Explore History at These New Southern Museums

by Kristy Tolley

By Tracey Teo

While museums throughout the country were shuttered during the pandemic, a trio of new Southern museums worked to safely open their doors for the first time. These institutions house myriad cultural treasures sure to enlighten and entertain.

National Museum of African American Music

James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, looms larger than life in the Rivers of Rhythm Path, the central gallery at the new National Museum of African American Music in Nashville. His perfectly pompadoured image is projected onto a panorama of 13-foot-tall screens as he belts out his ‘60s hit, “Out of Sight,” and performs that smooth, gliding footwork that inspired Michael Jackson.

The 1964 footage of Brown’s first televised performance is one of several highlights of the 56,000-square foot museum that opened in January in the heart of the tourist district.

Museum-goers kick off their visit with an orientation film in the Roots Theater that succinctly chronicles the 400-year evolution of Black music in America and how it branched off into dozens of genres that include blues, jazz, rhythm and blues rap and more.

From there, six galleries are organized by era and detail historical events, such as the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration.

“The museum showcases all genres of African American music and how it became American music,” says John Fleming, a historian and the museum’s director in residence. “For instance, in the R&B gallery, you see how Elvis Presley was influenced by African American singers. One thing I’ve always emphasized is that African American history is American history, and the same can be said of music.”

The museum is educational, but it’s also big on fun, interactive exhibits that appeal to everybody from grade schoolers to grandparents.

Gospel lovers can don a choir robe and join the Nashville Super Choir in the uplifting gospel classic, “Oh Happy Day,” then see their image projected onto a screen that integrates them into the choir.

Think you could be the next big record producer in the music biz? Try mixing your own beats in the One Nation Under a Groove gallery.

The Message gallery, with its graffiti and streetwear fashion, recreates the South Bronx of the 1970s, the birthplace of hip hop and rap, when Black kids from the blighted borough used music to rail against social injustices. Fast forward half a century, and hip hop makes its Broadway debut in the groundbreaking musical, “Hamilton.”

More than 1,500 artifacts and memorabilia include a Grammy awarded to the scat-singing Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, and a “Lucille” guitar played by B.B. King. Visit NMAAM.org for more information.

Roots 101 African American Museum

Explore Kentucky’s Black history at Louisville’s Roots 101 African American Museum scheduled to open in May.

Exhibits unfold on four floors beginning with the Stolen Legacy Gallery. A wide-eyed African fon (king) stands tall and proud behind glass. The life-sized wooden figure – probably from the 18th century-is a fine example of the Bamileke art of the Cameroon grasslands, a region widely heralded as the source of some of Africa’s most compelling art.

In stark contrast to this dignified depiction of an African, the Derogatory Images gallery exhibits grotesque caricatures of African Americans. Mammy dolls smile contentedly in their servitude, and other figures portray men as simpletons and buffoons. Many of these images were attached to mainstream products-everything from beans to syrup-marketed to white consumers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

While such overtly racist images are no longer common, founder Lamont Collins believes that young African Americans still encounter negative images and remain alienated from their roots. He hopes the museum will change that.

“If they think of themselves as kings and queens enslaved in America, that’s a whole different mindset,” shares Collins. “They have a responsibility to live up that legacy.”

The uplifting, joyful side of African American culture is also showcased. “September,” the 1978 song by Earth, Wind & Fire, reverberates throughout the “Roots of African American Music of Kentucky” exhibit, a tribute to lead guitarist Johnny Graham, who hailed from Louisville.

Hang around long enough, and the music segues to “What Kind of Man are You,” featuring Mary Ann Fisher’s bluesy vocals. Fisher (1923-2004) rose from humble beginnings – she spent part of her childhood in the Kentucky Home Society for Colored Children in Louisville – to tour with Ray Charles. Check out her chic black evening gown. Visit Roots-101.org for more information.

Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience

The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, slated to open in New Orleans this summer, demonstrates through three galleries how Jewish immigrants in all 13 Southern states influenced and were influenced by their new home.

In the “Foundations of Judaism” exhibit, radiant stained-glass windows from various Southern synagogues dangle from the ceiling, a glowing mobile of symbols of the Jewish faith that includes the Torah and a menorah. Nearby stands a replica of New Orleans’ Touro Synagogue, one of the oldest continuously operating synagogues in the country.

A timeline depicts how waves of Jewish immigrants landed on America’s shores during the 19th and early 20th centuries, largely due to lack of economic opportunity and persecution in Europe. Many settled in large cities in the northeast, especially New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, but some made their way South.

Executive director Kenneth Hoffman says Southern Jews were less insular than their northern counterparts, and they were much more integrated into the rest of society.

“There were fewer of them, so they weren’t able to band together in a neighborhood and support each other and live in a little enclave,” says Hoffman. “They lived alongside everyone else.”

Because they assimilated more successfully than northern Jews, they often became cornerstones of the community. Several were even elected as mayors.

Among the thousands of artifacts are sacred, ceremonial objects used to “dress” the Torah scroll, including a circa 1850s crown from the Gemiluth Chassed congregation in Port Gibson, Mississippi, and a menorah from the Agudas Achim congregation in Corsicana, Texas.


“Jews flourished in the South and added something to the flavor, the culture, the economy and the educational environment of the South in ways that people may find surprising,” explains Hoffman. Visit MSJE.org for more information.

Photos courtesy of Wesley K.H. Teo



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