Segregation exhibit a profile in ‘Courage’
When Arielle Weininger began as chief curator of collections and exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in 2010, a year after it opened, she noticed there wasn’t an exhibition schedule for the facility’s 3,500-square-foot temporary exhibition space. So she set out to compile one that “matched our mission and would speak to our audiences.”
The museum’s newest show, “Courage: The Vision to End Segregation, The Guts to Fight for It” — which was created by the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina, first staged in 2004 and has traveled to various parts of the country since then — does just that by telling the inspiring story of Rev. J.A. DeLaine and his fight (with others) to halt school segregation in Clarendon, S.C. DeLaine’s battle and eventual lawsuit were integral to the larger and far more famous Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which shot down state-backed segregation.
In addition to photos and vintage footage shown on TV monitors, Weininger notes, “Courage” is quite immersive. Using a mix of props and historical artifacts, it re-creates key scenes from the past such as the DeLaine family’s home and the all-black school to which the DeLaine children and their classmates walked — nine miles away. Says Weininger, “It really gives the visitor a greater feeling for what was happening at the time.”
Question:Why did the museum decide to host this exhibition?
Arielle Weininger: Clearly, the mission of the museum is to educate on the Holocaust, but it’s also to educate on other genocides [such as that in Darfur], other human-rights atrocities and also civil rights and civil liberties issues. So since we [already] have a very large exhibition upstairs, the history of the Holocaust, within the temporary space I try and bring in exhibitions that will speak to the other parts of our mission. . . . It just so happens that the larger story of the Holocaust is told by the individual voices of our survivors. And this [“Courage”] show actually is very much the same; the larger story of Brown v. Board of Education and school segregation is told through the voices of the DeLaine family. So it mirrors the way we already tell history in our institution.
Q.While many people are familiar with the Brown v. Board case, comparatively few know of J.A. DeLaine.
AW:I think people just know the larger Supreme Court suit that desegregated schools, but what they don’t understand is that it’s made up of five court cases. The last one was filed in Topeka, Kansas, and that was Brown v. Board. And they chose to call the totality of the five suits together Brown v. Board because it happened in Kansas and they wanted it to be known that this was an issue that was happening throughout the country and was not just a southern issue. So the DeLaine case is actually the first of the five cases that was filed, in South Carolina, and the lawyer in that case was [future Supreme Court justice] Thurgood Marshall.
Q.Are there a couple of elements or artifacts you find most arresting?
AW: One object is a copy of the 1952 Code of State Laws from South Carolina. In the exhibition, it’s open to the page showing that the schools must be segregated.
There are also things like the “doll test,” where black children from Clarendon County were shown a white doll and a black doll, and asked by psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark which doll was the “good” doll. The majority picked the white doll. It showed that African-American children saw themselves as inferior and that separate was not equal, which had great negative effect on the children.
Q.What do you hope people get out of this, be they school kids or adults?
AW: I don’t know that the age group the show is geared toward [pre-teen and up] is familiar with this history at all, so it’s really important for younger audiences to learn about it. And I think for audiences who are familiar with Brown v. the Board of Education, the intimacy of this story — that it’s a one family, one community story — really enriches our understanding of what it felt like to be at segregated schools.
Q. It’s hard to keep kids engaged today. Are you conscious about using technology in your exhibitions and keeping them well paced?
AW: I think we find here that telling personal stories helps people connect to history. When you have a child saying, “I remember the white kids spitting at me from the bus,” and you’ve got someone’s name there, and then you see them on the monitor right behind you … that brings history to life. When you think about a large Supreme Court trial, it’s harder to understand how this affected everyone in their daily lives. And that’s what the show really does.