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 Oct 16, 2020 at 11:52 AM

Collections Highlights

Key to the City presented to Samuel Tucker, 1971
Parker-Gray pennant

The Alexandria Black History Museum’s (ABHM) mission is to enrich the lives of Alexandria’s residents and visitors, to foster tolerance and understanding, and to stimulate appreciation for the diversity of the African American experience. The ABHM uses its large collection to inspire the public to explore the integral relationship between African American history and other cultural traditions.

With a strong grounding in local Alexandria history, the collections reflect the national and international story of the African diaspora from the early 19th century through today. Photographs, paintings, furnishings, collectibles, and everyday objects provide a glimpse into the African American experience in Alexandria at home, work, and school, during worship and at recreation. Every item and record tell a story that links the past to the present.


Objects

Important items from the museum collection representing the period from slavery to emancipation include: a receipt from Bruin’s Slave Jail in Alexandria, a manumission freeing a local enslaved woman, and a print entitled First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet, which shows President Lincoln’s cabinet hearing the Emancipation Proclamation for the first time. There is an 1862 biography about Mary S. Peake, an African American teacher who educated the children of former slaves, and a signed autobiography by Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and orator.

The struggle for civil rights is well represented in the collection beginning with the museum building, part of which is in the former Robert Robinson Library. This segregated library was built in 1940 in response to the 1939 sit-in orchestrated by famed civil rights attorney, Samuel W. Tucker at the Alexandria Library on Queen Street. Tucker would later be presented the key to the City of Alexandria in 1971, shown above.

Celebrating the achievements of more recent Alexandrians, the Museum owns a wet suit and gear that belonged to Shirley Lee, the world’s first African American female scuba diver, and a basketball signed by Earl Lloyd, the first African American to play in the NBA. Both attended segregated Parker-Gray High School in Alexandria. The Museum also documents important national events that affect Alexandria and beyond, such as posters and other ephemera from the campaign and election of Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States.

African American material culture is represented by dolls, children’s books, toys, religious artifacts, tools, Black Memorabilia, and items relating to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Biography of Mary S Peake, educator, 1862     Robert Robinson Library, doorway 

Nicodemus and Petunia      African American Cloth Doll 


Carlton Funn Collection

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 School Archives

Parker-Gray students and faculty, old school 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.


Moss Kendrix Collection  

Moss Kendrix Coca Cola Ad Set-up 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.


Ben Holt Collection

Ben Holt, Winner's CircleBen 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.



Archives

The Museum has a rich archival collection documenting the establishment of the first public schools for African Americans in Alexandria in 1867 and local African American organizations in the City. It also records the life and times of prominent Alexandrians. Some of the papers that the Museum owns belonged to the following individuals:

Samuel W. Tucker, who in addition to his role in the 1939 Alexandria library sit-in, used his position as a lawyer to work for civil rights and whose career included association with famed civil rights attorneys, Oliver Hill and Thurgood Marshall.

Annie B. Rose, who was involved in numerous community organizations and served on many boards. Rose’s father Rev. Henry Bailey was sold into slavery from the notorious slave pen located at 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria. The building is designated a National Historic Landmark and now houses the Freedom House Museum, which was named in his memory.

Ferdinand Day, a civic activist who fought for the desegregation of Alexandria’s public schools and racial equity, became the first African American member of the Alexandria School board, and was selected as a Living Legend of Alexandria. Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School, dedicated in 2018, was the first new Alexandria City Public School (ACPS) to open since 2000 and is ACPS’s first STEM focused school.

Portraits: Tucker, Rose, Day


Sherry Z. Sanabria Paintings

Sanabria, Sunnyside CabinThe 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 America.

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. Fearing that these structures may be lost from the landscape, Sanabria sought to capture the spirit of the places and the people who inhabited them.

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


African American Churches
 

Church congregation. Photograph by Nina TisaraThis collection, including bibles, a book of psalms, and communion items, supports the interpretation of African American churches from the mid-19th through the 20th centuries. It also contains ephemera illustrating the history of several local African American churches, such as programs celebrating anniversaries and other important events. The collection is further enhanced by photographs from a year-long exploration of worship in Alexandria African American churches by local photographer Nina Tisara in 1995. 


Photographs 

The Museum’s collection includes historic photographs including examples by Eldrich Murphy, an African American photographer who worked in Alexandria during the 1940s and 50s. It also contains two collections documenting aspects of African American daily life in the late twentieth century. Carol Siegel’s Spirit of the Neighborhood collection explores Alexandria’s African American neighborhoods in the late 1980s, and Nina Tisara’s United in the Spirit, is an examination of worship in Alexandria’s African American churches. Other collections, such as the Parker-Gray Archive and the Moss Kendrix Collection, also contain significant photographic collections.

  Photograph by Eldrich Murphy   Eudora Lyles, photograph by Carol Siegel 



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.


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