The jersey of NFL hall-of-famer Rod Woodson is on display in Fort Wayne with other mementos from the city’s black heritage, though viewing them has been difficult lately.
But visitors of the African/African American Historical Society Museum might soon again learn about the first Africans to come to America and the civil rights unrest of the 1960s. They’ll see photos of Fort Wayne’s first black policeman and policewoman and hear about the first black county welfare caseworker and the first black Miss Indiana.
After being closed except by appointment for the last several months as its leadership was in dispute, the museum is readying for the future by planning interactive digital displays, video online history courses and a new series of special rotating exhibits.
That is the vision of John Aden, the museum’s new executive director.
The museum, 436 E. Douglas St., must expand and be progressive in order to remain relevant, Aden said, and that in itself presents some obstacles.
The large, two-story, 21-room structure is known as the John Dixie building and was built in the 1890s in the historic east central neighborhood. Before exhibits are enhanced or enlarged, the building’s structural challenges must be addressed, Aden said.
The building is being rewired to rectify fire code violations, Aden said.
Once these repairs are completed and new museum hours are established, the facility will reopen to the public, probably this month, he said.
For the new director, it has been a months-long effort. Aden came on board amid conflict and kept a low profile during his first few months of employment.
About the same time the board hired him in January, Pompia Durril, chairman and president of the museum’s board of directors, announced the retirement of co-founder and longtime director/curator Hana Stith.
Stith, however, said she was “being forced out.”
The controversy split the museum’s supporters – one group backing Durril, his board of directors and Aden, and the other group backing Stith.
From February to May, Stith was kept out of the museum after the locks were changed, and 64 of the museum’s 146 members voted to dissolve Durril’s board and elect five new board members.
The museum’s attorney ruled the vote void and Stith supporters formed their own board of directors.
Although the two sides met for a few mediation sessions, those meetings came to a standstill and nothing has been resolved, Stith said.
Durril disagrees. The conflict is over, he said.
“The membership recently had its annual meeting and no concerns or issues were voiced,” he said.
Meanwhile, Aden is moving forward and preparing to launch the museum on a new path of technology.
He continues to hope that Stith will work with him and share her knowledge on future exhibits, he said.
The big question is: How will all of these proposed digital programs be funded?
Aden thinks he has the answer.
The key is to change the museum from an organization supported by donors to one that charges admission, he said. Aden would also take advantage of all of the available museum grants.
Aden has identified more than $800,000 in possible grants and has already applied for nearly $200,000 in grant funding.
Aden wants to make the museum a hybrid experience.
“We want to feature not just the African-American history of Fort Wayne, but bring in the African experience as well,” he said.
Rotating exhibits will begin with Tupac Shakur, Hip Hop’s Legacy of Violence; Bob Marley, A Retrospective; and Africans in the First World War.
Aden is seeking support from foundations to help underwrite the cost of the exhibitions.
“We have reached out to Bob Marley’s charitable organizations and will be receiving assistance for that exhibit,” Aden said.
Through the Marley exhibit, Aden hopes to tell the story of Caribbean Africans and their descendents.
Museum officials are also acquiring a climate-controlled storage facility to safely store artifacts, exhibits and documents as needed, he said.
Items will periodically be rotated to maintain the fluidity of the exhibits, Aden said.
Museum officials have been pleased with Aden’s efforts, Durril said.
“It’s a work in progress, but we do believe he is helping the museum be a steward of the community,” he said.
“Through the museum, he is sharing the story of the African-American people with northeast Indiana,” Durril said, “and with his knowledge of culture and history, he is uniquely qualified to tell that story.”
Aden looks forward to telling the black story.
Aden hopes to reach area youth and teach black history through in-house digital classrooms, summer camps and a mobile museum, which is already in the works.
“We want to have a presence in the school districts and conduct age-appropriate tours that adhere to state standards,” Aden said.
The museum on wheels should be fully operational by the end of the year, he said.
“In navigating the 21st century, technology is huge,” Aden said. “The museum was opened 13 years ago, just when the Internet was unfolding. Lots of organizations – not just ours – did not invest in technology. We really want to incorporate that.”
By working with local colleges, he hopes to use interns to scan and digitize the contents of the museum, including over 100 pieces of art.
Right now, Aden is the museum’s sole employee, but he has been assured by the board of directors that he will soon be joined by paid staff in addition to the interns, he said.
He is optimistic about obtaining a grant to fund the first phase of a digital classroom that would serve about 25 students.
“It would not take much – about $8,000, to make that happen,” Aden said.
A good fit
John Hanson, a professor in the history department at Indiana University, knows Aden well.
Hanson directed Aden’s dissertation and served as his adviser when Aden was earning his doctorate.
“Fort Wayne would do well by having someone like John,” Hanson said.
Aden was meticulous in his research, and fluent in Bamana, a West African language spoken in Mali, Hanson said. Aden later spent a year working at the National Museum of Mali, West Africa, where he also honed his proficiency in Bamana.
“I have a lot of students who do not go to the lengths John did,” Hanson said.
Hanson, who has been teaching at Indiana University for 22 years, said Aden stood out among the other students he advised over the years.
“He always asked the bigger question,” Hanson said. “John always wanted to know the relevance of history or why something was important.”
Because of his knowledge and attention to research and details, Hanson thinks Aden is a good fit for the museum.
“He listens well, takes criticism well and collaborates well, and since a museum has many audiences, he will do well as the director,” Hanson said.
The museum was founded by Stith and Miles Edwards in 1975 when the pair realized that the Allen County Historical Museum had not preserved black history. It opened in February 2000.
“This institution has extremely good bones and I am grateful to the founders,” Aden said. “We have lots of African-American memorabilia – many pieces that people don’t realize are here.
“Hana Stith played a huge role in putting all of this together,” he said. “It will take me a long time to reach her level of mastery.”
Aden would like to record oral histories of prominent members of the black community, including Stith and Edwards.
It’s part of his plan to merge history with technology and make the museum a learning experience for all ages.
“We are moving forward,” he said.