Black and white, photographic magic lantern slides depicting the Tuskegee Institute at the turn of the 20th century were
discovered in the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Collection.
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – The Grand Rapids Public Museum (GRPM) announced today a rare discovery made within its Collections — 69 black and white, photographic magic lantern slides depicting the Tuskegee Institute at the turn of the 20th century. The Tuskegee Institute, now referred to as Tuskegee University, is a private, historically black university, located in Tuskegee, Alabama. It is well known for its first president, Booker T. Washington, as the home of scientist George Washington Carver and of the World War II era Tuskegee Airmen.
The GRPM made this discovery as staff were digitizing the magic lantern slide collection, a process made possible through a Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Magic lantern slides are images printed on transparent glass plates that were used extensively in education and entertainment throughout the early 20th century. With the help of Dr. Randal Maurice Jelks, a local historian who has written about Booker T. Washington’s visits to Grand Rapids, the GRPM staff was able to confirm that the slides were indeed early images of Tuskegee.
“Booker T. Washington in his efforts to build Tuskegee Institute under the harshest conditions of southern Jim Crow politics,” said Dr. Randal Maurice Jelks, historian, author and professor. “Washington traveled throughout Michigan seeking support from industrialists, as well as wealthy Protestant churches. He came to Grand Rapids at least four times and made significant inroads into the city’s businesses and religious communities. He was such an important figure in the city that there was a city-wide memorial for him when he died in 1915. Not everyone agreed with Washington’s political approach or methods in the city, but all respected that he was born under the lash of slavery and overcame barriers to build Tuskegee. Washington rose to international stature and offered hope to people on the African continent, in the English-speaking Caribbean, and among Black Americans in the United State, of what was possible entrepreneurially and in the trades to overcome racial colonialism and racism. These slides represent that at one time, Grand Rapids was once seen on the national level, viewed by people outside the city, as semi-progressive abolitionist post-civil war city.”
“We always get excited when we discover something like the Tuskegee slides in the Collection,” said Alex Forist, the GRPM’s Chief Curator. “But it is important to remember that we only have these objects today because our predecessors had the foresight to save them. This is what museums are all about, preserving the physical pieces of the past so that we can learn from and be inspired by them in new contexts today, and into the future. Magic Lantern Slides were a state-of-the-art teaching tool 100 years ago, but now they have another purpose of showing us what educators here in Grand Rapids were teaching their students over 100 years ago.”
The GRPM’s magic lantern slides were widely circulated in the Grand Rapids Public Schools district for decades as an engaging teaching tool that could transport students around the world. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the slides by researchers because of their role in the history of technology and as a visual resource for local historians. With support from IMLS, the GRPM will digitize, catalog and rehouse roughly 5,000 magic lantern slides over the next year. The slides can be viewed online at https://bit.ly/328jNDP and in addition to the Tuskegee slides, include images on national, state, and local topics such as “World War I,” “Lumbering in Michigan,” and “General Motors Grand Rapids Stamping Division.” This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services [MA-245291-OMS-20].
The Tuskegee Institute magic lantern slides, as well as over 190,000 artifacts and specimens, can be explored from anywhere, at any time on the GRPM’s digital Collections website, available at www.grpmcollections.org.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. We advance, support, and empower America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. Our vision is a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities. To learn more, visit www.imls.gov.
Grand Rapids Public Museum
The Grand Rapids Public Museum is an invaluable, publicly-owned institution that is home to more than 250,000 unique artifacts that tell the history of Kent County and beyond, houses the only planetarium in the region, and is responsible for protecting The Mounds, a national historic landmark. The Grand Rapids Public Museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, with its main location in downtown Grand Rapids, MI at 272 Pearl Street, NW. For additional information including hours of operation, admission fees and exhibit/event listings, please visit www.grpm.org.