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5 questions for Emily Zimmern
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Visitors to the Levine Museum of the New South view lynching images on display as part of the "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" exhibit. (Photo: Jon Strayhorn of Media Art Collective)
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Emily Zimmern

As president and CEO of the Levine Museum of the New South, Emily Zimmern understands that decisions bring consequences. So when she and others at the museum decided to host an exhibit showing graphic, historical photos of blacks being lynched in various American towns, she knew the potential was there for conflict and misunderstanding.

To prepare the community, as well as her staff, the museum held a series of listening sessions with invited guests – community leaders, elected officials, clergy, even members of the media.

Now as the “Without Sanctuary” exhibit enters its final two weeks in Charlotte, a museum official said it has received “strong visitation” and a “high number of African Americans.”

ALSO READ: A dialogue on lynching

What Folks Are Saying

From the museum's post-it board in the gallery, where visitors responses to the question, "What is your personal connection to lynching?"

· " I am a human being."

· "1925 my great grandmother father was threatened to be lynched so he took his family to Cincinnati, Ohio to avoid this."

· "Unbelievably to me - a part of this exhibit shows my mothers’ dinky little town of Rushsylvania, Ohio lynched a person in 1894."

· "My great grandfather instigated a mob, which led to 3 men being lynched in Duluth MN 1920."

· "This is my history; This is our history."

From facilitated dialogue participants:

· “Walking through and seeing images of lynching. It was very hard to see but I learned more about history.” - Mallard Creek High School student

· " Entire exhibit was moving, educational, and thought provoking. Thank you." -- participant from Cannon School

From visitors:

· “This should be in every city in the U.S.”

· “Thank you for keeping the memory of this period alive.”

· “No matter how much it hurts we must be reminded.”

· “My teacher required me to see this, but I’m really glad she did.”


Messages left behind by visitors. (Photo: Courtesy of Levine Museum of the New South)

We sat with Zimmern before the exhibit opened to talk about its potential impact. The Q&A below is based on that interview. Her answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Why an exhibit about lynching?

Since the museum’s founding, we have been deeply committed to telling stories of all those who shaped our region’s history and who are making history in the South today. The voices we have heard over the years in our exhibits and in our programs reflect that pride and pain. We feel that this chapter of American history, Southern history, is an incredibly important one because it so shaped American society, and its legacy continues to reverberate today. But it’s so seldom talked about because it’s so incredibly painful, and it does evoke deep emotions. You can’t just tell celebratory history; you’ve got to tell the fullest picture that you can, because we really can’t move forward until we have addressed some of those issues that so shaped our present. This is a critical chapter of Southern history. How could we not talk about it? When you walk through there and you see images of lynchings that happened all over this country, that calls us to pause and reflect. How could we have allowed this to happen?

Q. So how does showing these graphic images make us better as a community?

We will be better because we will have confronted our history honestly. I think it does show that Charlotte has made great strides, that we are not a city afraid to confront its history. I think it shows that Charlotte is, indeed, an incredibly progressive city if it’s one willing to confront its history and take from that history a message that we can be better and we can do better. We are a better and stronger city for actually looking at the dark chapters and being willing to talk about it. Shared stories build a community. But if I never hear your story and you never hear mine, we’re not going to have a shared understanding to go forward.

Q. Where was this exhibit before it came here?

Most immediately it was at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. But it really started with an antiques dealer in Atlanta who would go to flea markets looking for antiques. He first encountered a (single) lynching postcard. And then, over about 25 years, he states seeing more and more and more of them, and his collection numbers in the hundreds. There are 70 or so included in the exhibit. So it was his personal collection. It’s been displayed in very unconventional fashion. Originally, it was in some kind of gallery in New York, and there was no contextualization at all. And it created this amazing sensation; people were so aghast and taken aback. Then, some portion of the postcards went to the New York Historical Society, and they were the ones that first began to provide historical context. It then went to a number of other museums. It went to Pittsburgh, to the (Andy) Warhol Museum; it went to the Charles Wright Museum in Detroit; it went to Jackson, Mississippi; and it was in Atlanta at the Martin Luther King Center, and then it was at Chicago Historical. This is the last stop before it permanently becomes part of the National Center for Human and Civil Rights (in Atlanta).

Q. None of your promotional material actually shows lynching images. Why is that?

The images are incredibly unsettling. We don’t want this to be sensationalized. We want to show respect to the folks who were killed. One of our main motivations is simply to document, like the Holocaust. This history happened. Our responsibility is to recognize the humanity of those victims. Respect for the victims is not to sensationalize their deaths but to show respect -- that’s to respect them, respect their families, respect their descendents. So we made a very conscious decision as an institution that we were not going to publicize; that’s not our intent.

Q. As you discussed bringing this exhibit here, was there dissention from staff or board members?

Actually, no. There was no one who said we shouldn’t bring it. What everyone said was that we needed to be very clear about why we were brining this history; that we needed to be ready to answer that. This is the risk, without question. Is it going to make things worse or is it going to make things better. Institutionally, our view is that knowledge helps people make better decisions... It’s bearing witness. Remembrance is incredibly important, because it’s so much easier to slip into bad behavior if you don’t remember. But if you recognize that human beings can do awful things, you are much more vigilant. Our ultimate goal in all of this is to bring healing and for people to remain vigilant. Bad things happen now. What are people going to look back on 50 years from now and say, “How could they let this happen?”
 



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September 15, 2014
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