Event seeks to release black history treasures

It isn’t likely, however, that Amelia Boynton Robinson’s name will come up. And yet, decades before any of those civil rights leaders would make their mark in history, Robinson was making the rounds with her mother handing out voter registration cards, encouraging black women to vote.

In 1964, she became the first woman, black or white, to run for Congress from the state of Alabama, winning 10 percent of the vote at a time when only 5 percent of registered voters were African-American. Then, on what became known as Bloody Sunday, she was brutally beaten and left for dead by Alabama state troopers as she and other African-Americans tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to march on Montgomery.

This weekend she will help kick into gear a daylong program called “Save our African American Treasures” aimed at helping metro Atlantans identify and preserve items from that history.

“Save Our African American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative of Discovery and Preservation” will get under way at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Auburn Avenue Research Library. The event is free and open to the public.

Robinson, a treasure in and of herself, takes every opportunity to remember black history because she said it is necessary.

“I think that’s why God has let me live as long as he has,” said the 99-year-old great-grandmother in a telephone interview from her home in Tuskegee, Ala.

“We need to tell our children how rich their heritage is, physically and spiritually,” Robinson said. “They need to know we handed civilization to the world.”

Although every nationality has been enslaved in one way or another, Robinson said, for too many young blacks, history begins and ends with slavery.

“The beautiful thing about my mother,” she said, “is she talked about our legacy and how proud she was to be who she was. That’s what I want for our children, to be proud of who they are.”

Robinson was only 10 years old when she rode with her mother, in a horse-drawn buggy around her native Savannah, encouraging blacks to register to vote.

“That was the beginning of my being involved in politics,” said Robinson, who served 11 years on the board of the King Center in Atlanta.

Even when she was beaten by Alabama state troopers, Robinson said she was never afraid.

“I made a vow to myself and was more determined that people would register to vote,” she said. “I knew it could be done, but I knew it would be done because of blood, tears and even death.” Her own near-death experience, she said, “left a scar on me that I will take to my grave.”

“Treasures” is the brainchild of Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and former president of the Chicago Historical Society.

Bunch said the moment he realized that much of the African-American history was stowed way in the attics and basements, he decided to create a program that would, in his words, “shake the tree so that those things in the homes would be made visual.”

“I wanted to make sure that they weren’t lost, so we came up with a program to help preserve them.”

That was five years ago. Bunch began by testing his idea on the people with whom he worked, first in Chicago, then in Los Angeles. He found funding and then held the first program two years later in Chicago.

Since then, the series has been held two to three times a year, most recently in Washington, Los Angeles and Charleston, S.C. Future events are planned for New Orleans, New York and other cities across the country.

The results, Bunch said, have been overwhelmingly positive, with large turnouts of 100 people or more. “Some come to us to confirm what they have, others find great discoveries,” Bunch said. “What they thought was an old pot turns out to be a historical artifact that was used by slaves to boil sugar cane into sugar.”

The series also helps to stimulate conversations about preserving local history, said Bunch, and in many cases introduces people important to black history like Robinson, but who may be mostly unknown.

Having Robinson participate in the Atlanta series, Bunch said, is a chance to personally thank her for what she has done for America.

Event preview

“Save Our African American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative of Discovery and Preservation”

10 a.m. Saturday. Free. Auburn Avenue Research Library, 101 Auburn Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-730-4001.

Participants may reserve a 20-minute consultation with experts to examine up to three personal items. Those who would like their items reviewed must make reservations: 1-877-733-9599, or e-mail treasures@si.edu.

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