Collections at the Alexandria Black History Museum

The Alexandria Black History Museum houses collections relating the history and accomplishments of African Americans in Alexandria.

Page updated on Jul 17, 2020 at 11:30 AM

About the Collections

Alexandria Black History Museum houses collections relating the history and accomplishments of African Americans in Alexandria. In addition, the museum collects documents and artifacts relating to a wide range of African American history and culture. Paintings, photographs, books and other memorabilia document the African American experience in Alexandria and Virginia from 1749 to the present. The entire collection includes over 3,000 items.

Below are a few of the collections held by the Museum.  

Poster from the Carlton Funn CollectionCarlton Funn Collection

In the late 1950s 7th Grade History teacher, Mr. Carlton Funn, Sr., began to collect posters, books, pamphlets, artifacts and more, to make his African American students “aware of their positive heritage,” stories lacking in the school’s history books. Over the next 50 years the collection grew in volume and scope to become the “National/International Cultural Exhibits (NICE),” an exhibition of almost 1,500 display boards “to promote awareness, human dignity and cultural understanding.” The boards feature a variety of mediums, including handwritten text and drawings, newspaper articles, photographs, and mounted poster series, including the history of Howard University Hospital, the Holocaust, immigration, woman’s rights, and the Niagara Movement.

Disclaimer: Please note that the Carlton Funn Collection consists of educational materials created from the 1950s to the 2010s and some of the information and language used may be outdated or incorrect. Please be aware of this when choosing materials to use with students. Also note that some content, such as graphic images of the Holocaust, may be upsetting to viewers.

The Carlton Funn Collection can now be viewed at Historic Alexandria Collections Online.

Parker-Gray students and faculty, old schoolParker-Gray School Archives

The Parker-Gray Archives seeks to preserve documents, photographs, yearbooks and other memorabilia relating to the Parker-Gray school. The segregated school graduated its first four-year high school class in 1936. Over time, the school gained a reputation for its dedicated teaching staff, who despite the constraints of segregation, were able to provide a positive learning experience. Parker-Gray High School moved to a new building at 1207 Madison Street in 1950. The high school was phased out during the 1964-1965 school year, following integration of Alexandria’s schools. Parker-Gray was used as an integrated middle school from 1965 until 1979, when it closed its doors.

The Parker-Gray School Collection can now be viewed at  Historic Alexandria Collections Online.

Before the Spirits are Swept AwaySherry Z. Sanabria Paintings

The Sanabria family generously donated 23 of Sherry Z. Sanabria’s African American historic site paintings to the Museum. Many of them are showcased in the Museum’s exhibition, “Before the Spirits are Swept Away and all the paintings can now be viewed on the Museum’s collection site. Through the paintings, the exhibition explores slavery, interpretation, and preservation of African American sites in the American South. 

Before she passed away in 2014, Sanabria had a studio at Alexandria's Torpedo Factory Arts Center. These paintings were part of her Sites of Conscience series, which focused on African American heritage, as well as prisons, concentration camps, and mental health hospitals. The paintings transport viewers to places of horror, places of pain and suffering, places we want to forget, but never should.

“I am drawn to the walls and spaces… [of buildings]… by the magic of light, the organization of architectural elements, and the perception that these spaces are filled with and colored by the spiritual remnants of the lives lived in them.”  – Sherry Z. Sanabria (1938-2014)

The Sherry Z. Sanabria Collection can now be viewed at Historic Alexandria Collections Online.

Moss Kendrix Coca Cola Ad Set-upMoss Kendrix Collection

Moss Kendrix revolutionized the advertising industry, paving the way for the diversity of actors and models who today are featured in print ads and billboards, television and radio commercials. Kendrix realized that African Americans were being overlooked as consumers, although they represented a significant potential market with increasing buying power. In 1948, he founded the Moss H. Kendrix Organization in Washington D.C. with the goal of providing public relations counselors and market consultants to promote the African American customer to American businesses. An archive consisting of 30 cubic feet of documents and more than 900 photographs detailing Kendrix’s work and contributions to society is maintained by the Alexandria Black History Museum. Researchers may use the archive by appointment.

Moss Kendrix: Pioneer, trailblazer, Visionary. Out of the Attic, The Alexandria Times, January 20, 2020.

