“History as we know it has been taught through a white male lens,” explained Delbert Richardson, storyteller, community scholar, and founder and curator of the American History Traveling Museum: The Unspoken Truths. “Until the lion tells his tale, the hunt will always glorify the hunter. In order for us to move forward, we have to look back.”
Richardson’s new exhibit, “1619: Resistance/Resilience/Remembrance/Liberation,” currently on display at ARTS at King Street Station, tells the hitherto untold tales of Black history as a rich visual narrative that features original artifacts, stories and educational materials designed to spark curiosity.
“I hope that curiosity will lead to critical inquiry,” Richardson said during the exhibit’s opening celebration on Dec. 2. “Don’t believe everything I’m telling you. Do your own research. But I stand by everything I’m presenting here.”
“1619: Resistance/Resilience/Remembrance/Liberation” takes inspiration from the 1619 Project, originally conceived by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times in 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in what would later become the United States. The original 1619 Project sought to reexamine American history by focusing directly on the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.
The Seattle exhibit is divided into four sections: Mother Africa, American Chattel Slavery, Jim Crow Era and Still We Rise. But those who encounter the objects and information presented in the ARTS gallery may instead feel the exhibit is separated into three fluid categories: the beautiful, the disturbing and the inspiring. This contrast between the various antiquities and artworks is immediately evident upon entering the gallery space, where visitors are confronted with three very different flags hanging from the ceiling: an American flag, a Confederate flag and a Black Lives Matter flag.
Among the beautiful objects on display are elaborately beaded masks and headdresses from Cameroon, Congo and Nigeria; intricately carved drums from Africa’s West Coast; brightly colored Moroccan basketry; and quilts that include 19th-century blocks with Underground Railroad codes and a 21st-century Black Lives Matter example stitched with the names of Black people killed by police.
These quilts lead directly to the more disturbing narratives and relics of the exhibit. One educational panel titled “The Pathology of Whiteness (The Disease of Racism?)” lists unsettling quotes from prominent American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, advocating white supremacy. Another series of panels provide chilling diagrams of precisely how Africans were packed together on slave ships. Nearby is a case filled with items used to trade for slaves, photos of lynchings and a burning cross, as well as mannequins dressed in adult and child-sized KKK robes.
It’s chilling stuff, but the hands-on display of authentic slave shackles — including a child-sized set — is perhaps the most shocking. The wrought iron is surprisingly cold, very heavy and extremely unpleasant to touch.
“It’s hard to believe someone wore these items at one time, and someone was restrained at one time,” Richardson said.
And lest visitors think all of this happened a long time ago and very far away, they find themselves face-to-face with a display detailing Seattle’s Jim Crow and sundown laws, the history of the KKK’s presence in the area, and information about segregated hospitals and schools. Said Richardson of the Sound region’s history of racism, “Everyone always wants to blame everything on the South. To me, everything south of Canada is the South.”
But as distressing as this evidence of racism’s insidious presence in our collective timeline is, the examples of Black resilience and innovation collected by Richardson are equally powerful.
The exhibit includes never-before-displayed documents related to the anti-slavery movement, including an article from a 1793 London newspaper advocating the end of the slave trade; “The Declaration of Anti-Slavery” from an 1833 convention held in Philadelphia; and a copy of “The Liberator Newspaper,” an abolitionist publication from 1857. Panels featuring images and short biographies of Black mathematicians, authors, engineers and astronauts are interspersed with hands-on displays of the creations of Black inventors.
“This is my story,” Richardson said. “The reality is still we rise.”
“1619: Resistance/Resilience/Remembrance/Liberation,” and the American History Traveling Museum: The Unspoken Truths, from which the artifacts and information it features are drawn, have been a labor of love and a lifetime passion for Richardson. He’s been collecting and curating for more than 30 years, starting with examples of Black Americana such as Aunt Jemima salt and pepper shakers, Cream of Wheat ads and other everyday objects featuring images of Black people. Before he knew it, he had a small museum in his home.
Today, his award-winning traveling museum seeks to re-educate learners of all ages — especially children of color — with an eye to identity development, self-actualization and community healing. Though he considers himself to be a researcher, it took Richardson 13 years to be recognized in Seattle as an artist as well. In 2019, he received a Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award. “They didn’t know what box to put me in, because I don’t fit into a box!” he said.
In addition to his work with “The Unspoken Truths,” Richardson recently branched out into youth mentoring. During the summer of 2021, 10 Seattle-area kids aged 12 to 18 participated in a storytelling internship program he designed. Guided by Richardson, the kids explored, researched and wrote responses to materials from “The Unspoken Truths” to become “junior storytellers.” Five of the participants attended the exhibit opening on Dec. 2 and shared their writing.
Richardson created the program out of a desire to pass along a legacy, an effort he believes has been a success.
“I’m feeling like our culture is in good hands,” he said.
1619: Resistance/Resilience/Remembrance/Liberation is on view at ARTS at King Street Station through Jan. 15, 2022. Admission is free. For more information, visit https://tinyurl.com/5n8z3b7d.
Read more of the Dec. 8-14, 2021 issue.