Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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Touching the past

New Orleans' Amistad Research Center puts African-American history at your fingertips

On the morning of June 28, 1839, strong winds pushed a schooner toward a plantation off the coast of Cuba. Onboard were 53 abducted West Africans chained together and fearing their final destination. One of them, Cinque, broke free and led the famous revolt on the slave ship Amistad. He couldn't have known that the stand he took would lead to the liberation of hundreds of enslaved Africans in the New World, the education of thousands of African Americans and a centre housing some of the most important records on the African-American experience.

These thoughts are echoed by 24-year-old Shugana Campbell, an archivist who has been working at the Amistad Research Center for a year now. "The mutiny led to the creation of the American Missionary Association and the founding of Tougaloo College, which I attended. Now I'm giving access to and preserving these records. From slavery to freedom to educating African-American students -- you have to understand how significant that is. Because of the mutiny on that ship, I'm here now."

The Amistad Research Center in New Orleans is the largest independent North American archive specializing in African-American history. It holds more than 10 million documents, 250,000 black-and-white photographs and houses one of the world's most important collections -- the original documents relating to the Amistad incident. In fact, the Steven Spielberg film Amistad was researched at the centre.

To get there you have to either drive through the Garden District, down tree-lined streets with large plantation houses, or sit on the wooden seats of the historic St. Charles Avenue streetcar to reach Tilton Hall at Tulane University where the centre is housed.

Unlike a library or a museum, most of the items are not on display. The main room is lined with bookshelves and a few display cases. Three two-and-a-half-metre wooden totem poles line the walls, their sharply hewn faces standing guard over the main room. They were once house posts supporting the roof of a men's secret society in the Dogon tribe of Mali, West Africa. On the other side is Fletcher Henderson's first piano, purchased by his father in 1906. Henderson was the first big-band leader to adapt the improvisational approach of jazz for an orchestra. He formed a touring band that featured vocalist Ethel Waters in 1921 and Louis Armstrong in 1924.

On the second floor is a small gallery that houses temporary exhibits that rotate monthly. Anyone can tour the reading room and art gallery and admission is free.

In the storage area, centuries-old drums and masks, their past revealed through battered skins, chipped carvings and scraped handles, are joined by more contemporary works such as the Ellis Wilson painting, Funeral Procession, known because it was displayed on the set of The Cosby Show. Anyone interested in seeing specific parts of the collection can contact the centre a few weeks in advance to have the items prepared.

When I visited, my interest was in rare examples of Kuba cloth, now a lost art form. This raffia-pile cloth, also known as Kasai velvet, was made during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by artisans of the Kuba tribe of Zaire, renowned for their decorative work and fine attention to geometric detail.

Art curator Dr Reginia Perry spread half a dozen Kuba cloths on the table and explained that for more than 100 years these rugs were heirlooms passed down in a family. They were often the only ornaments or furnishings in their thatched-roof homes and were used to welcome guests. Their legacies ended abruptly, however, with the onset of the civil war in 1996. These pieces were snatched in house raids and then sold on street corners to tourists and collectors for around $US30. A similar piece would easily fetch $US500 to $US1000 on the international market.

I reached out and traced the diamond pattern, the smooth lines shaved bare by thousands of footsteps. The worn surface spoke of its antiquity and I realized how rare an opportunity it was to actually touch and handle items that would be under glass in a museum setting.


The centre's collections focus around specific themes such as the civil rights movement or rare topics such the history of Flint-Goodridge Hospital. Originally, a training school for African-American nurses in the late 19th century, it later became one of the few hospitals in segregation-era New Orleans that accepted African-American patients and where African-American doctors and nurses could practise. There isn't an official collection for this important institution, but through several personal collections that mention the hospital I was able to pull on archival gloves and look through board minutes, copies of rules for medical staff and faded black-and-white photographs.

The centre's literary collection includes the personal correspondence, articles, plays and poems of Countee Cullen, one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The bulk of the art holdings is the Aaron Douglas collection, representing the important post-Harlem Renaissance artists who were active during the first half of the 20th century, among them Hale Woodruff, Malvin Gray Johnson, William E. Scott, Palmer Hayden and Elizabeth Catlett.

All these items are a continuing legacy of the 1839 revolt on the slave ship Amistad because a network grew out of this initial incident. When the Africans were jailed and charged with piracy and murder, a coalition of abolitionists, under the banner of the Amistad Defense Committee, took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Africans should be set free. Based on their success with the Amistad case, the Defense Committee evolved into the inter-racial American Missionary Association (AMA) and turned its attention to the cause of abolition.

Once slavery was abolished after the Civil War, the AMA founded educational institutions to serve African Americans and other ethnic minorities. Many are now distinguished colleges and universities such as Fisk, Hampton and Piedmont. During World War II, the AMA established a Race Relations Department at Fisk University and the Amistad Research Center was an outgrowth of the department.

"The creation of schools that served African and Native Americans inspired other activities to combat racial injustice," explains archivist Renea Henry. "Different collections have a relationship with each other in that way. They encompass civil rights, arts -- all of these fields that are seemingly unrelated -- because people were inspired to express themselves in different ways -- socially, culturally and artistically."

The centre hopes to expand its storage and exhibition space. Many rare items such as a large bronze vessel whose intricate workmanship shows the craft of the Ashanti from Ghana, West Africa or the centre's most valuable art piece, Henry O. Tanner's oil on canvas The Laundress, wait for a larger gallery space. The centre also has material stored in other locations in New Orleans that can't be made readily available to researchers. They need to raise funds by the end of 2004 to expand their facilities.

Executive Director Dr Charles Teamer would like to see a dedicated Civil Rights Room as well as a permanent gallery space for the extensive art collection included in the expansion. "If you don't know where you've been, you can't determine where you're going. For ethnic and African Americans, the centre represents a warehouse of knowledge for what has taken place in the past. It represents the hopes, dreams and aspirations of African Americans."


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