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Museum is not about soul food but soul of a people

It's called the Latibah Collard Green Museum.

But the small museum on Cullman Avenue isn't about greens or cooking. It's about one man's dream.

Both the dream and the museum are the work of T'Afo Feimster, an artist, playwright and activist who co-owns The ArtHouse, a collection of studios and display spaces at the end of a street of warehouses a few blocks from the NoDa gallery district.

In a city that has exploded with new cultural institutions, from the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Feimster's little museum is something different, a small collection of scenes he created to illustrate black history.

"This is a museum in the making," Feimster says. "We're open, we're running, but we're adding to."

But don't discount the importance of small museums, says Robert Bush, senior vice president of cultural and community investment for the Arts & Science Council. The ASC is evaluating an application for funding from Feimster's group.

"Every museum, even the Mint, started with one person having an idea," says Bush. "All of these museums that we think of as big monster museums started as a single voice saying, 'We need to do something with this topic.' Museums, that's where they come from."

Charlotte isn't brimming with collections focusing on black history. The Harvey Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture opened last fall with national and local art, and the Levine Museum of the New South has a few exhibits focusing on lunch-counter protests and school desegregation. There's also a small museum that's part of the Second Ward High School Alumni Association at 1905 Beatties Ford Road.

But Feimster's museum, with its focus on the history of the black experience in America, is a little different.

"Our thrust is to educate the public 399 days a year, 24/8," he says. "Black History Month (in February) - that's great, and we're grateful. But why not more? And why not here? Why go to Atlanta or Charleston to learn about black history? Why not do it right here?"

'It's just a passion'

Feimster, 62, is a native of Stony Point, near Statesville. He has loved making art since he was a kid. But when he graduated high school and headed to college in 1966, an art career wasn't a serious option for a young black man who was expected to earn a living.

Instead, Feimster majored in business and finance at N.C. Central University in Durham and spent 30 years working for IBM in Charlotte. He had four children, including son Torrey, now the editor of Pride Magazine, and Tye, the magazine's photographer.

He learned woodworking from his dad and painting on his own. But he kept his wood sculptures and colorful paintings as a hobby until he took early retirement and bought ArtHouse with partners. It has 13 studio spaces for people he calls "working artists" - artists who have to hold other jobs.

Feimster had his own studio in the back. He also had an abiding interest in black history and the African-American experience. He studied it, thought about it, and made art about it.

Finally, he decided to do something about it.

"It's just a passion, a way of expressing. It's me."

He converted his studio into the museum, illustrated mostly with his own sculptures and paintings and full-size set pieces he built to encapsulate African-American history.

Feimster divided American black history into 14 experiences. For each, he built something to make people think and talk about that experience.

The hallway leading into the studio is lined with art and sculpture to show the diverse cultures of Western Africa, where most American slaves were captured. In an inner chamber, he built a platform to show the conditions the captives endured in slave ships, using specs he got from the re-creation of the slave ship La Amistad.

There's a room with log walls, designed to look like a slave cabin, and a corner fixed up to resemble a juke joint, often run by blacks in the early 20th century. There's a barber shop display to show black entrepreneurialism, the front porch of a shotgun house, and a black-iron cell to illustrate civil rights and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s time in a Birmingham jail.

The studio is too small for Feimster's complete vision. Only eight of his installations fit. But he's trying to find a larger, permanent home. Although he started by himself, members and volunteers are joining up. He has gotten interns from Johnson C. Smith University to help with documentation.

'We just get better'

There are regular museum events, including a panel discussion on the first Friday of each month - they serve a sampling of collard greens and corn bread afterward - and a black-oriented movie night on the third Friday.

So, what about that name? Latibah is the acronym for "Life and Times in Black American History."

And "Collard Green"? Feimster tells this story: Early on, he told a man he knew about his plan to build a museum about black culture.

The man listened to his description and declared, "Why would you want to do that? You don't want this to become some collard green thing."

Feimster was taken aback by the use of "collard green" as a negative, as something small and country. To him, collard greens were something positive.

Like stories that were passed down as oral history when slaves weren't allowed to read, cooking collard greens was something your grandmother taught your mother, who taught you.

He pulled out dictionaries and encyclopedias and read up on collard greens.

"Everything I saw was good stuff," he says. "It's one of the most nutritious things out there."

And everything he read about collards seemed to reflect something about the African-American experience: Collards thrive in poor soil. They're durable and tolerate harsh conditions. And when they get hit by cold, they get sweeter.

"I think about us as a people and the struggles we went through. I just think that, after that frost, we're going to be sweeter. This bitter thing, after it's over, we got to be getting better. We can be out in the sun, we can be chained, we can be whipped. But we survive and we just get better."

WANT TO VISIT?

The Latibah Collard Green Museum is in ArtHouse, 3103 Cullman Ave., off 36th Street near North Davidson Street. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (but it's best to call before you visit). Admission is by donation ($5 suggested for general admission, $4 for seniors and $3 for students). Details: 704-737-8097 or www.latibahmuseum.org.

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