Vassar Quarterly - Spring/Summer 2017 - 29
A VIEW FROM WITHIN:
Fleur Paysour '72
Working to spread the word about
the National Museum of African
American History and Culture
before it was even built, Fleur
Paysour, the museum's Public
Affairs Specialist, has long had
an insider's view, but she also finds
the eagerly anticipated cultural
institution to be deeply resonant
on a personal level. Here's what
she had to say.
Your job is to promote the museum, but
would you talk a bit about what the museum
means to you personally?
Having grown up in the Jim Crow South
I have firsthand knowledge of "white" and
"colored" drinking fountains. I also know
what it's like to ride in the back of a bus and
attend a "colored" school where the textbooks
were shabbier than ones used on the other
side of town. Growing up, I knew about
"white" museums and knew I could not
go inside. Until I went away to college, the
closest I could get to a museum was my
Grandma Hallie's cedar chest and my Great
Uncle Doop's tool shed. It's quite a joy now to
walk through this museum and see up close
things that were omitted from the mainstream history books because they weren't
This is the place that makes it possible
to see the full sweep of the African American
story. This is the place that shows us the
searing 1861 photograph-and the names-of
members of an enslaved family on a northern Virginia plantation. This is the place that
also shows us the silk-and-sable images of
wealthy black professionals living on the
Gold Coast of Washington, DC, in the 1950s.
This also is the place that shows images,
captured just two years ago, of crowds
protesting the police shootings of unarmed
black men. It is here in this museum that we
can see the many faces of America. It is here
that we can find a safe place to grapple with
the nation's tortured racial past and groove
to the music of James Brown, and find
dignity in the sculptural work of Elizabeth
Catlett. That's very important.
Did you ever expect the museum to
be this popular?
I quipped to a group of my DC Vassar Club
colleagues recently that it's easier to get into
Vassar than it is to get into this museum.
We figured people would come out in
great numbers. Why? Because people had
been waiting for this museum for a very long
time; they watched that shining, bronzecolored building with the "lattice work"
walls rise up out of the ground looking like
nothing else on the National Mall and they
were ready to get inside. They also had been
hearing about the most unusual work our
historians are doing. Before the museum
opened, for instance, they knew about our
research on a Portuguese slave ship that
sank off the coast of South Africa in 1794,
losing half of the more than 400 enslaved
Africans on board. And yes, they knew about
another ship we had inside the museum:
The Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership.
What most of us did find surprising was
this: People would get inside the museum
and stay from four to six hours. They would
stand in front of display cases-looking at
Harriet Tubman's lace shawl or Nat Turner's
bible or a slave cabin from a plantation on
Edisto Island, SC. They would stand there and
talk to perfect strangers about the pain, or
the pride, or the joy they felt. I love to see that!
Getting lots of people to talk to each other is
more gratifying, actually, than getting lots
of people through the museum doors.
What are your hopes for the museum?
I remember the late '60s at Vassar, being in a
wildly popular, very rigorous history course
called "The Black Experience in America."
One of the textbooks for that course, From
Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans,
was co-authored by the late Fisk- and Harvardtrained historian John Hope Franklin. By the
early 2000s, he would become the head of
the museum's Scholarly Advisory Committee,
a group of people brought together to
determine what work the museum would
do and how that work would be done. What
exhibitions and lectures would be offered?
What books would be published? It was a most
unusual honor to be in meetings with Dr.
Franklin. It was thrilling to watch him ignite
a room full of people-fellow historians-
to talk about things most people would
rather forget or deny: slavery, segregation,
lynchings, bombings, burnings. Riveting
conversations, and oh so necessary. It was
Dr. Franklin who brought home the staggering importance of the museum's work: The
mission of this museum, he said so often,
"is to tell the unvarnished truth." If we do
that, all the time, we can, indeed, change
America. That's my hope, for sure.
VA S S A R Q u A R T E R LY