Ask Nichelle Gainer why she decided to create Vintage Black Glamour, and her answer is simple: She saw a need.
As a writer, Gainer learned to research, which often led to beautiful historic photographs of African-American artists, actors and political figures, all hidden away in the corners and file cabinets of libraries and academic institutions. Why haven’t more people seen these? she wondered. Out of that question, Vintage Black Glamour was born.
“African-Americans who have an interest in American history that includes black people almost have to become amateur detectives and part-time scholars to track down information and that is ridiculous,” she said from her home in New York City.
Gainer, 44, created Vintage Black Glamour on Tumblr in 2011. She put up photos of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a 1967 vacation in Jamaica, where he wrote his final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” She unearthed a rare full-color portrait of Zora Neale Hurston from 1940. She reminded readers that Renauld White graced the cover of GQ in 1979, the first African-American man to accomplish that feat.
For Gainer, who attended the creative writing program at New York University, the project is pure “edutainment.” The history buff likes to add context wherever it is available, providing a mini history lesson to match the photos. She has been working with a new imprint, Rocket 88, to bring out a text version this spring.
Gainer said Vintage Black Glamour has a deeper meaning than simple nostalgia over beautiful dresses and sharp suits.
“How we looked and how we put ourselves together…a lot of it was self-preservation and representing an image of how black men and women were,” Gainer explained in a recent interview. “Most vintage photos of African-Americans that get wide exposure tend to be very sober, and even sad.”
These days, Vintage Black Glamour has more than 215,000 fans on Facebook, a popularity that doesn’t surprise its creator.
“People write comments on my social media channels all the time saying things like, ‘I’ve never seen this photo before!’ or ‘I’ve never even heard of this person!'” Gainer said. “And then they go on to talk about what has been left out of the classroom and history books over the years and how that shapes perceptions of African-Americans. But black history is American history — it’s one of my mantras!”
Affordable classes on African-American topics for anyone who wants to take them — that’s the gist of Professor Zachery Williams’ vision.
Beginning in February, residents in Northeast Ohio will have the opportunity to take classes in spaces around the region as part of his CommUniversity, a grassroots effort to provide low-cost African-American history courses to the general public. Community organizations like the National Institute for Restorative Justice have signed on to lend their meeting spaces for classrooms, and professors from local colleges, as well as community members, have been invited to teach.
For Williams, an tenured professor of African-American history at the University of Akron, this is a project years in the making. Williams, 39, grew up in South Carolina, and ventured north for his doctorate at Bowling Green State University, where he studied W.E.B. DuBois’ origins as a black intellectual. His research culminated in his first book, In Search of the Talented Tenth: Howard University Public Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Race, 1926-1970. While at Bowling Green, Williams and his colleagues formed the Africana Cultures and Policy Studies Institute, a think tank that applied African-American studies to long-standing social problems. It was, in essence, the incubator of CommUniversity.
“Too many people for far too long have been left to the margins,” Williams explains. “There’s this view that it’s us versus them. That’s the value of adult education. It’s proof that every day people can create something magnificent. ”
The model of a “community university” has existed in some forms for decades, Williams concedes, but he breaks new ground in two ways: His project is independently funded and he is focusing the courses. He’s particularly interested in the intersection of race and public policy and getting out of the “ivory tower” to find promising solutions.
“We’ve been grappling with income inequality, mass incarceration, and public housing for quite some time, so where these are viable solutions?” he said. “There’s a consensus that everyday people don’t know what’s best for them, but experiences matter in solving issues.”
Williams believes the answer to some of these pressing issues may germinate in a future CommUniversity classroom.
His current fund-raising continues until the end of January. More information at ScholarGifts.com.
Where can one find Nat Turner’s Bible, Emmet Till’s coffin and Harriet Tubman’s shawl? Answer: the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in late 2015.
Additionally, one of the nation’s oldest remaining slave cabins will be joining these artifacts in Washington, D.C., according to the New York Times.
The 320-square-foot cabin is being dismantled piece by piece, to be rebuilt inside the museum. It is one of two slave cabins in Edisto Island, S.C. They have stood on the Point of Pines plantation since the 1850s. Neither cabin has ever had electricity or heat, but continued to shelter inhabitants more than a century after slavery ended. The last known occupants moved out some 30 years ago.
Curator Nancy Bercaw said the museum was drawn to this particular plantation because slaves first emancipated themselves there after Union troops set up a stronghold in the Carolinas. The cabin will join the museum’s “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit that covers the post-Civil War era.
The museum will be the first new Smithsonian museum since the National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004. To get a preview, you can download “View NMAAHC” and “Changing America: To Be Free,” both free apps for the iPhone and Android.