Racing to Preserve Culture

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Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon

As a young girl in Petersburg, Virginia, Dr. Deborah Johnson-Simon didn’t have much exposure to museums or other cultural institutions. “I grew up in a Confederate state during segregation,” the Savannah State University adjunct professor says with a shrug. “I wasn’t even allowed to go to the library.”

Such injustice did not tamp her interests, however. When she was 13, after a move to Maryland, she would “hook school” and sneak into the Baltimore Museum of Art, where she wasn’t barred but wasn’t exactly made to feel welcome, either.

As an adult, her love of museums led her to volunteer wherever she could, eventually landing a position as a docent and servant reenactor at Baltimore’s 1840 House. All along, she quietly noticed the lack of African American art exhibits and cultural installations, a dearth of “deep, abiding stories that study ourselves.”

A display at the Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center

Even if scholarship centered on Black culture, it tended to overgeneralize and eclipse nuances. “Within every culture there is diversity, and who is more diverse than Black people who have been part of the diaspora?” she wondered.

In the early 1980s, newly divorced with two children almost raised, Johnson-Simon enrolled in college, going on to earn a master’s degree from Arizona State University and then a Ph.D. from the University of Florida in cultural anthropology with a focus on museum studies. Her research focused on the Association of African American Museums Association’s 1983 Blacks in Museums Directory, a little-known catalog containing names and addresses — and not much else.

Entrance to the Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum

“Museums are the keepers of the culture. My course study showed me that the Black ones were left off the academic landscape,” she explains. “My aim was to put a face and a story on every institution and individual in that directory. I want Black museums to be part of the academic world.”

In 2008, the cultural anthropologist served on a team that restored the Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum in Baltimore, the first museum in Maryland to honor an African American woman, now part of Morgan State University.

In 2011, Johnson-Simon’s academic career brought her to Savannah, where she enrolled to earn a second master’s from Savannah State and stayed on to teach. Here, she also investigated Kiah House, the only Savannah museum in the Blacks in Museums Directory, established by local educators and civic leaders Calvin and Virginia Kiah in 1959.

A portrait of Virginia Kiah

Known as the “Museum for the Masses,” Kiah House brought art and culture to the Cuyler-Brownville neighborhood from the 1960s until Virginia Kiah’s death in 2001. Inspired by the restoration of the Lillie Carroll Jackson museum, Johnson-Simon assumed similar efforts were underway in Savannah. But instead of a publicly supported restoration project, she found a crumbling, two-story house with peeling paint and boarded-up windows.

Johnson-Simon set to work to preserve the Kiah House legacy by collecting stories and interviewing neighbors and church members, and, recently, she completed a successful crowdfunding campaign to put a historical marker at the site.

“It stands as a model of what happens when we don’t do the work,” she says ruefully. “The house itself might never get restored. But at the very least, it needs to be documented that at this place, there was a museum where Black people learned about their heritage.”

A display at the Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center

Now 70, Johnson-Simon continues her work through her own African Diaspora Museology Institute, hosting genealogy and writing workshops at The Beach Institute African-American Cultural Center.

She encourages people to tell their stories, adding to the cultural fabric that will one day be studied by others. “It’s a race to get things down,” observes the indefatigable researcher. But, for Johnson-Simon, “It’s still about preservation.”