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Griot Museum hopes new name will spark new life

Griot Museum (2011)
File photo | Constance McCollom | St. Louis Beacon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When meeting Lois Conley, you quickly learn that the Griot Museum of Black History & Culture she founded has a specific purpose. As a child during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Conley wanted to develop an awareness of black culture in St. Louis.

"I grew up in the '60s and my parents sheltered me from the protests that were going on," said Conley. Her parents were involved in the movement, however, even working with William L. Clay who went on to be elected to Congress. "I knew Congressman Clay and it was really great exposure for me," said Conley.

St. Louis wasn't at the center of the battle for racial equality but there were still issues that needed to be addressed, she said.

One area that jumped out at her was education. When students discussed subjects such as the Revolutionary War or the Great Depression, Conley noticed that African-American history and culture were invisible. At other times, Conley's teachers would throw in tidbits of information about black history or culture, but it wasn't upfront.

"I had a strong interest in black culture, because it was an integral part of history that was missing. How could so many kids not know about this?" Conley said. She explained that St. Louis remains divided even in 2011, citing statics from a University of Michigan study ranking St. Louis as one of the top 10 cities for racial disparity.

Conley decided to take action by building her own knowledge and studying how other museums researched and put together exhibits. "I started going around the city to schools and colleges to talk about our history," Conley said, explaining that her success soon led her to open the current museum.

The Griot Museum of Black History & Culture is the new name for what started life as The Black World History Wax Museum in February 1997. Located in an old mansion at 2505 St. Louis Ave., the museum's exhibits include 20 life-size wax statues. Conley herself was the sculptor for many, but not all, of the works.

According to the website, "Our new name more accurately reflects our mission and purpose: the keeper of the stories, culture, and history of black people. In some African countries, the 'griot,' (pronounced GREE-OH) is a highly respected member of the community who collects, preserves and shares the stories and objects of the community."

Those stories are told in several ways at the museum.

Walking down a narrow hallway in the old brick home, the dim lighting reflects the struggle that many had to overcome.

Chilling screams and a large wooden vessel seem to crash upon visitors as they enter the first exhibit, which includes a replica of an 18th century slave ship.

For Deputy Director Erika Neal, the ship is a reminder of what others had to go through crossing the Atlantic Ocean, "I think it shows the perseverance and strength of the people who had to survive the voyage."

Across from the slave ship, sits a statue of Lewis and Clark's Expedition Guide York. York, a slave, helped guide the pair through the west. He holds a shotgun, surrounded by brush.

Conley notes that the exhibits at the Gateway Arch's Museum of Westward Expansion do not readily honor York as they should. "It's important to tell the story of blacks who were direct decendents of slaves and their contribution to American society," she said.

As she walked through the museum, Conley explained several of the elaborate wax figures. "You have people like Elizabeth Keckley, George Carver and Madam CJ Walker who had real skills and talent," Conley says.

St. Louisans may be surprised to find out that one of the first black millionaires got her start right here. "On display here, we have different hair care products from Madam CJ Walker. There's also a massive story behind the hair care industry associated with her. Many of the black-owned, hair-care products are now a part of international conglomerates."

Conley says that most people tend to associate Madam Walker with Indianapolis, but she got her start in St. Louis.

"I really admired Elizabeth Keckley, I was surprised to learn how tough she really was," said Conley. With a subtle defiance, Keckley bought her freedom and moved to Washington, D.C., where her dress shop was frequented by such socially important people as Varina Davis (wife of Jefferson Davis, who was president of the Confederate states). Keckley would eventually become a personal dressmaker and traveling companion for Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln.

Conley also talked about the Civil War and St. Louis's importance in that time.

"We have the Dred and Harriet Scott story on display here at the museum. It really was one of the hottest topics to spur the Civil War, depending on which side of the issue you fell on," Conley says.

In a bright display room toward the back of the museum, a wax statue of musician Miles Davis shows that local talent reached far beyond the area.

"A lot of people don't know that Miles Davis came from Alton. He would come over to St. Louis to play in the clubs and shadow Clark Terry," said Conley. Terry, the first black musician to play on TV's "The Tonight Show," is honored by the museum with his own wax statue.

"Most people know Josephine Baker as a night club entertainer, but she refused to play in any clubs that wouldn't allow blacks," Conley said that Baker was a graduate from Vashon High school and was influential in the civil rights movement.

Kirkwood resident Antonia Smith believes the museum is a good resource for SPROG students. The summer camp, which uses the facilities of Grace Episcopal Church, hosts 270 kids for seven weeks, and it has taken the students to tour the museum.

"We are a historically black summer camp. The field trip was to teach kids about what happened to black people in the south and slavery," said Smith.

SPROG celebrates different cultures, including the black culture of the Diaspora, Smith said. "We have been focused on celebrating us, because the kids do not always get that affirmation in Kirkwood Public schools or any other schools that reflect European culture."

The children touring the museum were fascinated by the wax figures and their elaborate displays.

"The girls like Josephine Baker, because her dress seems very elegant," said Smith.

The ultimate challenge for Conley is to expand the museum down the block, as a similar museum in Baltimore has done. The Griot wants to offer more multi-cultural events for the community. From Jazz Valentine's Dinners to neighborhood carnivals, Conley wants the recent name change to be a time of expansion that will attract greater attention.

But she also says that if ever she has had a moment to test her faith, this would be one of them. The recent economic downturn "has been really hard for us. Museums in Forest Park have a pool of money that we don't," says Conley.

"We've received no city support, only from Congressman Clay and the Missouri Arts Council" and, Conley says, some of those grants are for light or window repairs, not salaries.

Conley wants city support and believes the museum is worth it. "I've had people from all over the world come here because of the unique value that we offer."

Ray Carter, a student at Purdue University, is a Beacon intern.

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