Episode 90

90. Civil Rights Progress Isn't Linear. The Grove Museum Interprets Tallahassee's Struggle in an Unexpected Setting.


March 15th, 2021

14 mins 53 secs

Your Hosts

About this Episode

The Grove Museum inside the historic Call/Collins House is one of Tallahassee’s newest museums, and it’s changing how the city interprets its own history. Instead of focusing on the mansion house’s famous owners, including Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, Executive Director John Grandage oriented the museum around civil rights. Cleverly tracing how Collins’s thinking on race relations evolved, the museum uses the house and the land it sits on to tell the story of the forced removal of indigenous people from the area, the enslaved craftspeople who built the house, and the Tallahassee Bus Boycott.

Grandage says the museum’s interpretive plan and focus on civil rights wouldn't have been possible without the work of Black Tallahassee institutions like John G. Riley House Museum created by Althemese Barnes or the Southeastern Regional Black Archives built from FAMU Professor James Eaton’s collection.

In this episode recorded at the museum, Grandage describes how historic preservation has always been about what the dominant culture finds worth persevering, the museum’s genealogical role, and the white backlash to Collins’s moderate positions on civil rights.

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 90. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

I found an old picture of me, taken about a block away from what is now the Grove Museum in Tallahassee, FL.

The picture was taken in March 1992: I'm facing the camera as the Springtime Tallahassee parade -- Tallahassee's biggest annual celebration -- goes by behind me. Positioned in the frame is a confederate flag, proudly carried by two people parading down the middle of the street. My three-year-old self is blocking whatever group came after the flag -- maybe a club, maybe a mascot, maybe a group of Civil War reenactors?

The fact that the confederate flag in a parade happened to be in the background of this candid shot hints at the white supremacy that undergirds Tallahassee, a city that had a majority Black population during Reconstruction.

In 1907, the city refused Andrew Carnegie's offer to build a library, because the conditions of the donation stated that the library would have to serve Black patrons. In the 1970s, Apalachee Parkway was built right over the Black Smokey Hollow neighborhood -- a pattern of development which repeats to this day. And the local newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat, waited until 2006 to apologize for it's pro-segregationists coverage of the 1956 Tallahassee Bus Boycott.

And of course, that white supremacy extends to the local museums.

John Grandage: So the whole idea of historical preservation in the United States, so in our country, has been what is worth preserving. And here we are, interrogating the source material to reach back in the past and bring stories that have been dormant or deliberately excluded, silenced, now into a place where they can be told.

I think what's interesting is how museums have a role to play in that.

John Grandage: Exactly. Right.

Because, in some ways museums have been, maybe the nicest way to say it is complicit in that storyline.

John Grandage: Right. They're part of that dominant narrative.

And that's why this historic house, the Grove Museum, which opened in 2017 is so interesting in the context of how Tallahassee interprets its history. This is John Grandage, executive director of the Grove Museum.

John Grandage: My name is John Grandage, and I'm the executive director at the Grove Museum in Tallahassee, Florida. And we are at the Call-Collins house at the Grove Museum.

At first glance, the Grove Museum doesn't look like a museum that might change how Tallahassee interprets its history. It's a stately mansion house in the center of town -- less than a block from the parade route -- and it was built from 1835 to 1839 by Richard Keith Call. After that, it was owned by a series of wealthy Floridians, most recently by former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins and his wife, Mary Call Collins, who left the house to the state to preserve as a museum.

John Grandage: So I've been here since 2014 and like there wasn't really a clear interpretive plan. So coming up with the, let's tell the whole story, let's talk not just about politics, but let's dig deeper and try to look at this as sort of like a witness to all this history. And then coming up with the let's emphasize on civil rights.

The museum uses the governorship of LeRoy Collins as a narrative arc to tell that ‘whole story.’ It traces how his own thinking on race evolved from his early years as a staunch segregationist, as an opening to tell the story of civil rights in Florida. Collins was elected in 1954 -- the same year that the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregation is unconstitutional in public schools and other places of public accommodation.

John Grandage: When he ran for office, he didn't initially come out in support of that. So it's thinking about how does the country respond to civil rights? Collins feared also, to be very frank about it, the economic ramifications of Florida having kind of, you know, people being firehosed in the street or people standing in front of a doorway of a school and like shouting and calling out the troops to prevent integration. Like that to him was, would have been very damaging to the image Florida.

Collins became one of the most prominent white Southern politicians to speak in favor of racial integration and the growing Civil Rights movement. He was governor from 1955 through 1961, which means that he was in charge during the 1956 Tallahassee Bus boycott.

John Grandage: The bus boy caught here with the two students at FAMU that that really started it: Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson are their names.

John Grandage: And then the community organized behind them, then you see the local churches, people like C K Steele, leaders in the community, sort of bring some broader community organization, which of course the boycott put all this economic pressure on the city and the bus company, which ultimately led to them repealing segregated seating ordinances and at the same time, the bus boycott in Montgomery, which started earlier, but runs somewhat parallel. And that's an important part of our interpretation of Collins is that he undeniably has a very specific moral view of the world. And as the state, or as the local government in Florida started to react very extremely to Civil Rights activism like jailing the sit-in demonstrators. What we can trace is here's a person who began to question these beliefs that he had grown up with. He says, it's like a two class society. Right. And he's on the privileged side. And then seeing the response and thinking about the potential for all kinds of ramifications in society. That's really what drove him to do a lot of the things that he did. And so he began to adapt his thinking. So in that way, we can actually take Collins and position the decisions he made, you know, not as something that came solely from him. So it gives a little bit of power to the activists and it helps to position the people really who were putting it on the line. So alongside the Collins story, we're able to tell that story of the local activists, and so it's important that Collins didn't act in a vacuum.

