Help shape San Diego’s African-American history

On Feb. 8, the San Diego History Center and the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art will hold their third “Keepers of the Culture,” a celebration honoring local luminaries who have dedicated themselves to enriching and expanding the local African-American cultural landscape. The public is invited to the reception at the History Center in Balboa Park, which will pay tribute to the pioneering Common Ground Theatre (formerly the Southeast Community Theatre), influential arts educator Starla Lewis, and longtime philanthropists and cultural leaders Dr. and Mrs. Robert L. Matthews.

But before the free event honoring these local history-makers, the public is invited to celebrate their own legacies. And that’s priceless.

In honor of “Keepers of the Culture” and in anticipation of an exhibit currently in the works, the San Diego History Center is hosting a scanning session, in which participants are invited to bring their own photographs, documents, letters and other memorabilia that reflect local African-American life over the decades. The items will be scanned on site and immediately returned to their owners.

After that, they could become part of a timeline of African-American history of San Diego that will run with a new exhibit on freed Kentucky slave turned San Diego homesteader Nathan Harrison, which opens in the spring. They could also become an important addition to the History Center’s collection of archival photos and documents.

“We have a lot of gaps in terms of historic documents in our center and museum, and we would like to fill those gaps,” said Wendy McKinney, chief development officer for the San Diego History Center. “We are looking for family photographs, old invitations, newspaper clippings, maybe a ticket to an event, a deed to a house, birth certificates. Pictures and documents are the only things that make time stand still. We see the things we can share in terms of our experiences, whether good or bad, and we can celebrate each other.”

The first time McKinney explored the archives, which are open to the public, she found her mother-in-law’s obituary and a newspaper clipping about her father-in-law’s church, which was lost in a fire but then restored by the community. Not every story will be as dramatic as that, but McKinney hopes that potential donors will realize that the personal can be historical, and the small moments can make a big impact on the chronicles of San Diego history.

“Celebrating community and people and our differences and commonalities is what we are all about,” McKinney said of the History Center, which has recently mounted exhibits honoring San Diego’s skate, punk and hip-hop subcultures; the rich history of the local LGBTQ+ community; and the pioneering women who shaped early San Diego. “When we look at invitations or family photographs, that personalizes the experience and makes it more real. Sharing is really part of the framework of the History Center. We are connecting people and sharing experiences and stories.”

Connecting people and sharing stories is also the job of the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art. Established in 1992 by the late Shirley Day-Williams, the museum did not have a physical space. Instead, it partnered with other organizations to present exhibits at venues that included the B Street Pier and the Lyceum Theatre. The museum became inactive in the years following Day-Williams’ death in 1996. It was revived in 2013, and under executive director Gaidi Finnie, it has presented exhibitions at venues that include the San Diego Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Veterans Museum in Balboa Park.

This is the third time Finnie and the museum have partnered with the San Diego History Center for the “Keepers of the Culture” tribute. If the San Diego History Center’s scanning event is a reminder that history is personal, the “Keepers of the Culture” celebration reminds us that history lives in people. People like Starla Lewis, Dr. & Mrs. Robert L. Matthews and the members of the Common Ground Theatre.

The movers. The shakers. The shapers of the place we all call home.

“Each of them has been a leader in the expression of black culture. They are the ones who have kept the culture alive, who have nurtured it, and in some cases, founded it,” Finnie said of the honorees, who were chosen by the museum’s board. “They have expanded the culture, and they are people to really honor for doing so. If you don’t have history, you are a tree without roots.”