Is Oprah’s $12 Million Gift Being Wisely Used?

Twelve million dollars? Now who could get twisted about media mogul Oprah Winfrey donating $12 million to the Smithsonian Institution’s African American History Museum, being erected prominently on the National Mall? Surprisingly a number of silly souls do, if you troll the web.

Ah, the web: A miraculous minefield for all manner of mindless misinformation. So where does one go to trust the truth? A blog? A museum? Or, a cemetery to dig up the past? By the way, the AFRO’s archives are a treasure trove of African American memorabilia.

As a historic preservation colleague Glenn Eugster of Alexandria often asks, “Who speaks for the dead?” He has been instrumental in working with the Ft. Ward and Seminary African American Descendants Society, of which I am the director, to lobby local officials, historians and preservationists to find resources to recover the lost and desecrated graves in my 150-year old community’s ancestral burial grounds that are now the site of the public Ft. Ward Park in Alexandria. Originally built in 1861 as one of the defenses of Washington, the fort was reconstructed in the early 1960s from the confiscated grounds of our “Fort” community.

However, our community’s post-Civil War-Reconstruction-Civil Rights story of survival and reclamation is a model for African Americans’ similar efforts to recapture their history and sacred grounds all across the nation. In Richmond, for example, one group is working to restore an African American cemetery that was claimed for a parking lot by Virginia Commonwealth University.

African Americans are currently involved in an array of projects to bring back their family and community history that was lost to highways, hospitals, and condominiums. I’m thinking of the African Burial Grounds in New York City’s Wall Street district; the Waterloo Township reclamation project in Michigan, the President’s House and Queens Village in Philadelphia, the Walter Pierce Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis.

These historic preservation projects are especially important now as gentrification threatens to wipe out communities and sacred places nationwide.

Fortunately all these projects result in part from the increasing attention of younger archeologists, like my young collaborator Mary Furlong of the University of Maryland, who presented our Fort Ward findings at an international archeologist conference in England earlier this year. Rutgers University and the National Park Service are creating websites and promoting black heritage tours like “Civil War Era Cemeteries” to get African Americans interested and involved in these digs.

I’m told by archeologists that “the ground doesn’t lie.” No kidding. I learned how genteel the women in our community were when archeologist uncovered scores of china cups and saucers for tea sets during a recent dig at Ft. Ward Park; they also uncovered 43 unmarked graves.

But researching the truth, presenting this truth, and preserving the truth do not come cheap. That’s why we should not denigrate Oprah’s $12 million historical gift to revive and revere African American’s uncovered and untold experiences and critical contributions, especially from the Civil War to the Civil Rights era — which have made this nation all that it was promised to be for all.

No wonder that this year’s theme for Black History Month was “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.” The former was in 1863; the latter in 1963. It is now 2013, and “Stony the Road We Have Trod.”

And still trod. However, I never expected to see my name or my picture hanging on a wall of living legends. But there I’ll be among 40 others, including Ferdinand Day, Harry Burke, Nellie Brooks Quander and Lillian Patterson, on the “Mural and Hall of Fame: Stony the Road We Trod.” The exhibit of Alexandria’s substantial African American history, spearheaded by Robert Dawkins and Julian Haley Jr., will be unveiled Saturday, June 22 in the Charles H. Houston Recreation Center.

I’m honored that my image is a mere representation of the countless, tireless neighbors, volunteers and family members Frances Colbert Terrell, Joyce Casey Sanchez and Elizabeth Henry Douglas who have worked these past few years to restore the African American presence to the historic Ft. Ward Park and Seminary communities.

Maybe $12 million could be put to other uses, but our people are in desperate need of learning about the positive role models who beat the odds to contribute mightily to this world and this nation. Oprah’s donation, though nice, is a mere pittance to what we all could give of our time, our talent and our coins to preserve our precious history.

Veteran journalist Adrienne Washington writes weekly for the AFRO about relevant issues in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia. Send correspondence to her at [email protected]

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Is Oprah's  $12 Million Gift Being Wisely Used?


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