In 2021, President Biden officially made Juneteenth a federal holiday. Having seen ups and downs in its popularity over the decades, some felt that Biden’s designation was a step in the right direction, albeit a long overdue one, considering how much of Black history goes overlooked.
Today, many celebrate the holiday, which marks the latest point at which enslaved people were informed of their freedom in Texas on June 19, 1865, with festivals and parties. Others, like historical collector Nia McAdoo, choose to celebrate by educating and highlighting Black history with the Homage Exhibit.
Showing at the Eastway Regional Recreation Center on June 15 from noon-8 p.m., the Homage Exhibit is a traveling collection of more than 650 original artifacts, documents and art that showcase the vast African American experience. The exhibit is owned by McAdoo and her husband Morris, who have been collecting these items for more than 20 years.
It features works by artists such as Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett, alongside original documents from Frederick Douglass, Shirley Chisholm, Booker T. Washington, Ralph Bunche and more.
The collection ranges from pieces McAdoo describes as cute, such as magazine clippings or some sorority items (McAdoo pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha), to more devastating items, like one newspaper she found at a library auction.
“We were able to acquire a 1921 newspaper from a library auction in California that was talking about the Tulsa Race Massacre the day after the Tulsa Race Massacre, and it’s front page, above the fold,” McAdoo said.
McAdoo spoke with Queen City Nerve about the importance of telling these stories and what inspired her to embark on this journey.
Queen City Nerve: When did you first start collecting?
Nia McAdoo: I’ve been collecting for about 20 years, and then my collection started to take focus when Barack Obama was elected president the first time. I’m originally from New York, and my grandmother was in New York City, and so when that election happened, my grandmother and I were able to bond over that. She would box up everything, like campaign letters, newspaper clippings she would cut out and send to me in priority mailboxes.
And what she said was, “It’s very important that these items are kept and that the stories are told through the eyes of people who are involved.” She talked about the importance of those stories coming from people of color who were involved with the campaign. That was the point where I said, “You know what, I think I need to collect with a little bit more focus.”
What inspired you to collect in the first place?
I’ve always loved history, and so originally I was very interested in historic magazines. Jet magazines and Ebony magazines — as I would read through those, I was being introduced to events that I hadn’t heard of, people I hadn’t heard of, and would just get me deeper into research on African American history. That’s sort of how it started — really looking for those cute pieces I could put in the house. But then as I’m doing a deep dive into the artifacts, I’m learning about things that would otherwise be lost to history.
And so with the exhibit, we do have a lot of things that relate to big names. So Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglas, but you’re also going to see artifacts that relate to small protest marches around the country, people who took leadership roles on a local level. If it’s not someone like us that’s really collecting and amplifying those voices and stories, they would be lost to history.
Though you collect art as well, many of these Homage pieces are not art but historic items displayed as you acquired them.
One thing I think is important is that we only collect original artifacts. There’s nothing that is skewed. If you see a newspaper from 1834 with slave ads, runaway slave notices, that is an original artifact or document. So we can talk about the piece and the role it plays in history, but we can’t pretend that it didn’t exist. The exhibit pieces are really a starting point for discussion. It’s just a safe place to start these conversations and the backdrop to that is historical original artifacts.
When you first started collecting, was this the end goal, or were you just collecting as a hobby?
I like to collect. Our collection has a mix of original artifacts and documents, but we also have artwork. My grandmother had an extensive art collection so, growing up, I loved to look at the pieces she had, and so I knew collecting art was important. I knew that I would have my own collection when I grew up, but this isn’t what I envisioned. It’s just something that really just happened.
At this point, we have a little over 650 pieces. We collected pieces here and there. We would travel and collect items, and it wasn’t until that 2008 time period that my thoughts about it would change. So, no, I didn’t start the collection thinking, “Oh, we would have this collection that tours the country and partners with colleges and universities and corporations for education.” That wasn’t where it started, but it’s a blessing that we can share it in that way.
In 2008, once you had the idea that these stories need to be told, what was the next step? How did you get from just collecting because you love to collect to this point?
Since it’s a private collection, I really collect what I like and what I’m drawn to, and so I think there’s beauty in that. We would share it with friends, and when we did that, people would always say, “You all should really stop being selfish. Let’s put it out.” So we would pull some pieces out and show friends and things like that. Then I was encouraged to share the art collection first, and then from there, I turned it into a traveling exhibit.
