Dundu Dole African Ballet performed at the daylong celebration of African-American culture at the Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum Sat., Sept. 24.
BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – Last Saturday, President Barack Obama inaugurated the most recent addition to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Here in St. Pete, museum goers packed into the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum to watch the ceremony on three large screened televisions and celebrate local black culture.
Live from the National Mall, President Obama said: “This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are. It helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the president but also the slave, the industrialist but also the porter, the keeper of the status quo but also the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo.”
And that is exactly what the Woodson Museum aims to do with the history of St. Pete. The museum board planned a day full of music, spoken word, artists’ talks and poetry. Although much of the afternoon was supposed to be spent in the beautifully manicured Legacy Garden, unexpected rain caused patrons to pack into the space to enjoy the celebration.
“As lovely as this space that we’re sharing today is, it’s not a museum,” said board chair Terri Lipsey-Scott.
She and the museum board have their sights set on the Manhattan Casino as the next location for the Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum.
“That location can be easily retrofitted to serve our needs as a gallery, but most importantly to maintain that historical context of what the Manhattan Casino represent to our community,” Lipsey-Scott said.
A petition circulated the room to show support for relocating the museum. The almost 500 signatures received that day signify that the citizens of St. Pete are in favor of ensuring the integrity of African-American history and culture.
Signatures include those of former Governor Charlie Crist, State Representative Darryl Rouson and former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Peter Rudy Wallace.
“Lift every voice St. Pete as we ask collectively for those things that matters most to a community that has been underrepresented and underserved,” stated Lipsey-Scott, who said the mayor is aware of their desire to move the museum.
The Woodson board of directors is looking for more suitable quarters that are comparable to the other museums in the city, and the logical answer was the Manhattan Casino, the most historic African-American designation in the city.
“The city touts being an art and cultural destination, and needless to say we are rarely apart of that promotion, said Lipsey-Scott. “We see the most historically designated iconic building in the City of St. Petersburg and it stands to reason that the building might be preserved to further the story we’d like to tell.”
Built in 1925, the Manhattan Casino was a showcase for local and national black artist performing in segregated St. Pete. Greats such as James Brown, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, Fats Domino and the Ink Spots graced the stage at this historic site.
The museum board envisions a large space that can be broken up into several galleries with the ability to have talking tours. For the downstairs they would love to see a soul food restaurant.
“Having the entire cultural experience right there in the Manhattan.”
So what would become of the building that they fought the Pinellas County Housing Authority so hard for?
“We’re not looking to abandon this space because we clearly embrace it and would love to be able to use it as a cultural center,” said Lipsey-Scott.
As beautiful as the old Jordan Park leasing office is, it is not a museum. The large wall of windows poses problems for artist. According to Lipsey-Scott, the museum has been turned down by many artists not wanting to compromise their work by the sun.
“You don’t see galleries with windows, think about it,” she said.
Coming from Savannah, Ga., where there are three African-American museums to St. Pete where there is no true sense of black history being celebrated, Lipsey-Scott said she will not remain silent on the issue.
“It’s important to me to know that we have a place where we can celebrate.”
The Woodson Museum touts having more events than any museum in town; the only museum that is debt free, the only museum that does not charge and what the board is most proud of is being on the must-see list of African-American museum in the nation.
In fact, one of the planners of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture came to the Woodson, right there in Jordan Park, to see their Legacy Garden for inspiration.
“So here we are in St. Pete where the city touts the arts and culture and we’re over here in the front of an interstate,” said Lipsey-Scott. “This building represents our history, but it’s not a museum.”
She said the disparity with regards to the Woodson versus the others venues throughout the community is glaring.
“The sun doesn’t shine here; a big cloud is over it.”