A Georgia Man's Life Mission To Preserve Black History | Crooked Media
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June 18, 2024
What A Day
A Georgia Man's Life Mission To Preserve Black History

In This Episode

  • Speaking at a Juneteenth event at the White House this month, President Joe Biden warned about the “old ghosts in new garments” trying to erase the nation’s Black history by banning books and restricting diversity programs. But across the country, people are also working hard to preserve that history in the face of Republican opposition. So, on a special Juneteenth episode of “What A Day,” we speak to an organization doing just that: The Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville, Georgia. Jack Hadley, the museum’s founder and curator, has spent his life collecting thousands of artifacts that help tell the story of Black history in America. We speak to him and the museum’s executive director, Daniel Pittman, about how the museum is growing and what it means to do this work right now.


Show Notes:



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Josie Duffy Rice: It’s Wednesday, June 19th, I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And I’m Tre’vell Anderson and this is What a Day. On today’s show, we’re celebrating Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. On this day in 1865, the last remaining group of enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they were free. The news arrived two months after the end of the Civil War, and more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Now, Black Americans have been celebrating Juneteenth for more than a century. And in 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation making it a federal holiday. And at this year’s Juneteenth celebration at the White House, Biden talked about the many ways Black history is currently under attack. 


[clip of President Joe Biden] They’re old ghosts in new garments trying to take us back. Well there are. Taking away your freedoms, making it harder for Black people to vote or have your vote counted. Closing doors of opportunity. Attacking the values of diversity, equity and inclusion. If you can believe in banning books about Black experiences in America, trying to race and rewrite history. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And while the president didn’t explicitly call out Republicans in his speech, we know that they’re the ones leading the latest charge to rewrite American history from banning books that talk about race from schools to ending programs that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. In just the last few years, we’ve seen lawmakers across the country introduce hundreds of bills to ban or restrict how race and racism are taught in schools. And ban DEI programs at public institutions. But we also know that there are people across the country who are working hard to preserve that history in the face of this opposition. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. And so on this Juneteenth, I wanted to spend some time talking to someone doing just that. And that’s how I came across the Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville, Georgia, just a few hours southwest of you in Atlanta, Josie. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, tell me more. 


Tre’vell Anderson: So the museum was founded by historian and curator Jack Hadley in the ’90s. Mr. Hadley just turned 88, and he spent most of his life collecting thousands of artifacts that help tell the story of Black history, particularly in America. Things like newspaper clippings, vintage photos and priceless antiques. The Jack Hadley Museum just learned it’s getting a federal grant worth nearly half a million dollars, through a program that started under President George W. Bush to preserve and protect African American history and culture. And the Biden administration is trying to push the grant program to historic highs, with an expected six million in this coming fiscal year. The museum plans to use the money to create audio guides and new museum exhibits for young people. It’s also in the process of building an entirely new museum complex, next to two historically significant structures in Thomasville. I wanted to learn a bit more, so I spoke with Mr. Hadley and the museum’s executive director, Daniel Pittman, about what it means to be doing this work right now. I started by asking Mr. Hadley about how he started collecting and curating Black history artifacts, which he says began while he was stationed in Germany with the US military in the ’70s. 


Jack Hadley: In one of our tours, which was a long term tour, which was in Germany, 1979. My son was in junior high school, came home one day and said, dad, you know, the teachers don’t seem to have no interest in observing Black History Week. And uh, I could have easily told my son and said boy, get yourself outside and go play. But somehow, evidently, it sparked me to go and pull those Ebony magazines, Jet magazines, Essence magazines, the Pittsburgh Courier paper, and I cut out articles. We clipped them from that and create some poster boards and uh, we, you know, took a day or so and we, Jim took them to school and the teachers liked it. And so then a few days later, he went back to school. They had moved all the trophies out of the trophy case and placed his exhibit inside the trophy case so that all the kids can look at it. Well, that was the beginning of it. And so as a result of that, it sparked me to ask my squad and commander. I was in I was in the first combat communication squadron. You know my commander told me, he said Jack, go ahead on and get the young people together and y’all do an exhibit. And we made that announcement and it was amazing what came out of those kids’ room. Artifacts, pictures, and stuff like that. Plus, I had start picking up a few items myself. We did exhibit on the base. It was turned out real good. Even the schools brought kids to see the exhibit, so that was very exciting. 


Tre’vell Anderson: So how did you go from, you know, starting with this little small exhibit in your son’s school to eventually founding the Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville, Georgia. 


