Levine Museum's 'Courage' exhibit gets an encore in Charlotte

"Courage" came with a lot of risk the first time.

Before its debut seven years ago, leaders of the Levine Museum of the New South wondered whether an exhibit about the nation's first lawsuit challenging school segregation would find a welcoming audience.

"I remember it well - the question was, 'Is it OK to deal with this issue?'" says Emily Zimmern, museum president. "There was a willingness to take on a tough topic, but there was concern whether it was an appropriate topic for a history museum to address."

Apparently it was. "Courage: The Carolina Story That Changed America," which returns to the museum Saturday, attracted tens of thousands and eventually went on a national tour.

"Courage" returns for two reasons.

First, many people have settled in the region since it was displayed in 2006 and have never seen it - including about half of the museum's board members. Second, the Levine is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and wanted "Courage" back because it represented a development milestone.

"It wildly exceeded expectations," Zimmern says. "It was the transformative exhibit for the museum."

And it retains relevance today, she says, pointing to the current struggles of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. U.S. Education Department officials are investigating seven civil-rights complaints alleging that school closings and assignment changes discriminate against black and Hispanic students.

Given the exhibit's timeliness, the museum is planning a series of community conversations around it.

"We ask all visitors to think about a number of questions that affect the community today," Zimmern says.

Focus on activism

"Courage" tells the story of the Rev. J.A. DeLaine, the African-American minister who led the school-equality effort in Clarendon County, S.C., and his children - Ophelia, a retired professor living in Florida; "B.B.," a retired educator in Charlotte; and Joe, a retired chemist in Charlotte.

They appear in historic photographs and on video, giving context and their views.

What started out as a quest for a bus to carry black children to school - some had to walk nine miles, or the distance between the Levine uptown and Carowinds - wound up as one of the five cases that were consolidated as Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court and led to the 1954 school desegregation ruling.

To enter the exhibit, one approaches doors that look like a school entrance. But the doors are locked. It is a depiction of a white school, where black students of the era were not allowed.

So you have to go around the side to get in the back entrance.

Clarendon County, 130 miles southeast of Charlotte, spent four times as much on each white student as on each black student in 1950, a point made by two unequal stacks of textbooks making a three-dimensional bar graph.

There's a recreated segregated school with a potbellied stove, a recording of hymns sung by those in Clarendon who drew strength from their faith and an image of DeLaine's church with flames projected over it.

Terror by fire

Both the church and DeLaine's house were firebombed during the controversy. Firefighters stood watching as the house burned. A charred Bible from the church is among the artifacts.

Black and white dolls similar to those used by psychologist Kenneth Clark to quiz black children in Clarendon about their racial attitudes in a landmark study are displayed. They identified the white doll as "good," evidence of the damage caused by the separate-but-equal doctrine the Clarendon case helped demolish.

Enlarged on one wall are signatures of people who signed on for the suit. Many of them lost their jobs or bank credit for their farms, costing some their livelihoods or ability to support their families.

An evolving story

Original visitors to "Courage" will find some new touches in the current exhibition.

What used to be a small section at the end asking about contemporary racial issues has been expanded as a basis for dialogue on whether resegregation is a challenge today.

That's in keeping with the core message of the exhibition, says Levine historian Tom Hanchett, because "Courage" is about how people at the local level can stand up and bring social change. "If you don't like how things are, you can make a change," he says.

Panels depicting the 1940s struggle of Hispanics in Southern California for equal schools have also been added, developed while the exhibit was in Los Angeles at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance.

Community conversations will include a forum Jan. 20 at the McGlohon Theatre with Fox News commentator Juan Williams and others discussing the 1954 desegregation order and modern challenges in public education.

'Courage' on the road

After its initial seven-month run in Charlotte, Bank of America underwrote a national tour for the exhibit, which included Atlanta, Baltimore and New York.

"On more than one occasion, 'Courage' solicited from one visitor to another a story of 'home,' as many Marylanders are only a generation or two removed from Carolina roots," David Taft Terry of the Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History in Baltimore wrote to the Levine.

Some panels from the exhibit were also used by an exhibition arranged by the State Department called "Separate is Not Equal: the Struggle Against Segregated Schooling in America" that opened in 2005 at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and toured other South African museums.

During its yearlong encore in Charlotte, an estimated 75,000 visitors are expected to see "Courage," Zimmern says. Afterward, it will move on to the National Underground Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

While initially considered provocative, "Courage" represents the kind of exhibitions that major museums are moving toward, ones that tackle contemporary issues by putting perspective on the past.

"This is the way museums will look in the 21st century," says Hanchett.

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