BY CHRISTINE SCHRUM
Soleil Banguid lights up the room with traditional African drumming.
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
—Maya Angelou from “Still I Rise”
SOLEIL BANGUID CRACKS me up. The smiling Pan African chef is animatedly describing the unfortunate occasion upon which he ingested gorilla meat as a child in his home country, the Congo. “The next day, I grew a huuuuge boil on the top of my head, man,” he laughs. “They had to take me to the hospital to drain it!”
Sunny and warm as his French name “Soleil” suggests, guest lecturer Banguid shares stories with an audience of 30 blacks and whites as we devour the sumptuous, free African lunch he has prepared for us at the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. Since its humble inception as a concept in Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in 1993, the museum has steadily grown into a 17,000-square-foot facility that now offers lectures, exhibits, entertainment, and celebrations to promote awareness of African American heritage.
February being African American History Month, what better occasion to sing the praises of this remarkable local resource? After all, the facility is a humanitarian dream come to fruition, a meeting place where, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
“Here at the museum, we feel like we can be an agent of social change through education,” says Museum Director and founding member Tom Moore. “Education is so important. As we learn more about each other, I think we have a greater appreciation.”
Learn more about African Americans’ rich and complex heritage you certainly will, when you visit the facility’s informative, interactive exhibits. You’ll walk through the honeyed land of Africa as it was before the infamous slave trade. You’ll see lush mango trees, cozy huts, musical instruments, and beaded jewelry. You’ll pass through the “Door of No Return,” a narrow brick wall simulating the loading end of a European trading post where 9 to 12 million Africans were rounded up as slaves and shipped across the dreaded “Middle Passage” between 1510 and the1850s.
You’ll have a taste of plantation life and hear a speech from Civil War activist Frederick Douglass. You’ll revisit the Reconstruction; learn about the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments; and find yourself in present-day Iowa and the U.S., where African Americans have risen to become officeholders, business executives, doctors, professors, entertainers, athletes, and more.
“The permanent exhibit is to let you see the journey of Iowa’s African Americans to the state of Iowa, to give you an appreciation of where people are coming from, and what they and their ancestors have been through,” says Moore. “But it’s also to show the amount of progress that has been made and can be made. Hopefully, we inspire people to make additional progress.”
Without question, some of the information presented is tough to swallow. Slaves shipped to the U.S. were crammed into spaces 6 feet by 16 inches for months at a time, with little clothing, food, or water. The Ku Klux Klan marched in Ottumwa as recently as the 1920s. What’s inspiring, however, is not only realizing how far we’ve come, but seeing the grace and dignity with which the subject matter is handled in these exhibits.
“It’s not something we want to throw in people’s faces,” says Moore, “It’s something we want to remember so that we don’t repeat past mistakes. History can teach us a lot.”
The museum offers a wide range of ways to learn about African American heritage. There are changing displays year-round—the delightful “Iowa in Ghana” exhibit will be replaced by a “Bronzeville to Harlem” installation this spring—as well as a host of activities, lectures, events, and educational programs.
The facility is also very active within the public education system. They offer internships and awards, and they’ve collaborated with students from schools across the state, including Mt. Mercy College, University of Iowa, and Kirkwood Community College. Says Moore, “We’re also educating over the ICN [Iowa Communications Network] so people can pick it up in their classrooms. We do tours, we have busloads of kids that come through, and we’re busy developing curriculum and course content.”
Like all great dreams come true, the African American Historical Museum sprung from a small but powerful vision. “I had an interest in African American history,” says Moore of the impetus behind the museum’s creation, “I felt like the children in our church needed to know more about their heritage, and it just kind of took off from there.”
For the first few years, the group operated from a tight budget, in varying locations, and on an entirely volunteer basis. “It was difficult,” Moore recalls, “We’d take a couple steps forward and then slide back. We finally realized we couldn’t just do it on weekends and after work.” At that point, the group made a concerted effort to raise funds to pay full-time employees.
“We hired a small staff and also a very good development director who went throughout the state and Cedar Rapids … and with the help of the board and others that were interested, we were able to raise the funds.”
Gradually, after raising a total of $3 million from sources across Iowa, the group was able to move into a facility designed and built especially for them. They currently lease the lot from the City of Cedar Rapids, at the cost of $1 per year.
Moore says he has been “pleasantly surprised” by the degree to which the museum has received support from the community. “I’m amazed at the way the museum has been accepted,” he says. “I still pinch myself. I’m constantly being asked, ‘How are things going?’ ‘How are you doing?’ There is such an interest from the community and from those who come through.”
Somewhat ironically, the majority of the funding behind the museum—as well as interest in it—is from Caucasians. “I would say probably 75 percent of those who come to events or who come to view events are not African Americans,” says Moore, who adds that the museum has had visitors from as far as Canada and Europe.
“Actually our motivation has kind of shifted,” says Moore. “We find that we have become educators, not of black people, but of white people. It’s an amazing thing, but we’ve had a number of people who live in rural areas and have no exposure to African Americans; they come here and they’re just so surprised and amazed. They’ll say, ‘I didn’t think there was a history, or ‘I’ve never had the opportunity for exposure to black people,’ so we’ve had them spend some time in the exhibits and we’ve received some really good compliments.”
What’s been most rewarding of all, says Moore, is seeing how the museum has been a facilitator in bridging longstanding gaps between the races. “We had a historic occasion here,” he recalls, “where the Black [Masonic] Lodge and the White Lodge came together, and people from both did our cornerstone laying—and they were just delighted to work together. To our knowledge, it was the first time that the blacks and the whites came together here with equal responsibilities in a cornerstone laying.”
Although both Cedar Rapids and the U.S. have grown in their recognition and support of African American rights, Moore admits there’s still room left for growth.
“Anyone who’s really honest and pays much attention will realize that there are stereotypes still existing, and there’s still progress to be made. That’s one of the reasons that we’re here—to help break down the barriers of ignorance and let people make an informed choice as to whether or not they want to like black people.”
What’s not to like? is the obvious question that springs to mind, as Mr. Moore sits opposite me, smiling warmly, and graciously answering questions. What’s not to like? As mixed races sit companionably in the museum’s reception hall, scooping savory veggie paté onto flatbread and enjoying Soleil Banguid’s engaging stories and African drumming.
Earlier on, Banguid shared a morsel of wisdom passed down to him from elders in the Congo. “If you want to achieve something, you’ll need three things: love, intellect, and will. Love what you want to do, and put your intellect into it, and all of your will. Then you can accomplish anything.”
Rising from yesterday’s dream to become the reality of today—and the promise of tomorrow—the African American Historical Museum is a prime example of such wisdom brought to life.