Conferences / MuseumMinute

A Church Basement & the Power of Place

This week I’ve read some great posts. One from Jake’s Bones about how he would run a museum – you should read it – and another by Marcus Harshaw on the power of place and how exhibits can make us see our everyday a little bit differently – you should read that one, too. Reading both of these posts reminded me that I haven’t recapped my #AASLH2013 experience yet.

Birmingham, Alabama is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement this year, and through AASLH’s partnership with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a blog series was devoted to museums tackling tough issues and making change within their own communities, in very similar ways to how Birmingham is embracing its history during this monumental anniversary. I even wrote a post on behalf of AASLH for this series, to remember those who were there before us as we walked in their footsteps through the city, visited its museums, and heard their stories recounting that time.

The conference itself, as always, was great. I connected with colleagues that I hadn’t seen in months, talked about Developing History Leaders at the Seminar for Historical Administration to anyone who would listen (I’m the Chair of the Alumni Committee now), and presented on Social Media Madness with Michelle Moon, Assistant Director for Adult Programs at Peabody Essex Museum.

But what I’ll remember most was a moment that began with slight embarrassment and ended in awe. We had the great opportunity to listen to Carolyn McKinstry at the 16th Street Baptist Church. McKinstry was there, at the church, on September 15, 1963, the day of the infamous bombing. Sitting in the pews of the church on a hot September evening, listening to her story, you could have heard a pin drop.

Towards the end of her talk I needed to use the ladies room and, as people began to ask questions, I tried to sneak out the back. Why was I embarrassed? Because I was in the first few rows of the church (sitting between AASLH staff members) – everyone saw me walking out early.  I was escorted to the basement of the church by a church volunteer to the restroom. It was quiet. When I walked out of the restroom I saw my boss and another woman downstairs. Just the three of us, alone in the space.

I was standing in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Just a few steps from where the bomb went off.

50 years after Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley lost their lives and helped define a movement.

I was standing in a place of history.

I didn’t get to spend much time, but I did take a moment to soak it in and reflect in the silent, nearly empty space. I was standing in a place of great sorrow and triumph. It was physically, emotionally, and spiritually touching. It’s a moment I won’t soon forget.

That is the power of place. That is the power of history.

When did you last experience a moment like that?

3 thoughts on “A Church Basement & the Power of Place

  1. Looking out a Visitor Center window in the National Civil Rights Museum toward the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis TN when I realized I was standing in what had been the boarding house where James Earl Ray carried out his horrible mission to kill Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve had such moments before, of course, all those being positive but to have one in a such negative context was heartwrenching…just as physically, emotionally and spiritually touching, but incredibly enlightening as well.

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