Overdue Recognition

Tucson's Afro-American Heritage Museum acknowledges the rich history of black Americans.

For Shad "Standman" Blair and Charles Kendrick, running Tucson's Afro-American Heritage Museum is a labor of love. The two men, co-curators of the museum located at 1834 South Park Ave., are committed to ensuring that African-Americans are recognized for their contributions to American history and correcting the mistaken notion that the history of black Americans is limited to forced labor, sports and the invention of peanut butter.

Blair, 69, is a Renaissance man who acquired the name Standman as a result of volunteer work at the University of Arizona where he designed music stands for the orchestra. He was the first African-American on several local boards, including the Gem and Mineral Show, the Old Pueblo Lapidary Club and the Arizona Repertory Singers.

Kendrick, 70, went to a segregated school in Texas where black history was part of the curriculum long before departments of African-American studies made their sometimes controversial debut on university campuses. "Black teachers in the South made sure you'd know something about black history," he said, noting that when he moved to Tucson as a teenager his high school history text contained a mere paragraph on the role of blacks in America. Kendrick knew there was much more to the story.

So after 30 years of collecting artifacts from an assortment of sources, the two friends opened the museum just over four years ago on the corner of Park and Silverlake in order to "uncover the missing pages that have been edited out of American history," Blair said.

Those missing pages are extensive, and Blair provided an example from Arizona's past. "There were 30,000 black troops stationed in Fort Huachuca during World War II. You never see anything about it, even in Arizona history. What were they doing?"

Non-commissioned black officers who fought alongside whites during the Battle of the Bulge were forced to give up their stripes. The reasoning behind this, Blair said, was to prevent any African-American soldier from having a higher rank than the white troops.

Both Kendrick and Blair are living encyclopedias full of facts and figures about the African-American experience. "Between 1896 and 1900 the number of black voters in Alabama was reduced from 182,000 to 3,000 in the entire state. In Louisiana it went from 200,000 to 5,000 voters," Kendrick said. These figures reflect the effectiveness of the Jim Crow laws, a series of laws passed by Southern states in the years following Reconstruction in order to strip African-Americans of the nascent political gains made shortly after the Civil War. The laws also codified segregation.

Poll taxes--a levy designed to disenfranchise poor blacks--were instrumental in keeping political power in the hands of a white ruling class in the South until the taxes were declared unconstitutional in the 1960s. (The taxes kept poor whites from voting as well.) And for the minority of blacks who could afford to pay the tax, the Ku Klux Klan ensured that only a few would risk the dangers that accompanied exercising the right to vote.

"You'd have to cross a bridge to get to the polling place," Kendrick said, describing a scene from his childhood. "The Ku Klux Klan would be stationed along the bridge shooting turtles." The unspoken message was clear.

In addition to the Jim Crow laws and the Klan, sharecropping contributed to keeping blacks impoverished years after slavery was abolished in 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment. At the end of the Civil War, many plantation owners retained their land but no longer had a source of labor. Sharecropping answered this need by providing tenant farmers. But the system perpetuated a cycle of debt and poverty for the farmers, white as well as black.

Yet despite the tribulations they endured, African-Americans made substantial contributions to the nation's history and culture. Hundreds of black Americans are responsible for a plethora of inventions, many of them everyday items. A few include: G.F. Grant who earned a patent in 1899 for a golf tee; in 1897 a pencil sharpener and lawn sprinkler were patented by J.L. Love and J.S. Smith, respectively; John Standard patented a refrigerator in 1894; and in 1971 Henry T. Sampson invented the cell phone.

But unlike Eli Whitney or Alexander Graham Bell, the names of African-Americans are often omitted from the pantheon of "great American inventors." (George Washington Carver is a notable exception.) Blair and Kendrick are doing their best to see to it that their names and accomplishments are not forgotten. Among the printed material available to a museum visitor is a list of black American inventors and their creations.

The museum houses many items once used by African-Americans in their daily lives. Old irons sit on an ironing board, wood-burning stoves, cowboy gear and an ornate barber's chair are among the antiques on display. One area is designed to resemble a pharmacy just waiting for a customer, while another is set up to represent the classic country store from potbelly stove to checkerboard. And in a yard located behind the museum, Blair shows off a replica of a blacksmith shop he constructed.

The curators, who fund the museum out of their Social Security checks, admit contributions have been negligible. Undaunted, Kendrick decided a restaurant on the site would provide some income for the museum so he recruited his son, Ray, to run it. The eatery, Mr. K's, is open Tuesday through Saturday and offers a savory variety of comestibles. Its tables are consistently packed during lunch.

There are no official hours for the museum, but visitors interested in learning more about "history's missing pages" can call 294-0963 to make an appointment.

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