Meet the Living Historians Bringing Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow to Life
Planning a trip to New-York Historical this fall or winter? Join us on Saturdays and Sundays to experience the past at one of our Living History programs. When you do, you’ll notice a few new faces helping us bring to life stories from our exhibition Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow.
A Living History program is an opportunity for you and your family to learn about life in the past from someone who is portraying a historical figure. That someone is called a Living Historian and the figures they portray are referred to as their ‘impressions.’ A Living Historian’s impression is different from the kind a performer who imitates someone’s voice or mannerisms as a joke. When Living Historians do impressions, they are teaching the public about what a person’s life was like by wearing their kinds of clothes, using objects from their lives, and doing things the person they are portraying would have done. Living Historians choose the elements of their impressions to give others the most meaningful look into the past, so people can get a taste of what the past was really like for a particular person. We like to think of it as the closest thing to time travel that we have—though of course, no one can ever capture the absolute truth of what someone’s life was like long ago.
Sometimes, Living Historians portray specific individuals. For instance, this fall at the Museum, you can meet someone representing Harriet Tubman who speaks as if she is actually the real Tubman! Other times, Living Historians might portray a non-specific person who was part of a historically important group of people but doesn’t actually speak as though they are someone from the past. For example, you can learn a military drill from someone representing a Civil War soldier in historical clothing who speaks as themselves in the present day.
After our Living Historians share stories about who they are portraying, some of the most common questions they get (especially from grown-ups!) are, “Who are you really? What made you want to pretend to be someone from the past?” So we’re going behind-the-scenes to ask some of our new Living Historians this same question: Why are they excited to become Living Historians? And what draws them to one of their impressions?
“The Jim Crow era is the link between post-slavery attempts at framing an equitable America, like Reconstruction, and the later civil rights movement, which was the biggest push yet towards enfranchising disenfranchised and marginalized Americans. It’s the bug in the sauce that explains the foul taste, so to speak. Shining a light on Jim Crow leads right into discussing current events.
I’m excited to portray T. Thomas Fortune, a nationally recognized civil rights leader and writer who edited and owned the most influential black newspaper of its time, the New York Age. Fortune was as valued and peculiar as he was revolutionary. He crossed paths with activists, scholars, visionaries, and artists in the African American community. He wrote about radical political change but he also wrote poetry. He also experienced an emotional crisis and came through it. I guess I most look forward to portraying him because he was just “dope”—a journalist, editor, poet, ex-slave. Isn’t that something of the American dream?”
“I’ve always loved learning about history. As a little girl, I was especially interested in African American heroines like Harriet Tubman. I used to imagine what it would be like to live in their time, how it must’ve felt to overcome the obstacles they did. Thanks to the Living History programs, I get to do that very thing—and I get to take visitors on the journey with me!
Of all the female heroes of the Jim Crow era, I think I identify with Ida B. Wells the most, so I’m really excited to portray her in the Museum. Ida B. Wells was an African American journalist who used words to fight against the lynching of black people in the 1890s. As a writer myself, I admire Ida’s bravery and political activism.”
“I am excited to be a Living Historian for the exhibition Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow because I believe it is a unique way to teach people about the history of America. I am most looking forward to sharing how important Hiram Revels was to this country. It will be an honor to portray the first African American senator to Congress, elected in Mississippi in 1869. I’m also looking forward to portraying a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment in the First World War, or the ‘Harlem Hellfighters,’ because their story shows both the struggle and success of African Americans during the Jim Crow era. The all-black 369th was assigned to non-combat duty by the U.S. until they were placed under the command of a French division, where they went on to establish an outstanding record of duty on the frontlines.”
Brian Anthony Simmons
“I have balanced a love for the performing arts and a love for history my entire life. Becoming a Living Historian is the ideal position for someone passionate about those things. Portraying Hiram Revels will be a complete pleasure. When we think about history, I feel that we focus on certain key figures, which can cause us to forget the other people that were just as important. Portraying someone like Hiram Revels is an opportunity to share their voice and experiences—to shed light on a story that maybe some people have never heard.
History is one of the most interesting subjects in the world. The lessons from the past are always applicable to our present day. They also foreshadow the future and allow us to predict where we will end up. It’s important to always share that history, the good and the bad. It makes us better and keeps us from repeating past mistakes.”
After the Civil War, African Americans attended designated “colored schools” in New York until later in the century, and some northerners traveled south to teach in new schools for recently freed people So, in addition to the exceptional impressions mentioned above, our upcoming programs related to Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow will bring to life African American schoolteachers during the Reconstruction era—like Sarah Garnet, who became the first black woman principal in New York City in 1863 and actually presided over two schools at the same time until she retired in 1900. Living Historians will also portray Sarah Breedlove, also known as Madam CJ Walker, who became famous by establishing a mail-order system of cosmetic products that popularized ways of caring for black hair.
Be sure to stay tuned for more stories about these and other lives represented in Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow on History Detectives. See you soon at Living History program at the Museum!
Written by J.M. Wasko
Coordinator of Living History Programs, DiMenna Children’s History Museum