Photo depicting Tony Benton in a black-and-white striped sweater standing beside a framed vintage film poster of the film "Sparkle."

Black History Month Museum Offers Tours and a Close-Up Look at Local Black History

by Rosette Royale

As far as welcoming committees go, it’s hard to beat Michelle and Barack Obama. So, it’s a surprise to see Michelle — or at least a cutout of her — standing inside the rear entrance of the Columbia City Theater. Just to her right, playing on a nearby TV screen, a recorded Barack delivers the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, a moment that would propel him to national prominence and preview the oratorical skills that enchanted millions during his presidency. 

Seeing images of the power couple, it’s a reminder of how, less than a generation ago, they were pathbreakers: the first Black family, along with daughters Malia and Sasha, to reside in the White House. They made history. Placing the couple just inside the door underscores that by entering, visitors are engaging with Black history — which is to say, history. And to be more precise, Seattle Black history.

“One of the problems we have is our history has been taken,” said Tony Benton, curator of the “Call to Conscience – Black History Month Museum Tour,” presented by Rainier Avenue Radio. “Our identity has been strewn all over the place.” Benton hopes the museum will serve as a corrective, to bring back part of what was lost and to recall what’s been forgotten. 

Photo depicting Tony Benton in a black-and-white striped sweater standing beside a framed vintage film poster of the film "Sparkle."
Tony Benton, curator of the “Call to Conscience – Black History Month Museum,”hopes the museum will teach people about local history. The museum is in the Columbia City Theater, which at one time was Rainier Cinema, which showed Black films. (Photo: Rosette Royale)

The “Black History Month Museum Tour,” which provides guided tours Thursday through Sunday until Sunday, Feb. 26, offers close to 10 installations that speak to a collective experience. Some images, such as those connected to the history website, depict the global reach of the Atlantic slave trade in North, Central, and South America; other exhibition pieces shine a light on local life, such as uniforms from the Seattle Steelheads, the all-Black minor baseball team formed in 1946 that became part of the West Coast Negro League. Woven through the exhibition is a sense of witnessing, and grappling with, the experiences of local community members throughout history.

Indeed, the concept of community plays a critical role in the museum, and past the Obamas and at the top of a short flight of stairs is a brick wall Benton calls the “community’s wall,” a place where visitors hang their own keepsakes and memorabilia, a place where they can tell their own stories. Photos or printed images work best, he says, and to kickstart the process, Benton has included an image of the book cover to The Return to the Promised Land, a history written by his mother, Corrine. The book charts the migration of his ancestors from Barbados to Arkansas, and reading it, he says, proved valuable. “I was able to be grounded in what my family was,” he said.

Moments that ground visitors in the past occur at every turn. At one point, a door leads to a room that chronicles the Seattle Black Panther Party. Established as a chapter in 1968, its first party headquarters was on 34th Avenue. The chapter folded in 1978, but not before it offered free meals to children and gave dozens of Black people — and at least one Japanese member — opportunities to practice political organizing, fight police oppression, combat racism, and advocate for Black self-sustainability. Posters, placards, and photos reveal the intricacies of local Panther activism.

Just beyond the Panther collection and down a few stairs — FYI: Visiting the museum requires navigating several short staircases — stands another door, and on the other side is an installation that gives props to Black film. Original posters showcase movies from the 1970s — Cleopatra Jones, Claudine, Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law, Sparkle — entertainment from a cinematic era known for the production of dozens of Blaxploitation films, which were marketed to Black moviegoers. In the same space is a rare find, a 1935 Strong X-16 film projector, a steel behemoth used to show 35-mm films. The film memorabilia speaks to the Columbia City Theater’s own history: Before its current iteration, it was known as Columbia Theater and Rainier Cinema.

Photo depicting a museum exhibit of Ms. Molly's quilt and bedding.
A museum installation displays a checkerboard quilt, created in 1855, by an enslaved woman named Ms. Molly. Enslaved people often stitched messages into quilts, to aid those seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad. (Photo: Rosette Royale)

Along with showcasing Black entertainment, the exhibition incorporates emotional stories. A later installation displays the Hartsfield Quilt Collection, with quilts that date back to the 1850s. Enslaved people used quilts as tools of communication, stitching in messages that assisted travelers of the Underground Railroad as they fled to freedom. Highlighted in the museum is the personal bedding of Ms. Molly, an enslaved woman whose checkerboard quilt, created in 1855, has been passed down for generations. The quilt was provided by Jim Tharpe, Ms. Molly’s great-great-great-grandson. “Where else are younger people going to see this?” Benton asked, visibly moved by the artifact. 

In at least one installation, visitors can see and hear history. At the Seattle Griot Project station, a tablet features videos of local Black folks sharing stories of the Central District. As its name suggests, the project draws inspiration from the griot (pronounced gree-oh), people in the Sahel region of West Africa who acted as storytellers, genealogists, and historians. They were active for centuries and often shared their spoken-word teachings with music. For the local griot project, subjects such as Larry Gossett, former King County Councilmember, and Margie Johnson Hedspeth, operator of the former Silver Fork restaurant, step into the role of griot, as they share remembrances of growing up in the Central District. Videos can be viewed on an interactive tablet, which will soon provide access to reference documents and transcripts.

And there’s more, from material devoted to Seattle Black firefighters and the Royal Esquire Club, the Black social club a few doors down from the museum, to jazz history provided by the Black Heritage Society and imagery showcasing the Buffalo Soldiers, the first Black military units to serve during peacetime. And in the coming days, there will likely be more, because Benton says the exhibition may grow throughout the month as additional pieces are incorporated. He hopes visitors enjoy the breadth of topics covered, as well as see themselves, or part of their stories, reflected in the museum. “We wanted it to be a comprehensive collection,” Benton said, “an opportunity for people to get it all at one time.”

Photo depicting a museum exhibit of a Steelheads jersey along with vintage photos.
A jersey from the Seattle Steelheads, an all-Black minor baseball team formed in 1946. The team was part of the West Coast Negro League. (Photo: Rosette Royale)

The “Call to Conscience – Black History Month Museum Tour” takes place until Sunday, Feb. 26, at Columbia City Theater (4916 Rainier Ave. S.), open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visitors are welcome to bring photos and printed images to include on the “community’s wall.”

Advance registration and payment is $25 for general admission; $15 for students, seniors, and active military. You can pay additional rates for walk-up payments, private tours, and VIP tours with swag bags and special experiences. Guided tours last 75 to 90 minutes. View all ticket info on the Museum website.

Rosette Royale is a local writer who worked for Real Change for more than a decade. Recently, Rosette interviewed dozens of people impacted by HIV/AIDS to collect stories for The AMP: AIDS Memorial Pathway. He’s currently working on a book about his experience backcountry camping in the Olympic temperate rain forest.

📸 Featured Image: Tony Benton, curator of the “Call to Conscience – Black History Month Museum,”hopes the museum will teach people about local history. The museum is in the Columbia City Theater, which at one time was Rainier Cinema, which showed Black films. (Photo: Rosette Royale)

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