Delbert Richardson’s “American History Traveling Museum”

by Susan Fried

(Editor’s Note: This article contains images that may be triggering to some readers)

The white, replica, Ku Klux Klan robe seemed to emit an eerie glow as the sunlight from the skylights in the ceiling of the Armory at Seattle Center put a spotlight on it during Festival Sundiata, the annual Black Arts Festival at the Center. Every year Delbert Richardson sets up his American History Traveling Museum during the event to highlight the “unspoken” history of African Americans. He’s been collecting artifacts, like this robe, for over 30 years and estimates he has several hundred items, along with over 100 storyboards he created.

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Although the slave shackles and photographs of lynchings tell their own story, the most important part of the museum is Mr Richardson himself. In a video by Tom Speer called “Delbert Richardson’s American History Traveling Museum” on Youtube, Mr. Richardson says “As a collector I’ve always looked at the items as being the most important piece, but I’m learning and embracing that I am the most important piece because I bring the items to life.”

The self-proclaimed community scholar and second-generation storyteller says that by calling his museum the American History Traveling Museum instead of the Black History Traveling museum, he acknowledges the contributions of Black people to society as a whole and not only to a separate, some might believe less meaningful, history.

The implements of slavery and the photographs of lynchings and  immolations can be difficult to look at but Mr. Richardson says, “I teach history through a non-sanitized lens. I teach history that’s not taught in our schools.” 

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Mr. Richardson was born in Detroit in 1954 and raised in Seattle. He describes how his knowledge of Africa and African Americans was shaped by TV and movies of the era that depicted historical figures like Cleopatra as a white woman and the character of Tarzan, a white man somehow marooned in Africa, as the most prominent representation of African success.

As a group of people gather round him at Festival Sundiata he tells them. It wasn’t until he was a student at the University of Washington that he learned about the real history of Africa and the contributions of African Americans. “Not until I went to college did I understand and be exposed to other information. So I discovered, in the University of Washington, that I was somebody.” He learned that not only was Cleopatra black but that other Africans and African Americans had made numerous contributions to the world in the fields of literature, science, medicine, math and engineering.

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The American History Traveling Museum is divided into 4 sections. The first section, “Mother Africa”, highlights the great contributions Africans have made to the world, the second section deals with “Chattel Slavery”, the 3rd section concentrates on “Jim Crow” and the racial cast system that was based on white supremacy over other races, and the 4th section, which Mr. Richardson describes as the most important, is called “Still We Rise.” It consists of a 40-foot display of everyday items that African Americans or people of African descent have invented, patented or improved upon.

On July 1, Mr. Richardson received the National education Association’s (NEA) 2017 Carter G. Woodson Memorial Award during the 2017 NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards Dinner at the Boston Convention and Exhibition center in Boston Massachusetts.  The award is presented annually to an individual/group/institution whose activities in Black affairs significantly impact education and achievement of equal opportunity.

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In the NEA’s biography of Mr. Richardson for the luncheon program, it notes that the museum is “enriched by a display of ten storyboards that focus specifically on the many contributions of Blacks in S.T.E.M (Science, Technolgy, Engineering and Math). The program also quotes Brent Jones, the Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer for Seattle Public Schools as observing that “The museum provides children of color the opportunity to see themselves in the future as something other than the traditional aspirations of an entertainer or athlete.”

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In the video Delbert Richardson also says “I don’t have any control over how the work impacts people but I do know that if I provide them some information the potential for them to have a different understanding is a lot greater.” Beyond learning about history they aren’t normally exposed to, Mr. Richardson hopes people leave with a desire to learn more “That’s what this museum is really all about: sharing information in a way that stimulates curiosity that will lead to self discovery.”

Featured Image Susan Fried