January 8, 2019

Bringing Black history—its joys and its tragedies—to students with a museum on wheels

As a social studies teacher, Khalid el-Hakim used historic artifacts to engage students. He founded the Black History 101 Mobile Museum to bring that same idea to life for audiences across the country.

Khalid el-Hakim has been collecting historic artifacts from the African-American experience since he was an undergrad in the early 1990s. Now he travels the country with the Black History 101 Mobile Museum. Photos courtesy of el-Hakim

I began collecting Black memorabilia in 1991 as a student of sociologist Dr. David Pilgrim, who subsequently opened The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia on the campus of Ferris State University. His use of Jim Crow-related artifacts engaged us in the process of critically thinking, analyzing, and challenging our ideas of how race impacts our society and the world. It planted the initial seeds, which led me to create the Black History 101 Mobile Museum. It was here, in northern Michigan, that I began finding my earliest artifacts in the antique shops, flea markets, garage sales, and estate sales.

During one class in particular, I distinctly remember him displaying a cast iron bank with the words “Little Nigger Bank” inscribed on the back of it. The bank featured a black man with exaggerated features of coal black skin, smiling big red lips, bucked eyes, and a face designed more beast-like than human. After placing coins into its hands, this mechanical toy bank deposited coins into its mouth with the pull of a lever. Nearly everyone in the class was rightly disturbed in seeing this ugly reminder of days gone by. The introduction of this artifact sparked a lively debate on black stereotypes, Jim Crowism, discrimination, and the legacy of white supremacy. Without opening a textbook or having a lengthy lecture, the students’ attention was instantly focused on inquiring, discussing and investigating that unsettling piece of history.

Fast-forward to Oct. 16, 1995. I was among the estimated 2 million Black men who gathered on The National Mall under the themes of atonement, reconciliation, and responsibility for the historic Million Man March. This was indeed one of the most memorable experiences of my life and another defining occasion in the development of the museum. On that day, we took a pledge to be more responsible men and stewards of change in our communities. The spiritual themes of the day resonated deeply in my heart and remain among the core values in my work. As a new social studies teacher and recent graduate, I knew I wanted to come back to my students with mementos to share the significance of this historic event; I instinctively understood it wouldn’t be properly written about in history books, so I wanted to make sure I collected and preserved artifacts from that day. I purchased bumper stickers, posters, newspapers, and even kept my Metro card with the date Oct. 16 stamped on it.

Up to that point, the collection of historical artifacts I had acquired while still an undergrad was a private collection I simply shared with family and friends who stopped by my little apartment in Detroit. However, upon my return from the march, I was inspired to share my collection with the public as a tangible contribution to the pledge I made in Washington.

The museum has historic artifacts dating from the trans-Atlantic slave trade era all the way to hip-hop culture in the United States.

As a first-year Social Studies teacher, I grappled with the reality that my students’ textbooks often glossed over, inadequately explained, or completely omitted Black history and culture. In response, I began supplementing the content by bringing primary-source artifacts from my collection to engage and pique their interest in learning about the contributions of Black people in all aspects of American life in spite of the ugly history of slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, and institutional racism. Also, being someone who was deeply entrenched in and informed by hip-hop culture, I used these artifacts to capture the attention of my students by making historical connections between the present and the past using lyrics of artists such as Tupac Shakur. My students loved and appreciated it.

In addition to my classroom, I began sharing my collection at local grassroots organizations community meetings. I was making Black history accessible to the community by taking it to where the people are. I began receiving invitations to churches and schools, college campuses around Michigan, and eventually I was being asked to exhibit at universities, religious institutions, government agencies, libraries, corporations, and conferences across the country. I left teaching in the classroom in 2011 to pursue the work of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum in a full-time capacity.

Currently, the Black History 101 Mobile Museum is a collection of over 7,000 artifacts—both historical and contemporary—that illustrate the progression of Black history and culture. Pieces range from those connected to slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights, to the emergence and flourishing of Black culture in movements from the Harlem Renaissance to modern-day hip-hop. In addition to artifacts, I’ve attracted attention from like-minded artists, activists, and educators who have joined at various stops around the country. Guest speakers have included The Last Poets, Sha-Rock, Sam Greenlee, Ernie Panicioli, Brother J of X Clan, Paradise Gray of X Clan, Jessica Care Moore, Hayley Marie Norman, Quadir Lateef, Lasana Hotep, Dr. Fredrick Dixon, and Dee Dee McNeil of The Watts Prophets. The most consistent speaker and biggest supporter of the work is Professor Griff of Public Enemy who has been committed to doing this work with me since 2006.

The realization of knowing that document lay dormant in an abandoned home for so many years is a sobering reminder that not only was I born to do this work, but that this work is connected to something much bigger than myself.

The Black History 101 Mobile Museum has received national and international attention for its innovative work of exhibiting Black history outside of traditional museum spaces. One of the greatest recognitions I’ve received was being named one of the 100 Black Men of Distinction by Black Enterprise magazine in 2017. The Black History 101 Mobile Museum has exhibited in 36 states at over 400 institutions, making it one of the most sought after exhibits of its kind in America. Our 2019 national tour begins on Jan. 7 at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for the BEAM (Black Educational Achievement Movement) Summit and the continues to 36 stops in 13 states during the first quarter of the year.

One of the most soul stirring and affirming moments of this work was when I purchased an artifact someone found in an abandoned home in Detroit. The piece was an original program from a speech Dr. Carter G. Woodson gave at Bethel AME Church in 1938—and it was signed on the cover by him! I was so blown away by having such a priceless addition to the collection that I immediately put it in plastic and displayed it for months without ever opening it. One day my spirit guided me to open it. On the inside cover was a list of the patrons who invited Dr. Woodson to town to speak on the subject of “Negro” history. As I read the names of some prominent Black Detroiters and everyday Black folk from that era, tears welled in my eyes and I almost stopped breathing when I came across the names Lawrence and Cecil Millben, my grandparents! I had absolutely no idea they were involved in such work.

The way history touched me that day, I cannot fully express in words. The realization of knowing that document lay dormant in an abandoned home for so many years is a sobering reminder that not only was I born to do this work, but that this work is connected to something much bigger than myself. I’ve been blessed to create temporary spaces around the country for people to have access and experience Black history in a very unique way. I love to see people grow, find inspiration, and be reminded that we are active creators of history with a responsibility and duty to draw upon the success of the past and to shape a better future for generations to come.

Khalid el-Hakim

Black History 101 Mobile Museum

Khalid el-Hakim is the founder and curator of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum, a collection of over 7,000 original artifacts of Black memorabilia dating from the trans-Atlantic slave trade era to hip-hop culture. El-Hakim is a former middle school social studies teacher from Detroit and is currently a Ph.D candidate in the College of Education at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.