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St. Louis' Griot Museum of Black History languishes as region struggles with race

Fifteen-year-old Chassidy Buckner thought she had already learned all about slavery from school and her mother. But at the Griot Museum of Black History, the lesson became personal.

"Because it is my ancestors,” Buckner said.

Chassidy Buckner saw slavery in a new light at The Griot.
Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

Looking at the life-sized figures chained together in the hold beneath a slave ship is different than seeing pictures in a book.

"I didn’t know it was that cramped and with, like, blood everywhere," Buckner said.

Griot founder Lois Conley understands it's a difficult sight for young eyes. But she said it's important to tell the whole story, rats, feces and all.

Portraying the struggles and triumphs of African Americans is what Conley set out to do when she opened The Griot (pronounced Gree’oh) on St. Louis Avenue in the St. Louis Place neighborhood in north St. Louis in 1997. But now the museum itself is struggling.

"I'm not sure how long we can stay open," Conley said.

If the museum were to close, Conley said St. Louisans and area visitors would miss out on the African-American perspective. In mainstream institutions, she said, you won't find scenes like the one above The Griot's slave hold, in which an escapee attacks a white crew member on the deck.

The Griot includes an display of a enslaved African man trying to escape as a child looks on. Notice the child is missing his left hand. A good number of the museum's exhibits are in need of repair.
Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

“One of the enslaved Africans said, ‘I’ve had enough. Either way, I’m going to die. I’m going to die trying to escape or I’m going to die in the hold of that ship,'" Conley said. "We needed to at least show that not all of them were  passive."

Violent? Yes, Conley said. But don't forget the violence the captives endured. The African-American story is always one of perseverance against all odds, according to Conley.

"As you go through the museum, you'll see portrayed in different ways people who came from a situation who, in spite of it, were able to thrive and survive," Conley said.

St. Louis' first African American fire chief Sherman George talks with a student from a Science Center program as his wax figure looks on. George was once expelled from high school for fighting. He told the group that whatever they did yesterday they shou
Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

The word "Griot" is a West African term for "storyteller," a name Conley gave the institution in 2009. The museum originally debuted with great fanfare as the Black World History Wax Museum. Mayors and local celebrities came to see the original half-dozen wax figures Conley created herself.

Griot founder Lois Conley learned to make wax figures in an art class. The original class model was a white woman and Conley modified the features to look more African-American.
Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

In its heyday, the Griot received 35,000 visitors a year. But in the early 2000s, the numbers began to decline, and today it's more like 4,000. Much of the drop is due to schools having less money for field trips, Conley said. It's a crippling blow for an institution that gets most of its funding from entrance fees.

“We go day by day, month by month and as long as we can,” Conley said. “And when we reach a point we can’t, we will have given it a good fight.”

The Griot owns its building but struggles to pay its bills. It costs up to $100,000 a year for property taxes, utility bills and basic upkeep. The carpet is old and stained; the elevator is unreliable; and most of the air conditioning units don't work. Conley can't afford to make repairs or to pay herself a steady salary but she works almost every day.

“I’m it. I’m the staff. I’m the curator, I’m the accountant, I’m the janitor," she said.

Griot founder Lois Conley cleans the toilets, sinks and bathroom floors several times a week. She's 69 years old and the job's not getting any easier.
Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

Ironically, more local money than ever is available for telling the stories of black history. Last month, St. Louis-based Emerson technology company pledged $5 million to the Missouri History Museum for African-American exhibitions.

Samuel Black, president of the Association of African American Museums. He said one-person museums like The Griot are typical but a few such as Birmingham's Civil Rights Institute are well funded because they are well-connected politically.
Association of African American Museums

According to Samuel Black, head of the Association of African-American Museums, it's typical around the country for mainstream institutions to get the big money,

“Race plays a major part in it," Black said. "And it’s not only a financial situation, it’s also a social one. It is the way that America sees black culture and black history.”

Black added that there's a trust factor when it comes to predominantly white-run museums telling African-American stories.

That's something St. Louisan Brittany Ferrell understands. She's wary of how the movement that sprung up after a Ferguson police officer shot and killed unarmed Michael Brown will be portrayed.

Ferguson protester Brittany Ferrell said the mainstream has whitewashed the history of people of color. She cited the celebration of Columbus Day as an example.
Brittant Ferrell

“Are they going to paint the quote-unquote riots as the highlight of Ferguson and not really talk about why the riots happened?" Ferrell asked. "Or are they going to give too much credit to white allies — what exactly will we read 50 years from now?”

Ferrell would like to organize a group of young protesters to support The Griot. She envisions conductng oral history projects, or maybe an art exhibition.

But people of color aren't the only ones who say African-American history needs to be told from a black perspective.

Sarah Hermes Griesbach grew up in an integrated neighborhood and attended a majority black high school but said she was still sheltered from black experiences by her white experience.
Sarah Hermes Griesbach

Sarah Hermes Griesbach has been very involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition, she recently debuted a magazine highlighting local art and art institutions, and is a docent at the St. Louis Art Museum.

"White curators, or guides like me, might study African-American history and really want to represent African-American accomplishments with respectful accuracy," Griesbach said. "But we live in a supremely segregated society and we are limited by our experiences."

A high school student meets the gaze of jazz musician Clark Terry who played with the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras. Terry was born in St. Louis in 1922.
Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

The Griot has added a dozen or so more wax figures since it opened, including those of locally born musicians Clark Terry and Miles Davis as well as entertainer Josephine Baker. Other exhibits feature mannequins. Conley would like to create a display honoring black women's clubs, and to one day present the story of Ferguson.

But that seems unlikely now. The Griot gets a few thousand dollars a year from the Regional Arts Commission and Missouri Arts Council. "But we have no reserve. We have no major contributors," Conley said.

The Griot Museum building at 2505 St. Louis Ave. in North City cost $14,000 in the early 1990s. It contains 20,000 square feet but current exhibitions take up only 12,000 of that.
Nancy Fowler / St. Louis Public Radio

Beside financial support, Conley needs more volunteers. One woman comes in three times a week to greet visitors and do other jobs. But Conley is looking for volunteers to write grants, oversee development, direct social media, manage accounting and curate exhibitions.

She says she's having conversations with one organization. The talks seem promising but long-term reliable funding is still a wish.

“We need that right person to be our angel, who will not only provide some money but who will champion our cause," Conley said.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

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