AAHC Forum: Former Journalist Reviving Lost History, Culture at The Kansas African American Museum

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 Mark E. McCormickMark McCormick Executive Director,  The Kansas African American Museum

Before returning to my hometown of Wichita to run The Kansas African American Museum in February, I wrote for newspapers from Reno to Iowa City to Louisville. My career spanned nearly two decades and I filled numerous newsroom roles from reporter to assigning editor to columnist.

So when I introduce myself to audiences as executive director of a museum and “recovering journalist,” I’m only half joking. For us news junkies, journalism remains an addiction we can’t quite shake.  We spent our lives devoted to a calling we considered a public trust.

But I view my current job here at The Kansas African American Museum (TKAAM) in much the same way, a public trust in which I’m responsible for the care, expansion, and expression of our state’s historical DNA. This feels like a natural transition and one, like journalism, I won’t shake anytime soon.

As a reporter, I wrote often about historic events and the people behind them, including Wichita native Don Hollowell, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lawyer and the man whose clients integrated the University of Georgia. Hollowell was nicknamed “Mr. Civil Rights” in Atlanta, his adopted hometown. That’s something considering that’s also Dr. King’s hometown. Hollowell earned the moniker defending poor black clients in front of rural, all-white juries — and winning. He also served in the famous Tenth Calvary known as “The Buffalo Soliders.”

When I wrote about him for the Wichita Eagle newspaper, Wichitan readers were stunned to learn that he hailed from their town. The staff of the Kansas African American Museum is now busy building an expanded exhibit about his life and contributions.

Wichitans also were proud and surprised to learn that the first lunch counter sit-in occurred here in Wichita as well, roughly two years before the more famous sit-ins in Greensboro.

One of the movement’s most important martyrs, the Rev. James Reeb, also hailed from Wichita. Reeb was killed during the historic March to Selma and was eulogized by Dr. King. Some area residents connected with a nearby Mennonite College recently brought in documents and photos from the ceremony, including the front page of the Nashville Tennessean newspaper, which shows them at the event holding their then-toddler daughter.

Our Education Director Polly Basore has just launched a youth violence intervention program based in part on the work of famed photographer, writer, and filmmaker Gordon Parks, a native of Ft. Scott, Kan.

As part of the program, we read passages of Parks’ A Choice of Weapons, which outlines his decision to respond to the violent racism of his youth with a camera, with his writing, and with creativity. We’ve asked the students to consider how they might creatively avoid violent confrontations. The works they create will hang in our gallery and we will host a gallery opening for them in June.

“So we’re going to be famous?” one of them asked excitedly.

As executive director at TKAAM, I can continue to treasure and tell such stories, to collect them and to rescue the stories still swirling in the memories of our seniors. I told my staff on day one that when we lose a senior, it’s like a library burning. We risk losing their precious, eyewitness memories forever.

I’m so lucky this job was here when the journalism industry began to contract.

I don’t know how I would have fed my news and history habit.

Mark E. McCormick is Executive Director of the Kansas African American Museum, a New York Times bestselling author, and longtime journalist.

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