex, the second federal housing project created under the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1938. The museum resides in an area once known as Baptisttown, a moniker that was created by white segregationists at the turn of the 20th century. The Evansville African American Museum serves as a permanent community artifact itself, and it showcases a historical apartment, which documents the life of a typical resident of the area between 1938 and 1960.

IMLS funding has allowed me to create the museum’s first collections policy and to accession, catalogue, house, and care for the museum’s vast array of period artifacts and archival documents. I have also been able to work with University of Southern Indiana students through collections internships. With their help, I have catalogued a good deal of the museum’s holdings for the first time.

Our institution’s Museum Assessment Program (MAP) review, completed at the beginning of 2013, surveyed the museum’s collection and organizational structure. The information collected from our MAP review will be used to create a strategic plan and other museum documents.

The Evansville community has also supported the museum and the Discovering and Recovering Baptisttown Project through its participation in two oral history projects that collected and preserved the war memories of Baptisttown and Lincoln Gardens residents. I was also able to work with local high school and college students on historical research and exhibition projects. The products of these programs will be used in the creation of new exhibits for the museum. The Discovering and Recovering Baptisttown Project has discovered over 100 businesses, churches, and community organizations that once thrived during the heyday of Baptisttown and Lincoln Gardens. Research on Baptisttown has also lead to the identification of artifacts that belonged to significant community figures, such as the post-Civil War amputation kit owned by one of Evansville’s first African American doctors, Howard R. Thompson.

Although, research continues on Baptisttown and Lincoln Gardens, the most significant aspect of our project, to discover and interpret the life and material culture of Evansville’s African American community prior to 1960, has been accomplished. The museum, through new partnerships and the IMLS grant, has been able to uncover the forgotten past of Baptisttown and preserve its treasures for future generations.

Brittney Westbrook, the new curator of the Evansville African American Museum, arrived at the museum in February from Washington D.C. Westbrook came to the museum under a federally funded two-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Her journey into the field of history and museum fields started over a decade ago and includes work at Berea College and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She is currently working to preserve, conserve, and showcase the EAAM’s artifacts and to foster the education of the public through museum programming and exhibitions. 

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