Even more critical to the story -- in a way that de-centers Collins -- was the white backlash to his moderate stance on Civil Rights and the Tallahassee Bus Boycott. The version of the civil rights movement that I was taught in public schools in Tallahassee focused on sweeping and uplifting narratives that had widespread support and presented progress as a straight upward line. Simply put, that’s not what happened. After leaving the Governor's office, LeRoy Collins was appointed by President Johnson in 1964 to direct the Community Relations Service under the Civil Rights Act.

John Grandage: And so he was present in March, 1965 in Selma, Alabama to negotiate on behalf of the federal government. So the marchers are attacked on March 7th. Collins comes in on March 9th, they sort of negotiate this sort of settlement. They progress past Selma. They go onto Montgomery, but this photo's taken and this becomes like the number one piece of anti-Collins propaganda. So he's with John Lewis and Andrew Young and Dr. King and Coretta Scott King and Ralph [Abernathy], like the main figureheads in the Civil Rights movement.

John Grandage: He runs for Senate in 1968, loses the election. And it's really tied back to him being at Selma. He was too liberal, right? Yeah, he was, he was associated with the civil rights activists and that blow back in the South is really pronounced during that 1968 election.

Collins went from receiving 99% of the vote share in Tallahassee in 1954 when he ran for governor to 48% in his 1968 senate race. Again, the museum uses this story as the opening act -- presenting Colin's preserved office and an old-timey TV playing videos of his speeches alongside the most detailed account of the Tallahassee Bus Boycott and backlash that I've ever seen. But here's where the museum really opens up -- remember when I mentioned that this house was built by Richard Keith Call?

John Grandage: So when we take people through the tour, we sort of give them that story arc, but then we jump back and nest it all within the fact that this was a plantation that, bonds people who were claimed as the property of Richard Keith Call built the home. And like, you can reach up and still touch, the physical fabric of the home that they laid into place, the bricks or those floor joists or whatever. The number one artifact that speaks to African-American history here is the house itself. And it's the positioning of credit who built the home, right? Enslaved people built the house, right. You know, we get this telling of American history where it becomes, you know, Call built the house. Which we know is, you know, maybe not in all cases intended to erase the people: it's our manner of speaking. Right? It's kind of the way that we conceptualize this history at a broader level.

John Grandage: So even the position, the credit back to the craftspeople that built the house. was vitally important and putting this museum together. Because when we come, when we bring people in the space and say, think about Collins in that Civil Rights era, and then jump back a hundred years and what this property would have literally been witnessing on a day-to-day basis. Civil rights had been really the purview of only people like Call, you know, not even, you know, women at that time, and certainly not at the African-Americans who were considered property. And sort of denied all, you know, humanity, like we were talking about, even in the records, right there, there tally marks, there may be an age or a gender, and I could show you some ways that we've worked against that, but this speaks to that.

One of the interactive exhibits is Call's logbook about the people he enslaved -- represented by tally marks and business records. But the Grove Museum uses the interactive to focus on their humanity.

John Grandage: So like for example, this family here, starting with Tom Hackley, We've been able to trace their family up into the present. I mean, present living people who we’re in contact with, who are descended from Tom and Diana Hackley. So that's like that genealogical role that a museum can play. So like Thomas 34, these are their children and , the bank owned them as property at the time, kind of a complex thing.

John Grandage: But we've been able to take a document like this and then jump to different documents and make connections to like living people, right. Who are, who are increasingly. The tools that we have, through databases and things like that enable us to do this genealogical research. So people all around the country are finding out things they had no idea about.

The museum presents a house -- and even the land it sits on -- as a witness to all of this.

John Grandage: The very presence of this place on the landscape is directly related to the forced removal of indigenous people from this area. So we wanted to bring in that because Call got his start as a soldier fighting against the Creeks, the Seminoles. And so he's literally, you know, as we know about, um, kind of colonialism this sort of dropping onto this place of an entirely different way of land use, politics, culture, et cetera, you know, that, that swept, you know, generations of the indigenous people that have that lived here and they were in the process of being removed by the American government from this area, just as Call and his associates were coming here. So it was a very active process.

John Grandage: They had actively wage war against them, and they knew it was about expanding slavery into this area. And that these red Hills of Tallahassee were agriculturally going to be very productive. So it's, it's strange how we then tell these different stories. Cause we, we don't want to engage fully with, with, um, you know, the removal of indigenous people and we don't want to engage with with slavery as a system that was, you know, the value of the land was not as important as literally the value placed upon those bodies that were put to work and should be shaping the land. And people don't want deal with that.

What's unusual is that the Grove Museum does deal with it -- most institutions in Tallahassee simply don't. The mascot of Florida State University, where Grandage got a degree in Indigenous History is still, as of 2021, a representation of a Seminole Indian.

The Grove Museum was able to build on the work of local Black museums and archives, some of which have been featured on previous episodes of this show.

John Grandage: I would say like for a museum like this in Tallahassee, and I know you talked to Mrs. Barnes. So like if Althemese Barnes hadn't created the Riley House and hadn't created the Florida African-American heritage Preservation Network. And if Professor Eaton, hadn't created the Black Archives. And if we didn't have FAMU, that's all the framework that it's interesting. Cause we think about the, his, his historical museum landscape. And it's largely defined by these institutions that don't represent the African-American community.

John Grandage: Let's say, right. And that's, as we talked about is sort of a legacy of historic preservation of museum and cultural studies in the U.S.

The Grove Museum’s central location in the city -- right across the street from the current governor’s mansion and its deliberate decision to focus on civil rights instead of the white owner protagonists, is helping change how Tallahassee interprets its history.