We’ve partnered with colleges and universities all over the country, bringing the exhibit virtually and in person. It was really about cataloging those first pieces that I had. When we look at pieces from the ’60s, when you are looking at the civil rights movement, and then you are starting to collect things related to Barack Obama, that’s a large [time]span. How did we get here? We tell that story through their original pieces and we needed to talk about what happened to get us here.
So given everything that you’ve gone through in getting to this point, what impact has this had on you personally?
One thing that is important to me as I look back is that when I was growing up, I loved theatre, history and culture, but those things weren’t really accessible to me. I could only experience it if the community center went or someone donated free tickets. Through the exhibit, I have the ability to bring history and culture up close and personal and we meet people where they are.
They don’t have to get dressed up to go to a museum. I’ve had more college students in pajamas than I’ve had anything else. People are able to see things in person that they’ve only heard about or that they’ve only seen in books and people respond to history differently when it’s right there in front of their face. They might not read a chapter in a book, but when they see it at the exhibit, they will take a picture, they will Google it, they will ask questions.
When we’re doing community shows, we often have intergenerational grandparents and grandchildren and those conversations that they have are very different because a parent or a grandparent can identify and then they tell the family story. When I think about 11-year-old Nia growing up in Buffalo, New York, and when I see young people come through the exhibit, or if we do a show at an elementary school, I see the light bulbs. I see the pride, I see the questions. And that’s what I really love.
You said people respond differently to history being run in front of them. How would you say they respond differently?
It’s interesting because at almost every show I hear some version of, “Oh my God, I didn’t realize … I knew this was a thing, but I’ve never seen this before. I’ve seen it in a book, but I’ve never seen it in person,” and I think when they see it in person, they have a different response to it. It’s like if you read a story or someone reads a story to you, it’s different. You engage with it differently.
When we bring the traveling exhibit out, we have a lot of questions, and we answer them through the lens of a collector, not an academic, which I also think is different and important because I think when people think about history and collection, they’re thinking you have a doctorate in something or that this is an academic approach to history. It’s not, it’s a very casual conversation on what the pieces mean to us.
I think people engage with that differently as well. I’m not necessarily beating you over the head with the historical significance of the piece. We’re having a conversation: Hey, this is what it is, so how does that make you feel? What’s your response to that?
People feel more comfortable sharing their responses to the pieces, even when the pieces are sometimes difficult to really take in — when you’re looking at a runaway slave ad featuring a family or original press photos from civil rights marches. But people are able to navigate the exhibit and then talk with my husband and I at the shows to really get an understanding of why we think the piece is important and why we added it to Homage.
What impact have you seen this exhibit have on people?
We did a CMS school, Dorothy J. Vaughn Academy, for Black History Month. There were three little Black girls, and they’re just jumping all over the place, and they’re so excited. And the one girl kept coming back, and she’s pulling me table to table to table. And she’s like, “This is just so cool. We’ve never done anything like this at this school. I’ve never seen this.”
She was so excited she couldn’t focus because there was so much to focus on. Then her principal sent me a message a few days later, saying, “I have some students who really enjoyed this, could not stop talking about the experience.”
What makes this important now, specifically?
Children, teenagers, college students, younger people now are experiencing [the whitewashing of history] in a way that me at 44 is not. To see Black history unapologetic on full display, it’s a sense of pride for a lot of people.
We see people who tear up at the exhibit because it’s needed, especially now at a time where books are being banned and history is being told falsely, a lot of people really are appreciative of the fact that it’s open to the community and accessible.
What do you hope people take away when they attend an Homage showing?
A greater understanding of the history and contributions of African Americans. I love when people use the exhibit as a launching point for deeper conversations, and we’ll be handing out discussion guides where people can have reflection questions based on what they’ve seen at the exhibit.
Do you think it’s possible that more exhibits like this can happen with other collectors or curators?
I think so, yes. But I really hope that people leave this and do more to collect and understand their family or cultural history a little deeper. A lot of the emails I get are about, “We have my great grandmother’s old trunk of items, like, what do we do with that?”
And so just making sure that people better understand how to preserve their family’s history. I think it’s a starting point for any private collector: just nailing down the stories that are important to them. I think it’s important.
McAdoo’s Homage Exhibit is part of Mecklenburg County’s celebration of Juneteenth. The exhibit will be on display at Eastway Regional Recreation Center, located at 3150 Eastway Drive, on June 15, from noon-8 p.m. It is free and open to all.
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