When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened Saturday, Sept. 24 on the National Mall, thousands of visitors walked past a worn wooden sign donated by the University of Mary Washington.
The gift, a 1957 waiting room sign from a Birmingham, Ala., bus station, is prominently displayed among the exhibit on transportation desegregation. It’s one of 3,000 objects on display from some 36,000 in the museum’s collection. A photo of the sign, which reads “Waiting Room (interstate and white intrastate passengers),” also is featured in the September issue of Smithsonian magazine.
“This artifact helps to remind us of a time in our nation’s history that is painful, but also filled with hope in the struggle toward freedom and social justice,” said Martin Wilder, UMW’s chief of staff, who attended the new museum’s donor preview event last week. “It is particularly fitting that the sign that UMW donated was in honor of Dr. James Farmer, former UMW distinguished professor and architect of the Freedom Rides that helped to desegregate interstate transportation.”
The sign was purchased on eBay by a UMW museum studies class for a student-created exhibit as part of the semester-long University tribute to James Farmer and the Freedom Rides. During the 2011 spring semester, the University displayed exhibits, including a decorated 1960s-era bus; held lectures by former Freedom Riders; and premiered a documentary about the Freedom Rides to help the University community better understand the tumultuous period when 13 courageous riders, both black and white, boarded buses in Washington, D.C. for a two-week ride to challenge the South’s segregation of bus transportation.
The museum studies class, taught by former instructor Elisabeth Sommer, researched the Freedom Rides, collected old recruiting posters and magazines, and created life-sized photo displays for an impactful exhibit that told the story of the watershed period. A highlight for Sommer was escorting Congressman John Lewis through the exhibit before the former Freedom Rider delivered the University’s 2011 commencement address.
“I’ll never forget what he said: ‘I feel like I’m in a holy place,’” said Sommer, now a museum curator in El Paso, Texas.
Once the exhibit was taken down, the class agreed that sign should be donated to the African American Museum, then in the planning stages, as a tribute to Farmer.
“It was unbelievably cool to see the sign and hear the stories people had to tell,” said Sommer, who also attended the donor preview of the museum. “I’m so gratified that the sign was on display for all to see.”
Drew Radtke ’11, who was a member of the museum studies class, remembers the enthusiasm generated during the University’s commemoration.
“It was a painful reminder of the Jim Crow era, but it tells a story of resilience and strength,” said Radtke, who now works in museum production. “There was an incredible energy in our class and all around campus as we worked to research and articulate the story.”
Marion Sanford, director of the James Farmer Multicultural Center, is delighted that the sign has a visible place in the new museum.
Said Sanford, “I am excited to take a group of students to D.C. next week to visit the museum so they can experience history and witness the national celebration of Dr. Farmer.”
Amazing and thank you! Long time coming.
Luisa Freeman says
MWC continues to make me proud years after I graduated in 1979. The energy and enthusiam of my classmates and professors from those years continues to bring me joy in my life and work today. Its great to see that other students are still sharing in these experiences while doing really meaningful work. MWC continues to be a beacon in the larger community. Thank you for this good news.
Anne Randolph '69 says
What a wonderful tribute … Cheers to UMW!
Kathleen E. Smith '86 says
I was at MWC when Dr. Farmer was first there. He was an imposing figure, but had a warm and genial nature. He frequently walked around the campus down near Monroe Hall, speaking with students along the way. He always seemed interested in our thought and perspectives. I believe he would be deeply honored, and perhaps a bit humbled, by what the way he is remembered by new generations of students and faculty, as well as Alumni.