Jack Hadley: Once I started that, I started getting articles out of the Ebony magazines again, I ordered posters, large posters, prints. I would get the local paper, anything that was important, I would laminate. Didn’t know anything about curating stuff that you do to preserve it right, the right way. I would laminate my articles in the paper. Then I left Germany, got a station in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and there was a lack of interest to me in my opinion of Blacks celebrating Black History Week and [?. So I got him involved. And so we started doing a small exhibit on the base. But then I retired from the Air Force after serving 28 years and 14 days, and came back to Thomasville, Georgia, my hometown, where I was born and raised at, which is I was born on Pepper Hill plantation. Then I opened a museum up. At that time I went to about 1800 pieces collecting and it just continued to grow. People began to call from all over. What I did was it was like an international state highway coming to Thomasville. People had a place to deposit their Black history. They know that what we was trying to do in the community, and that’s where we at today. 


Tre’vell Anderson: I love that. Daniel, I want to bring you in here. What drew you to the museum and how has it changed during your time as executive director? 


Daniel Pittman: I come from a history background. I always loved history. And uh, I met my wife in school, and my wife was originally from Thomasville. I’m originally not from Thomasville. And one of the things that the museum does really well is really educating our local students. Um. For example, for February Black History Month alone, we usually see a few thousand local students. So when I say local, I mean Thomasville, Tallahassee, Albany, Georgia, Bainbridge, kind of our entire region comes to the museum all throughout the month of February and really throughout the year. Uh. And we’ve always tried to tell, you know, teachers, you don’t have to come to the museum only in February. And so I think that’s starting to kind of stick with, uh some of the teachers now because we are seeing a lot more tours outside of February. But I say all this to say, the museum’s always been a staple to our public education here in our community. And then about two and a half years ago, the museum received another IMLS grant. Part of that grant was capacity building, looking at, uh trying to futureproof the museum. And one of those was bringing on an executive director. Mr. Hadley has done this since 1979, has never taken a single dime for all the work that he’s put in. And so, Mr. Hadley, really just, you know, for the majority of his life has just really dedicated and volunteered his time as leading this organization to the point that it was before I became executive director. 


Tre’vell Anderson: It was recently announced that you all got another grant, $400,000 from the federal government, um to support preserving Black history. What is your museum planning to do with those funds? 


Daniel Pittman: Douglas, the site that we’re currently located was the site of the all-Black segregated city high school. It is built in a historic Black neighborhood called Dewey City, and it’s kind of off from any of the main roads in our community. So a map assessment program was done on the museum, and one of the recommendations was to have a secondary site somewhere near downtown Thomasville, which has a very robust tourism, um because of our closeness to Tallahassee and some of the surrounding other cities. So that was a few years before the um Imperial Hotel was purchased by the organization. The Imperial Hotel was Thomasville’s only Green Book location, one of the last standing Green Book locations in the entire region, built in 1949, stopped operating in 1969, and right next door was an original 1907, uh shotgun house. And what makes that structure so historically significant is we just finished up the Historic Structures report, uh at the end of last year on that building, and we found it was the start of the color line on Jackson Street here in our community. So all the other houses that were built heading towards downtown Thomasville were all white owned. So for a community to have an original Green Book location still standing, to have an original shotgun house that actually was the color line in our community is so incredible and just was such a a unique opportunity for the museum to be able to purchase those two structures. So like what Mr. Hadley started back in 1979 of preserving Black history, the museum was able to preserve those two historic structures by purchasing them. When we first started, kind of in the middle of the pandemic, regrouping and trying to figure out our future plans, we were still planning to have it to where it’s just a secondary site. And then when Mr. Hadley was getting his first Covid shot, one of the foundations, who was heavily supportive of the museum. Their director came up to him and said, hey, just want to let you know that we purchased the entire lot next to the Imperial Hotel for you to use to enhance the site, and then wanting to make sure that the museum is future proofed for future generations and really for our students. A new idea formed which is what was called or what is called the Jack Hadley Yards. And so what the Jack Hadley Yards consists of is a brand new museum building built right next to the Imperial Hotel and Shotgun House to really create a very special campus for the celebration and preservation of African history. Another thing that we’re doing with the new museum building is taking Mr. Hadley’s collection kind of to the next level, and that’s where that new grant that we received kind of comes into play. When we started looking at uh developing the floor plan and what the new museum will look like and how the exhibits will kind of work in the new facility. It became apparent that we really needed to bring on an exhibit design firm. The work that we started doing with them was how can we preserve that same feeling that guests come into the museum and they see that passion and they see that love that Mr. Hadley has just poured into this organization. But how can we start to incorporate some new technologies? So for future generations and the young students who come into the museum can have it a little bit more immersive? Also, how can we make sure that Mr. Hadley’s voice is carried throughout the museum? And so working with them, they’ve came up with kind of the first look at the concept and design for the new exhibits to where as guests walk through the museum, they’ll actually be able to hear Mr. Hadley talk about key pieces of the collection throughout the entire museum, including a large kind of hologram space or a more more so kind of a large projected video space of Mr. Hadley interacting with guests as they’re walking through the museum. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Let’s take a quick break. When we return, more of my conversation with Jack Hadley, the curator and founder of the Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville, Georgia, and Daniel Pittman, the museum’s executive director. But if you like our show, make sure to subscribe and share it with your friends. We’ll be back after some ads. [music break]


