By Lauren Deal
Macon Community News
Macon’s Tubman Museum is one of the most striking buildings across the entire state of Georgia, with its eye-catching yellow façade and basket weave pattern of dark wood, brick, concrete, and glass framing the exterior of the Peyton Anderson atrium. The sweeping architecture is capped with a gorgeous geometric skylight.
The design is as bold as it is simple, and the diverse elements are a fitting tribute to the nation’s largest museum dedicated to sharing the art, history, and culture of African Americans.
The Tubman Museum of African American Art, History, and Culture was founded in 1981 by Father Richard Kiel, who was then a priest at St. Peter Claver in Macon, where he had been assigned since the 1950s. Kiel founded the museum’s first location at the corner of Walnut Street and Martin Luther King, Jr., Drive, and helped to collect items for display in the early days of the museum’s history.
By the mid to late 1990s, the Tubman Museum was outgrowing its 8500 square foot space. The museum needed more room, and members of the museum community began to look at options for expansion.
In 2001, the museum broke ground on a new location on Cherry Street, opposite the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and adjacent to Macon’s Terminal Station. Soon after, however, the tragedy of September 11, 2001, halted progress on building and fundraising. Through the next decade, efforts to complete the new museum were plodding.
By 2015, though, the new facility was completed. On April 10th of that year, the old Tubman Museum was closed, and on May 16th, with great festivity and anticipation, the new museum opened.
Inside, the “new” Tubman Museum has all of the characteristics of a modern, world-class museum: the large Peyton Anderson rotunda provides a beautiful space for events, while its many windows allow generous light to stream through the building.
Throughout the year, the Tubman museum uses the rotunda for programming that ranges from celebrations of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., to dance performances, to guest speakers.
For example, on March 1, 2019, the museum co-hosted a luncheon with the United States Postal Service and Adopt-A-Role Model to unveil the USPS’s new postage stamp commemorating the career of famed tap dancer and actor Gregory Hines.
On the second Saturday of every month, from 10:00 AM to 12:00 noon, the rotunda becomes a music room when African drums are provided for children to learn and practice African drumming.
Lining the walls of the rotunda is a commissioned work of art titled the History of the Dream, a series of textile panels that combine traditional African dyeing techniques with photographs transferred onto fabric. Unique colors, patterns, and designs from the West African tradition create a vivid backdrop for pictures and writings that tell the story of African Americans from slavery through the modern era. Artist Wini McQueen worked over four years to create 130 separate panels. They are displayed throughout the museum.
Just off the rotunda, there is a Georgia history gallery that shares the untold stories of African Americans through pictures, furniture pieces, and other artifacts. Among the most interesting photographs are the high school photographs of the young black women who integrated Bibb County public schools. These line the back wall of the gallery.
At the forefront of the gallery is a beautiful rocking chair that belonged to Jefferson Franklin Long, Georgia’s first African American Congressman, who was elected as a Republican to the United States House of Representatives in 1870 as a member of the Georgia Delegation. Before the Civil War, he had been a slave who taught himself how to read and write from the pages of the Daily Macon Telegraph, which was next door to the shop where he was a tailor.
After the war, he owned his own tailor shop and became active in Macon AME Church and politics. Long traveled the southeast giving speeches and registering newly freed men for voting following the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in February of 1870. After his election, he became the first African American man to speak on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
From the Georgia gallery, a spiral staircase leads up to the second-floor rotunda. The walls up the stairs are lined with black and white photographic portraits of notable Macon citizens. These individuals are men and women were chosen because they were among the first African American’s in Macon to achieve certain successes. Among them is the educator, pastor, and politician Dr. Henry Ficklin.
The artist who took these photographs is Johnny Crawford. Crawford has an impressive career as a photographer, which includes photographing athletes in three Olympic Games, international politicians in the G8 Summit, and five United States presidents. He was a photographer for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution for 28 years, and also served as primary photographer for Georgia Tech football and NASCAR.
Crawford’s photographs are stunning. While his photographs of Macon trailblazers are part of the permanent collection at the museum, he is currently working on installing a temporary exhibit in the gallery upstairs.
His new exhibit features Vietnam veterans from the southeast. The Vietnam War was the first conflict for a fully-integrated military, with African Americans serving and fighting alongside men and women of other races. Vietnam veterans of all races faced poor treatment when they returned home: unlike other wars, where troops were moved en masse, the vast majority of Vietnam veterans returned home alone on passenger aircraft.
A preview of the African American Vietnam veterans exhibit shows the pieces are extraordinarily moving. Crawford’s work captures the essence of the men and women he photographed, revealing aspects of their personalities that even some of their families didn’t recognize. From the lighting to the composition, the photographs are captivating, and such a fitting tribute to the people who served their country through such a difficult time.
Crawford’s exhibit opens on March 8, 2019, and it will continue through April 14, 2019. It is a powerful testimony to a generation of men and women who served their country proudly through tumultuous and stressful times. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.
There are multiple other exhibits in the museum. The African American history through the ages panorama from the original Tubman Museum is featured in an upstairs gallery adjacent to famous inventions by African Americans.
The Energy of Art exhibit is co-sponsored by Georgia Power and features a large variety of contemporary art pieces from the collection of Johnny and Allison Howze. The collection features paintings, mixed-media pieces, and sculptures by African American artists.
The namesake of the museum, Harriet Tubman, has her own exhibit which includes various artistic renderings, writings, and a life-size sculpture of the abolitionist and freedom fighter who saved many from the evils of bondage. For lovers of liberty, Tubman’s bravery is inspirational, and seeing her statue recalls Shakespeare’s words, that “though she be but little, she is fierce.”
Plan at least two hours for your first visit to the Tubman Museum of African American Art, History, and Culture. They offer a scavenger hunt for children and homeschoolers, as well as free African drumming lessons on the second Saturday of every month from 10 AM to noon.
The Tubman Museum is located at 310 Cherry Street in downtown Macon. Their hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday, from 9 AM – 5 PM. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for children ages 3-17, and $8 for senior citizens, college students, military, and educators (each with ID). Children under 3 are free. For more information, visit their website at www.tubmanmuseum.com.