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Gantt Center kicks off Black History Month
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At an invitation-only event at the Harvey B. Gantt Center, John Fleming, left, executive producer of “America I Am: The African American Imprint” exhibit, is interviewed by local journalist Mary C. Curtis. The event marked the kickoff of Black History Month at the Gantt Center with events sponsored by PNC Bank. (Photo: Glenn H. Burkins for Qcitymetro.com)

The Harvey B. Gantt Center kicked off its Black History Month lineup last week with a visit from John Fleming, executive producer of the traveling exhibit “America I Am: The African American Imprint.”

Fleming, director emeritus at the Cincinnati Museum Center, discussed the making of the exhibit and encouraged the roughly 200 invited guests to preserve black history and African American artifacts in their homes, churches and communities.

“It’s extremely important that we continue to preserve what we value in our own community,” he said. “We have to first put a value on what we have for other people to appreciate what we have as African people.”

As executive producer of the “America I Am” exhibit, Fleming was the person most closely responsible for identifying, and then negotiating to obtain, the more than 10,000 square feet of artifacts that will be on display at the Gantt Center through March 3.

PNC Bank is sponsoring the Gantt Center's 37th Annual Black History Month Celebration, which includes special events each week through February.

Artifacts that talk

When asked if he had a favorite item in the exhibit, Fleming said the individual pieces were not as significant to him as the stories they tell.

To illustrate that point, he discussed a small whip that once belonged to the wife of a slave owner, who kept it on her dressing table. The whip was specifically designed to be wielded by a female, in contrast to the larger, man-size whips often associated with slave beatings.

“That told me the enslaved person was constantly under supervision” and constantly afraid of doing the wrong thing,” he said.

Fleming said he was generally satisfied with the exhibit, but he said an additional $3 million in funding would have improved it considerably.

Although the traveling exhibit has retained its core artifacts, some items were simply too fragile to be displayed in each city. One example is a church altar once used by Absalom Jones, a former slave who became the first African-American ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. That item was displayed only in Philadelphia, where the exhibit premiered in 2009.

Reaching for the best

Fleming said two items he failed to get were original copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence. He said he was told by officials at the Library of Congress that in order to obtain the latter, he would need the backing of two U.S. presidents.

“I wanted to set my sights as high as possible, because I thought this exhibit was worthy of that,” he said.

Fleming said he believed the 1977 movie “Roots” and other work by the late Alex Haley had increased the desire to preserve genealogy, not just for blacks but for all Americans, and he stressed what he said was the importance of looking back, even with a black president in the White House.

“People talk about a post-racial America. I don’t believe we are there yet,” he said. “There are too many threats on our president’s life.

“It is a new day, but it is that history that has made us who we are as individuals and as groups and as nations,” he continued. “We can’t erase that. And one of the most important things we can do as a nation is face that.”

Fleming said he is currently working on a project in Jackson, Miss., that will tell the story of the turbulent struggle for civil rights in that state, once deemed the most segregated state in the nation.

“That is going to be one of the most difficult stories I have ever been involved in,” he said.

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October 7, 2015
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