Ben Holt book coverBen Holt Collection

Ben Holt, a D.C. native, started his operatic career as a young child, performing as the boy soprano in Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah at the Metropolitan Methodist Church of Baltimore, MD when he was just 11 years old. Having attended both the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School, he had a short but illustrious career until his untimely death from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1990, aged just 34. Holt performed with several different opera companies, including the Metropolitan, San Francisco and the Virginia. He even performed internationally in both Italy and the United Kingdom. Although he had moved to New York, Ben frequently returned to the D.C. area where he performed in schools, churches, clubs, libraries, and senior citizen centers. He also sang with the University of the District of Columbia’s Lorton Prison College program.

In 2020, his mother, Mayme Holt, who was born in Alexandria and still has strong connections to the city, generously donated a treasure trove of memorabilia documenting Ben’s career, including photo albums, scrapbooks, an extensive collection of playbills from his numerous performances, and sheet music. Among the Italian, French and German opera standards, the museum staff was excited to discover a typed copy of Anthony Davis’ opera, “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” in which Ben had played the title role at its world premiere in 1987.

Nina Tisara photo from United in the Spirit exhibit, 1995African American Churches

This collection, including a one-hundred year-old church bible and communion items from one of Alexandria’s oldest African American churches supports the interpretation of African American churches in the 19th century. This collection is enhanced by photographs from a year-long exploration of worship in Alexandria African American churches by local photographer Nina Tisara in 1995.

Promotion Certificate, Lawrence Jackson 1947Documents  

Documents in the collection include those related to the establishment of the first public schools for African American students in 1867, and those which relate to well-known African Americans in Alexandria. For example; museum holds the papers of Annie B. Rose, an Alexandria civic activist and the daughter of Rev. Henry Bailey who was sold into slavery from the notorious slave pen located at 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria. Other holdings include the papers of Ferdinand Day, civic activist and the first African American member of the Alexandria School board, and other documents relating to local African American organizations in Alexandria. 

The Uptown Neighborhood, 1021 Oronoco StreetPhotographs

The collection includes photographs by Eldrich Murphy, an African American photographer who worked in Alexandria during the 1940s and 50s. Other photographic collections include, Spirit of the Neighborhood, an exploration of Alexandria’s African American neighborhoods in the 1990s, by photographer, Carol Siegel and United in the Spirit, an examination of worship in Alexandria’s African American churches by photographer Nina Tisara.

Collections Policies

Like all professional museums, the Alexandria Black History Museum abides by a Collections Policy in acquiring and caring for collections. The Historic Alexandria Museums worked together to create a set of collections policies that define the scope of each museum’s collections and set policies for caring for them in accordance with the special needs of each collection.

In accordance with the Museum’s collection policy, the object must date from the period of 1749 (founding of the City of Alexandria) to the Present Day, or be relevant to the interpretation and understanding of African American life during that stated historical period.

Collection Goals: Established in 1983, the Alexandria Black History Museum, serves as a resource which today houses collections that reflect the African American experience in Alexandria and Virginia from 1749 to the present. The adjacent Watson Reading Room, located in a building that formerly served as an African American church and school, contains a reference  collection of nearly 4,000 volumes devoted to black  history and cultural traditions. The Museum also supervises the Alexandria African American Heritage Park, a nine-acre satellite site that includes a 19th-century African American cemetery and memorial sculptures by artist Jerome Meadows.

The goals for all three sites are to:

  1. House and collect historic artifacts and information that reflect the African American experience in Alexandria and Virginia from 1749 to the present, with emphasis on the lives and accomplishments of local citizens. The scope of the collection is based upon objects of general historical value to the African American story in Alexandria with a secondary concentration on acquiring objects of significance to African American history in the scope of United States history . The collection includes specialized holdings on African American churches in the 19th and 20th centuries, and an extensive body of documents and photographs that relate to the segregated Parker-Gray High School and the 1939 sit-down strike in Alexandria, as well as notable African Americans and black organizations in the local area. 
  2.  Interpret the historic site and historical period 1749 through the present day via museum exhibits and educational programs. Major areas of research and interpretation are:

    a)  The legacy of Alexandria’s African American history and how it relates to the development of the City of Alexandria. 
    b)  The history of enslaved and free black communities  
    c)  The role Alexandria’s Contraband Community and the impact of their struggle for freedom  before, during and after the Civil War
    d)  The lifestyles of Alexandria’s African American citizens during the years of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the emergence of the modern Civil Rights movement and the effects of Urban Renewal on the minority landscape of the City of Alexandria.
  3. At the Watson Reading Room, house and collect published works on African and African American history, and primary and secondary source materials related to the history of Alexandria.

Acquisitions: Objects accessioned into the permanent collection by means of gift, bequest or purchase. Clear title to the object is held by the Museum.