Dr. Willie Griffin grew up around heroes in Charlotte's civil rights movement — his own grandfather was an unsung trailblazer — but it wasn't until he went off to college, then graduate school, that he realized how much of Charlotte's history he'd never learned.
Later, teaching social studies at West Charlotte High School, he had an epiphany: His students were starved for knowledge on the city's black history, as he had been. When he pointed out two homes across the street from West Charlotte that had been bombed in a 1965 attack on civil rights activists, his students were rapt.
"I talked about local history and their eyes lit up — I had their attention. I knew that was a problem," Griffin said.
Griffin, 43, begins his job as the new historian for the Levine Museum of the New South on June 4, succeeding Brenda Tindal, who left the museum in November to become director of education at the Detroit Historical Society.
His appointment comes at a time when the museum is launching a buffet of new initiatives and events designed to engage more with varied audiences and to explore the city's history on neighborhood levels.
Griffin earned a bachelor's degree from Morehouse College, a master's from Morgan State and a PhD from UNC Chapel Hill, and returns to Charlotte after a year as an assistant professor of African American history at The Citadel.
He's an academic with a love for research and microfilm rooms, but he says it's telling stories that gets him excited.
"The world of scholarship can be kind of lonely. You begin to think that your scholarship alone does the work," Griffin says. "That's why the museum and I are such a great fit — it enables you to reach people at a number of different levels."
Griffin's new job makes him one of the city's most prominent historians, and he'll be called on to be a leading voice on Southern history — a history that, growing up, he had no idea was so remarkable.
"From my teen years through college, I had always been led to believe that Charlotte didn't have a civil rights movement, or anything that was noteworthy," he says. "People don't talk about that history."
His own grandfather, Fred Griffin, helped break color barriers in trucking by becoming a freight checker and later, a driver.
As a teen he mowed the lawn for Allegra Westbrooks, who became the first black public library supervisor in North Carolina. Bertha Maxwell-Roddey — the first chair of the Afro-American and African Studies Department at UNC Charlotte, founder of the Head Start program in Charlotte and co-founder of what's now the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture — was a neighbor.
"It's almost surreal. There were people who used to pat me on my head that, now that I'm able to look at the history, I realize: Wow, these were really important people," Griffin says.
Museum leaders say Griffin's personal connection to Charlotte and the copious amounts of research he's done on Charlotte's black history set him apart.
"Finding such a gifted storyteller with these kinds of academic credentials and a native Charlottean with a passion for telling stories — it just doesn't get any better than that," said Kathryn Hill, the museum's president and CEO.
Among new plans for the museum, as it seeks to evolve in a more digitally focused time for all museums, is a flagship project called #HomeCLT.
This summer, researchers will begin gathering 250 oral histories of Charlotteans who represent the city's past and present. (The number 250 is key, because this year marks the city's 250th anniversary.)
#HomeCLT aims to get at the diverse histories and cultures of the city's neighborhoods through these personal stories, and staff plan to share them in varied ways: a museum exhibition, pop-up exhibitions around the city, and neighborhood walking tours that employ mobile technology and augmented reality.
The museum is also trying to attract more young adults and young families through a Scene@Levine culture series for young adults (it'll include evenings of trivia, food and craft beer), as well as six free family days (the museum currently hosts three a year). The yearlong conversation series #ShapingCLT is ongoing, and the popular series "New South for the New Southerner" will be revived.
"This is not just about opening the doors, telling everybody 'It's really important' and sitting back," Hill said. "This is really a moment about compelling people to come."