2012-02-16 / Features

Gettysburg’s Black History Museum Propels Forward

By Mark Walters
GETTYSBURG TIMES

GETTYSBURG, Pa. (AP) – It was on a West Africa shoreline where Ron Bailey had his midlife crisis.

He stood on the coast, where his ancestors last saw their homeland prior to being shackled and shipped west to be enslaved, and convulsed into tears.

“To be reconnected to the soil,” Bailey told a crowd of roughly 50 in attendance Monday afternoon at the Rotary Club of Gettysburg's meeting at the Gettysburg Hotel. “It gave me a deep sense of home.”

Bailey, just a couple weeks shy of turning 60, has lived in Adams County with his wife for six years, and after those six years, is ready to begin to present a project that he sees as much bigger than him.

The Gettysburg Black History Museum will be opening its doors this year (on) Baltimore Street, an arm’s length from J’s at the Village.

It is a project that will entail artifacts and physical objects, of course, but what Bailey is more excited about is the stories being told about what he referred to as “a city that so commonly attracts the eyes of the world.”

Having grown up in southern Virginia in what could be described as a scene out of “Remember the Titans,” Bailey did not meet a white person until he was 16. He lived through the integration of the 1960s, feeling void of the “Old Country” mentality that many other nationalities have.

“We didn’t have a sense of that,” said Bailey, President and CEO of the Gettysburg Black History Museum. “We were referred to by a lot of different names and my grandmother didn’t like some of the newer ones. My birth certificate says I’m ‘colored,’ but that was a while ago. We used African-American for our identity.”

He said the museum is an ongoing project, and while Monday’s announcement may be “big news,” there will be more to come.

Bailey wants to tell stories of Gettysburg’s black past. Stories that have seldom been told. Some have maybe never been told at all. Others have likely been swept under the rug, put on a shelf or fallen on deaf ears.

Stories like that of John Hopkins, a beloved, black janitor who was hired by Gettysburg

College for $15 per month. He was one of the last janitors that maintained the small, liberal arts school without the help of a staff. It was just him sweeping the halls of Pennsylvania Hall and mowing the lawn around the campus.

According to Charles H. Glatfelter’s “A Salutary Influence: Gettysburg College, 1832-1985,” Hopkins was referred to as “Jack the Janitor” as well as the vice president of the college after he returned to Gettysburg following the 1863 battle between Union and Confederate troops.

Hopkins, who lived on South Washington Street and rang the college's bell, died when he was 62. He was so widely liked and revered on campus in his time that the entire school's student body and faculty attended his funeral service.

Stories like Hopkins’ will certainly be told by the Gettysburg Black History Museum, but also stories of Mag Palm, who was attacked by slave catchers as she was leaving work on Baltimore Street, just south of Lincoln Square. Her hands were tied and bound. However, as the story goes, she bit off a man’s thumb in the process of trying to avoid being placed in a carriage and taken as a slave.

But make no mistake, the stories are far from exclusive to blacks and Bailey will not be telling these and many more stories by himself. It would be too massive an undertaking for one modest man who has intentionally avoided the spotlight.

“I’m not a historian,” Bailey said. “I’m more into marketing and communication.”

His organization, a certified 501(c)(3) consisting of a nine-member board, will open its visitors center at the 700-square-foot building at the Old Gettysburg Village by the end of this year. Guided tours will start this year as well. From there, the sky seems to be the limit.

Sure, there will be artifacts, but what Bailey is more excited about is the historians, speakers and writers who will tell the stories. The concept is more of a living history museum than that of a written and glassed-in exhibit.

“It will be a different dimension of the presentation of Gettysburg and that’s what we’re interested in,” said Dr. Michael Birkner, professor of history at Gettysburg College. “We welcome a more inclusive approach to the interpretation of Gettysburg's past. (Black history) is something that was a big part from the beginning but has been largely invisible.”

Birkner, also a Gettysburg Borough councilman representing the town's 1st Ward, said that while the July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg made the town unsafe for blacks at the time, there is a lot more to the history of blacks in this small town that will better portray various experiences of blacks in the community.

“It will make for a better historical picture,” Birkner said.

Mary Alice Nutter, vice president of the Gettysburg Black History Museum and cofounder of the project, said it was a calling that she and her two sisters received from her mother, Margaret Nutter, years ago.

“She would always tell me and my sisters, ‘Lookie here, you all. You need to do something about this black history in this Gettysburg area.' Having this museum in Gettysburg is going to (help) finally tell the untold story of the black population over the years. We're going to tell our own story because it's never been told before by us, we of color.”

Nutter, a 66-year-old Gettysburg native, said the museum’s goal is to bring unity and understanding to Adams County, an area that still has prejudices to overcome.

“This is meant for everyone,” she said. “This is to help perpetuate the notion that we’re each other’s keepers. It will be very meaningful and hopefully a tribute to mankind.”

And while mankind may marvel at what is ultimately created from the humble beginnings of a 700-square-foot visitors center and some tour guides and artifacts, Bailey intends for his museum to help spur the economic viability of Gettysburg and Adams County.

“We’re designing this purposefully with things that require people to stay overnight here,” Bailey said. “We have buildings, hotels and restaurants (to fill).”

Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau President Norris Flowers predicted that the Gettysburg Black History Museum and the tours the museum plans to host will be a great asset to Gettysburg and Adams County, especially at a time when visitation to the area is expected to spike in anticipation of the American Civil War battle's 150th anniversary in 2013.

The Gettysburg CVB is working on regionalized marketing strategies with the museum in its printed guides and on its website.

“Visitors are always looking for new ways to experience Gettysburg and the history here,” Flowers said. “This museum takes our history from a completely different perspective and we believe the visitors will have great interest. The timing of the museum and tours is great. Many of the visitors will be looking for additional attractions here and ways to learn more about the history. It's a great opportunity for any business to showcase their product to more people during this anniversary.”

Dwight Thompson, a 61- year-old, African-American Gettysburg resident who works at the Gettysburg Hotel, sees the museum as an opportunity to bring out the black history of Gettysburg.

“A lot of people don't know what blacks did in the area (during the 1800s),” Thompson said. “It’s very interesting.”

Thompson, a native of Harlem in New York City, admitted that while he has lived in Gettysburg for eight years, there is still a lot he does not know about the area’s black history, but that he would like to somehow play a part in the museum and its storytelling.

Bailey wants the project done right, as he mentioned the importance of the museum's presentation being done in what he referred to as a first class manner.

“With living history, tours, advanced technology and an artistic approach, the presentations will be done as well as possible,” Bailey said, adding that the time is now for this venture to take flight. “We needed to get this off Breckenridge Street and South Washington Street. History is about what happened. We need to tell about it.”

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