A griot, in some African countries, is a highly respected member of the community who collects, preserves and shares the stories, objects and cultural traditions of the community. What an appropriate name, therefore, for The Griot Museum of Black History, because that is just what the museum does: collect, preserve and share the stories, culture and history of African-Americans.
The St. Louis museum opened in 1997 as the Black World History Wax Museum, one of only two museums in the country to use life-size wax figures to interpret the contributions of African-Americans with local or regional connections. (The other is in Baltimore.)
The lifelike wax characters are still there, but in 2009, the organization changed the name to The Griot (pronounced Gree-Oh) because it better captured the mission and purpose of the museum.
That mission is: "Through compelling core exhibits, dynamic touring shows, educational and entertaining public programs, we create a community of lifelong learners who explore, experience and embrace the region's rich and enduring African-American heritage."
Visitors to The Griot can't help but be moved by many of the exhibits, with reactions ranging from happy to sad, angry to proud.
The first exhibit upon entering will grab you in a visceral way. The full-scale recreation of a section of a slave transport ship is a vivid and emotional demonstration of what generations of Africans endured en route to this country where they would be sold as slaves.
A powerful video about "The Middle Passage," as the slave transport was called, provides a graphic description of the experience aboard a slave ship.
From there, the emotions continue to build as you see a list of the names and addresses of 30 St. Louis area slave traders in 1841, a life-size model of a young woman on the auction block, examples of the chains and shackles some slaves wore, and many more artifacts from that period in our country.
An actual slave cabin is being restored within the museum. It was one of 16 slave cabins on the Wright Smith Tobacco Plantation near what is now Jonesburg, in Montgomery County. The cabin is made with V-notched construction of oak and chestnut logs.
From Agriculture to Jazz — And More
After that gripping introduction, the museum showcases an interesting assortment of men and women who made a mark on African-American history in a wide variety of ways.
An interesting display delves into the experiences of York, the only Black member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Corps of Discovery. He was the slave of William Clark, and the exhibit explains York's life after the expedition and the refusal by Clark to grant York his freedom as promised.
George Washington Carver, the famed agricultural researcher, receives a salute, as do such entertainment legends as Miles Davis, Josephine Baker and Clark Terry. Local movers and shakers such as Sen. J.B. Banks, "the MVP of state politics," Chief Sherman George of the St. Louis Fire Department, and Macler Shepard, community volunteer, are recognized.
The infamous Dred Scott decision made at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis is addressed via wax characters of Dred and Harriet Scott, and their attorney. An exhibit about Affirmative Action honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is much more to see and learn. To have time to soak up the information, you need to allow about two hours for your visit. Children will enjoy the scavenger hunt; just ask for the list of questions at the front desk. Actually, we noticed several adults filling out the scavenger hunt form, too.
Lois D. Conley is the founder and executive director of the museum. Her vision and dedication keep The Griot current and relevant.
In addition to the permanent displays, the museum offers temporary exhibits, education projects, gallery talks and cultural celebrations. All of these help The Griot live up to its tagline: "Where Our Story Lives!"
When you go:
The Griot Museum of Black History, 2505 St. Louis Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63106; 314-241-7057. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $3.75 for children ages 5 to 12. The Motherland Museum Shop features Afro-centric gift items. For more information, visit the website at www.thegriotmuseum.com or Facebook at The Griot Museum of Black History.
Before or after your museum visit, treat yourself to a St. Louis tradition with a stop at Crown Candy Kitchen for some ice cream, chocolate, or a meal. From The Griot, head east on St. Louis Avenue to North 14th Street. Crown Candy Kitchen, established in 1913, is at the northwest corner of the intersection; 314-621-9650; www.crowncandykitchen.net.
(A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Show-Me Missouri magazine.)