Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum Freedom is a Fighting Word ExhibitBy Naari Honor, Peacemaker Contributor / June 17, 2016
No more than 15 miles outside of Greensboro lies the city of Sedalia. The town, whose community doesn’t exceed 800 individuals and is comprised of 2.3 square miles, holds a treasure that far outweighs its population and landmass – The Palmer Memorial Institute.
The Palmer Memorial Institute [PMI], a North Carolina historic site, was a prestigious African American preparatory school founded by Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown. This year, the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, located on the grounds of PMI, is commemorating the importance of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 by featuring an exhibit entitled “Freedom is a Fighting Word.” This exhibit features the revolutionary work carried out by Dr. Brown to help in the attainment of voting rights for African Americans during the first half and mid-twentieth century. Brown died in 1961.
The VRA of 1965 was ground-breaking federal legislation signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 6, 1965. It outlawed discriminatory voting practices used primarily in southern states against African Americans and it enforced the voting rights assured to all individuals by the fourteenth and fifteenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In recent years, section four of the VRA dealing with preclearance on redistricting in primarily southern states, was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court with the court’s Chief Justice John Roberts stating that the 40-year-old coverage formula used by Congress was now based on “obsolete” statistics and that the formula “violates the constitution.” While a revised act is still awaiting congressional action, legislators in many states, including North Carolina, have actively implemented new laws restricting voting such as requiring voter ID, eliminating polling stations and decreasing early voting periods, thus making it more difficult for the poor, elderly and people of color (to name a few) to exercise the right to vote.
Charlotte Hawkins Brown believed that education fosters critical thinking and she worked diligently to equip young people with the tools to achieve academically. In 1902, at the age of 19, Brown had the foresight to start the PMI and she made it her life’s mission to prepare African American students to work within a voting system designed to thwart their participation.
Dr. Brown advocated for social justice across the U.S. and abroad and she fought for the right to vote on behalf of all women and African American men. She worked to secure equality crossed racial and gender lines. She simultaneously taught African American men and women ways to secure employment positions and how to be influential decision makers. That training helped young men and women face a governmental structure that was skewed across the south to systematically subvert their access to the ballot box.
The museum exhibit features Brown’s role in helping to launch the “National Committee to Oust Bilbo,” supported by the Civil Rights Congress. The committee brought to light that Theodore G. Bilbo, a two-time governor of Mississippi, U.S. Senator and self-proclaimed member of the Ku Klux Klan, encouraged and rallied White citizens of Mississippi, via his speeches, to use violence to intimidate African Americans to not vote. In addition to Brown, Albert Einstein and 53 other people were members of the national committee. It was J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, who created a “watch-list” comprised of the organization’s members.
Throughout her career, Dr. Brown provided her students with a well-rounded academic curriculum and in-depth instruction on the inner workings of the American government system. She invited guest lecturers to PMI such as Langston Hughes, American poet and social activist and Oscar Stanton De Priest (R-IL), a Republican U.S. Representative from Illinois and civil rights activist, to speak to the students on campus.
Frachele Scott, site manager at the Palmer Memorial Institute, described Dr. Brown’s teaching methods as offering, “a myriad of viewpoints and not one single voice to overcome a myopic view [of America].”
These shared viewpoints continue to enlighten youth, who currently tour the museum to learn about the impact of voting in the U.S. and its impact on the rights of its citizenry. Also featured in the exhibit is a bulletin board filled with artfully decorated comment cards that describe why young visitors believe voting is important today because the fight for access to the ballot box continues.
The “Freedom is a Fighting Word” exhibit is open to the public until June 30 in the Carrie M. Stone Teachers’ Cottage, permanent home of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. The museum’s address is 6136 Burlington Rd.; Gibsonville, N.C. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. To inquire about group tours, venue rental, interning or volunteer opportunities, please contact the museum directly at (336) 449-4846.
Afrique I. Kilimanjaro contributed to the writing of this feature.