Tre’vell Anderson: All righty, beautiful people. Let’s get back to my conversation with Mr. Jack Hadley, the curator and founder of the Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville, Georgia, and Daniel Pittman, the museum’s executive director. You mentioned um childhood education is something that you know is central to your museum’s mission. We know that there’s been a widespread effort in the Republican Party, for example, to ban resources that accurately teach kids, you know, about our country’s history when it comes to slavery or racism. I’m wondering how that backlash has impacted the work that you all are doing with young people. 


Jack Hadley: The only reason why that I push hard to preserve this history. Blacks have always been sort of like or trying to preserve their history. That’s what I recognize when I came back here. And then I noticed that our African-American kids, Brown kids, white kids, they’re suffering for that they don’t have an opportunity to know this information. So I drive real hard, and that’s why I’m hanging in there with Daniel in the museum to make sure this story get told. And uh, there’s been a drop in some of the areas here that were really pushing kids through the museum, like in down in Tallahassee, Florida, to come up here. But overall, there’s still a hunger for them to know this history. And and when I take them through and talk about the Jim Crow era and all that, they’re asking [?] some kids that didn’t even realize what this was all about until we explain it to them. They may see a an artifact there showing a Black kid with the backside of his showing his behind, and they might grin at that. But then I turn around and said, okay, now you finished with that? Now look on this wall over here and they see a man hanging from a limb, being lynched. So then they politely hear the story that it is important that they know the past, they know the what their ancestors accomplished. And that’s the picture that we trying to paint to our young people. 


Daniel Pittman: Just to kind of piggyback on what Mr. Hadley said. All of our local schools and, all of our kind of South Georgia area schools, the numbers are still pretty strong, you know, of of bringing their students in. Um but we have heard from, you know, and we have seen uh a drop off on schools from Florida where we’re real close to the Florida Georgia line here in Thomasville. And so, um you know, there’s a school that me and Mr. Hadley, for the past several years, me and him would always do kind of a joint program at. They would bring all of their elementary kids too. And uh, we haven’t been invited. I think this is the second year that we haven’t been invited back. And uh, so that’s always really disappointing. And then there’s other teachers that we hear from who say, you know, I don’t care what’s going on uh with the state, I think it’s important that my students hear this history, and I think it’s important that we come to the museum despite the fact that, you know, they are, you know, in some of these Florida communities. So there’s definitely been a decrease in in seeing some of those uh Florida schools, especially after the pandemic, coming into the museum. But what is encouraging is the schools, like I said, in South Georgia and the teachers that we interact with on a daily basis, you know, they they want to make sure that their kids are coming through the museum, coming from, you know, kindergarten all the way up to high school, even colleges, you know, we have groups of college students who come to the museum on recommendation of their professors. And it’s so that they can get this history, make sure that they are learning and seeing this history alive on the walls. So it’s just important to make sure that this history is preserved. So students, whether you know they’re in kindergarten now or 30 years from now, you know, new kindergartners or first graders can come and see this history preserved on a location and hear all of these incredible stories that are on the walls. 


Jack Hadley: And I just want to say this. I was born and raised on a plantation. My dad worked at Pepper Hill Plantation for 53 years, raising all 14 kids there. And even though I grew up in a I started school at on the plantation in a two room school. What I like to share here is that it’s a situation where that that I know that I didn’t get all the history that I should have been taught, even though I was in a Black high school, elementary school, high school. But what is available today, back in those days. So that’s why I feel it’s important that we share this information. 


Tre’vell Anderson: That was my conversation with Jack Hadley and Daniel Pittman of the Jack Hadley Black History Museum in Thomasville, Georgia. We’ll share a link to the museum in our show notes. [music break]


Josie Duffy Rice: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review and tell your friends to listen. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And if you are into reading, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter, check it out at subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 


[spoken together] And Happy Juneteenth! [music break]


Tre’vell Anderson: What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our associate producers are Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf. We had production help today from Ethan Oberman, Michell Eloy, Greg Walters, and Julia Claire. Our showrunner is Erica Morrison and our executive producer is Adriene Hill. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.