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Roots Revival

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Times change.

In 1960 African-American students from Virginia Union University sparked protests when they perched on stools at the "whites only" lunch counter at Woolworth's downtown. Now a section of that counter sits blocks away under lights and labels in the permanent collection of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center in Jackson Ward.

Times are changing, too, for the museum and the neighborhood it calls home.

The Black History Museum has a new director, Nicole Hood, a Richmond native with a Ph.D. in art history. Apart from the fundraising and project planning that museum heads must do, Hood faces the bigger challenge of putting the museum back in the public eye.

In 2005 the museum lost all of its city and state funding and was forced to lay off all but one employee.

"I think a lot of people assume we shut down," says Hood who arrived in April. "We never closed."

On Sept. 14, Hood will kick off the new Candlelight Concert Series with Desiree Roots and Page Wilson, and is programming three years' worth of rotating art and history exhibitions. Ultimately, she'd like to see the museum's three neighboring houses tied together into a more pronounced museum complex, but perhaps her most important efforts will take up hardly any floor space at all.

Hood's hoping to make the museum home base for genealogical research for African-Americans whose family histories were wiped out by slavery.

"I'd like it to be a signature program for the museum," Hood says.

She says people call regularly looking for information about family members from a century ago with only a handful of names, places and dates to go on. The museum is hoping to take a central role in recruiting volunteers for an ongoing database project called the Virginia Freedmen Extraction and Indexing Project. When finished, it will allow anyone to search Reconstruction-era records and figure out where and how their ancestors began life as free people.

Darrell Walden, an accounting professor at the University of Richmond, has been trying to raise awareness about ancestral research among African-Americans for the last three years. He says the most useful records come from two post-Civil War sources.

"There were two institutions, the Freedman's Bank and the Freedman's Bureau. You can think of it as the FEMA of the time and run just as badly," Walden says. "The Freedman's Bureau basically oversaw the white refugees, the freedman … abandoned land … helping freedmen and refugees to rejoin society, so to speak.

"But, in particular, what's important are the records that were left behind."

The bureau only existed from 1865 to 1872, but the marriage licenses, contracts and tax records it yielded hold valuable clues to whom did what when.

"These records have been around for over 140 years on the dusty shelves of the national archives," Walden says. It wasn't until 2001 that Congress found the money to transfer the 1,100 feet of paper records onto 200 rolls of microfilm. The Genealogical Society of Utah then digitized the microfilm images. The society is funded by the Mormon Church, which believes that family bonds last eternally, and people can therefore benefit from church rites even after death. They have been collecting genealogical information since 1894.

"They're basically the premier genealogical society," Walden says. "They have developed proprietary programs that can be used over the Internet and transcribed to forms for building a searchable database." The Genealogical Society has already transcribed the Freedman's Bank records, thanks to a little help from prisoners in Utah's state penitentiary. Now Hood and Walden are hoping to marshal enough volunteers to transcribe Virginia records into a database.

Apart from the project's value to the black community, looking to add an online component to the museum's archives is a good survival instinct for a museum, says Bill Martin, director of the Valentine Richmond History Center just blocks up Clay Street from the Black History Museum.

"These are challenging times for historic sites and history museums," Martin says. "I think there's an interest in history, but the way museums provide that information is not responding to the needs of current audiences. I think that we need to explore the use of new technologies." Putting archives online is a good way for a museum to brand its collections, without limiting access to people who can physically get to them.

Another cultural survival skill is banding together, Martin says.

"Everyone forgets that the Black History Museum, the Valentine and the Museum of the Confederacy are all on Clay Street, and we share that responsibility for telling the history of the city in very different ways," he says, adding that he and Hood are looking into a promotion that would add the Black History Museum to a block ticket that allows visitors to attend many museums in the area.

Hood's push to give the museum an online presence coincides with the museum's higher profile in a neighborhood that's attracted more attention recently.

"I think the progress at the museum reflects the progress in the neighborhood," she says. It's no coincidence. Hood's job was made possible by City Lights, a neighborhood investment program financed by Capital One. The program started in 2006 and aims to give $1.5 million over three years to five Jackson Ward-based organizations, including the Adult Career Development Center, the Technology Resource Corporation, the Richmond Redevelopment Housing Authority and the Historic Jackson Ward Association.

Development on nearby Broad Street has encouraged construction to spill over the neighborhood's brick sidewalks and made it an attractive neighborhood to invest in.

"Starbucks will be here," Hood says of the neighborhood's changing character, a change she hopes the museum will be part of. "We want to be the kind of institution this community deserves." S



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