1. Archive

Symbols of slavery and triumph

Published Oct. 2, 2005


The first thing James Eaton does when people visit the Black Archives Research Center and Museum in Tallahassee is tell them a story.

Well, actually, it's sort of a lecture. But it tells the story of the stories they are about to learn.

As the person in charge of a room that houses an original Ku Klux Klan uniform, old segregation signs from bathrooms and water fountains and a pair of 17th-century slave shackles, the Florida A&M University professor feels compelled to prepare people who plan on poking around.

"It takes a lecture (about) those artifacts so they won't leave angry or shocked, but they will leave informed about how things used to be and how some things still are," Eaton said. "I give them a lecture called "Eatonizing.' "

Through the museum that he founded, Eaton has been telling the story of African and African-American people for more than 20 years. Eaton said he started collecting the artifacts as a way to make his American history classes more interesting. He traveled the country collecting items, and people gradually started giving and selling him things.

"I felt if I could put together some things about the history of African-Americans and the history of the country and blend them together, I'd create a new interest in the history of all groups," Eaton said. "Now I get people coming in every day. They come in from preschool all the way through college."

Among the professor's collection are about 500,000 books, papers, maps and photographs, weapons of African hunting and warfare, fossils, black doctors' memorabilia and a minstrel corner that includes old toys and pictures once used to make fun of black people.

Most of the items are exhibited in a small, two-story building on campus that was FAMU's original library. Others are kept at an old bank near the Capitol.

"Once I started making the archives known, there were a lot of people, both white and black, who had things in their homes that they would either give to me or sell me," Eaton said. "It was an idea whose time had come at the right time. I started it as a bicentennial project and it just grew."

Eaton said kids who visit the museum seem most interested in the African artifacts. Sometimes, Eaton will slip his wrists into the slave shackles, which still work.

"People still think of Africa as a wild jungle," Eaton said. "They never think about the cruelty of slavery."

Eaton says the museum is especially important to black children who may have low self-esteem or little knowledge of their history. For their benefit, he talks a lot about black inventors and scientists such as George Washington Carver, Elijah McCoy and Garret A. Morgan.

"They all know Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson, Ice-T and lemonade and Tupac what's-his-name," Eaton said. "I don't emphasize the sports heroes. I just give them their proper place in history.

"Once you begin to know who you are, you begin to act differently because you think differently. That's why I started it; that's why I'm carrying on."

Want to visit? The Black Archives Research Center and Museum is on the campus of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. The telephone number is (904) 599-3020. Or visit its Web site ( /WelcomeBlackArchives.html).