On Tuesday afternoon, curators at the Nebraska History Museum displayed pieces of its permanent collection for invited guests.
Donated treasures from the lives of Lincoln’s black citizens spread out across three tables.
A cape from furrier Horace Colley.
Paintings by artist Anna Burkhardt.
A sewing box belonging to Ruth Cox Adams, sister of the heart to Frederick Douglass.
A satin sash from Ruth Talbert Greene Folley, marking her membership in the Goldenrods — the women’s branch of the black Elks fraternal order.
“Wonderful,” says Jeannette Jones-Vazansky, president of the Lincoln Branch of the NAACP. “These are wonderful artifacts.”
She explains the significance of black benevolent organizations from their earliest days, adding her insight to the curators’ presentation.
For the past four weeks, Jones-Vazansky, an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at UNL, had shared her knowledge with the group of lifelong learners who accompanied her on the field trip.
They’d met for lectures and toured the Malone Center, the longtime hub for Lincoln’s African-American community.
Later on this Tuesday, they would walk down Centennial Mall to view census records and photographs at History Nebraska.
On Oct. 6, the class will culminate with an invitation to the annual NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet.
The Rev. Jessie Myles will give the invocation. Karen Bell-Dancy will be the evening’s master of ceremonies.
Ernie Chambers will deliver the keynote.
Past presidents will be recognized, the Black National Anthem will be sung and all of Lincoln is invited to help celebrate the 1918 founding of the Lincoln branch and the 100 years that followed.
And the years yet to come.
* * *
Dewayne Mays was at church and a fellow worshiper kept telling him he needed to join the NAACP.
Lenora Letcher was his friend, Mays said Friday. A civil rights leader, fraternity cook and one-time president of the Lincoln Branch NAACP who thought Mays and his wife, Jareldine, would be assets to the organization.
“She always wanted me to be a part of it and I thought I was pretty busy,” Mays says, nearly 20 years later. “I didn’t think much of it. Then she paid my dues and that somewhat embarrassed me.”
So he and Jareldine paid her back, both monetarily and with their time.
Most recently, Mays spent that time compiling a history of the chapter for its centennial. He supplemented the “bits and pieces” of historical record the branch had with newspaper articles, emails from the National Archives in D.C. and the oral history of longtime members, including 98-year-old Ruth Patrick Thomas, who recounted segregated swimming pools, white-only dorms and the fight for civil rights in the capital city.
“It was such a joy to talk to her about what was going on in Lincoln back in those days,” Mays said. “And to appreciate those people who took the lead and how much they gave up to do that.”
He wrote about the branch’s founders — Clyde Malone, Harry M. Hill, Trago T. McWilliams and Rev. I.B Smith.
He compiled a list of the leaders who followed, including Leola Bullock, Lt. Col. Paul Adams, William Woods, Leroy Stokes Jr., Rick Wallace, Albert Maxey Jr., Jareldine Mays, John Ways, Thomas Christie, Bennie Shobe and Jones-Vazansky.
He recounted issues that occupied the group during its long history: equal opportunity in employment and education, equal pay, equal justice.
He noted the dip in membership after the Depression that caused the branch’s charter to be temporarily withdrawn and the leaders who stepped up in 1942 to bring it back, including white politicians and business leaders.
He wrote how the branch gave back: “A note in the historical records … showed a contribution to the Dr. Martin Luther King’s Montgomery Improvement Association in 1956.”
And he included commentary: “One of the things that studying the Lincoln Branch’s history has taught me is that Civil Rights and Social Justice work is never done. Issues of the early 1900’s are still being fought today.”
Friday, Mays recites a list: The small numbers of teachers of color, diminished earning power, high incarceration rates, voter suppression.
“It just points out how much more work needs to be done,” he said. “And there are a lot of people who could benefit from the work we are doing.”
* * *
This is what the NAACP stands for:
* Ensuring the political, educational, social and economic equality of all citizens.
* Achieving equality of rights and eliminating race prejudice.
* Removing all barriers of racial discrimination through democratic process.
* Seeking enactment and enforcement of federal, state and local laws securing civil rights.
* Informing the public of the adverse effects of racial discrimination and to seek its elimination.
* Educating persons as to their constitutional rights and to take all lawful action to secure the exercise thereof.
The mission has expanded since the NAACP’s inception, Jones-Vazansky says.
“The advancement of colored people at that time meant African-American people and people of African descent,” she said. “Nationally, they have broadened that umbrella to also engage in activism that affects all kinds of minorities in the United States.”
Women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant and refugee rights, the rights of Muslims and other religious minorities.
“It’s not a one-issue organization.”
In Lincoln, they partner with other like-minded organizations in the fight, and they continue to strive to attract a new generation of members who see the value in what the NAACP stands for.
As the branch leader, and the co-faculty adviser for the UNL chapter of the NAACP, she sees the need for the young to share their voices and time as it moves forward.
“That's what my plea is. I want those people at the table.”
Sometimes it’s a struggle.
A worthwhile struggle.
“I think the main thing is, it’s no small feat to have an organization that has lasted 100 years in a community,” she said. “That’s not something we should take lightly.”
* * *
Last Tuesday, the treasures from the past were examined one by one. The fur stole with its beautiful silk lining, made by the only black furrier in town with a business that thrived for decades.
A national art award on yellowing paper honoring a black woman who filled her Lincoln home with paintings.
The treasures from a sewing box — trinkets and locks of hair from a famed abolitionist and his children.
The lifelong learning class leans in, listening and wanting to know more.
“You see the kinds of things people donated to the collection there and you get a sense of the rich history of African-Americans in Lincoln,” Jones-Vazansky said a few days later.
“Most people don’t know that history, right?”