EAST PROVIDENCE — As part of Black History Month, city resident Onna Moniz-John will roll out her historical African American display and mobile museum, an innovative traveling exhibit of African American memorabilia and artifacts that will highlight the city’s Black History Month celebration Wednesday at City Hall.
The display is a collection of over 100 museum-quality pieces of African American memorabilia, figurines, historical documents, photographs and other artifacts that date from slavery to the Civil Rights era to hip hop and popular culture. The collection will be on display at City Hall, 146 Taunton Avenue. The city’s free Black History Month celebration in the City Council chambers will run from 6 to 7 p.m. and include performances by Joe Wilson Jr. of Trinity Repertory; dancing performances by Valiant Arts Studio; and guest speaker, Jerry Spinola, an African American historian.
Moniz-John’s African American memorabilia and artifacts is an educational outreach program that brings black history and culture to the people. She’s been collecting her memorabilia and artifacts since she was a child, and for 30 years, had to lug her collection around to schools, town halls and universities.
“I was doing displays and set ups all over the state,” she says. “People need to see them and hear the stories because they are an important part of our history and the stories need to be told.”
But with more than a 150 pieces, Moniz-John needed to find a better way to transport her historical artifacts.
That’s when she came up with the idea for a museum on wheels to drive to schools, libraries and other events. Moniz-John and her husband, Alvin John, found a 1986 RV, removed the stove, refrigerator and table, and filled it with her collection of treasures.
The RV museum includes a timeline of black history across the wall above the front seats. Inside you’ll find black music memorabilia, and a display featuring African-American athletes, among other things. The outside of the vehicle includes paintings of famous African Americans, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas.
“It’s a work in progress and we’re doing it piece by piece,” says Moniz-John, adding
Moniz-John says her mission is to raise the consciousness of the human family by sharing not only artifacts that celebrate the contributions, achievements, and experiences of African Americans, but of all races throughout history.
“I want people to be inspired,” she said.
Part of her collection will be on display at the city’s Black History Month celebration Wednesday and at the URI Arts and Culture Program’s “We Shall Overcome!” an exhibit featuring both commissioned art and historical artifacts selected from Moniz-John’s collection of Black Americana. The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 27, is free and open to the public, and can be found on the first and second floors of the URI Feinstein Providence Campus on 80 Washington St.
“Each year I try to find something different to focus on,” says Steven Pennell, coordinator of the Arts and Culture Program. “This year’s exhibit looks at the development of racism in the United States and how it was constructed. At the same time I wanted to make a conscious choice to highlight the people who have fought against prejudice and to celebrate those individuals.”
Moniz-John is committed to bringing her collection to different communities. In addition to curating the current URI exhibit (her second), and showcasing pieces in other local museums, she has built a mobile museum of black history that has toured the country. The material currently on display represents only a small fraction of her extensive collection.
“We Shall Overcome!” is alternately disturbing and uplifting. Moniz-John’s collection is arranged chronologically, spanning more than 400 years of black history. It toggles between artifacts that show the ways in which racist narratives have been constructed, and art that challenges or deconstructs those narratives, some of it commissioned by Moniz-John herself.
The exhibit often displays the present in dialogue with the past — both by juxtaposing artifacts with modern commentary and by reclaiming history that has been undervalued in mainstream narratives. Some of that history is local, eg, a contemporary portrait of a black regiment fighting in the 1778 Battle of Rhode Island.
“We want to educate the public as to how racism was constructed in America, celebrate the change that has occurred, and look at the change that still needs to occur,” says Pennell.
Follow Joseph Fitzgerald on Twitter @jofitz7