The Brazos Valley African American Museum is in the town of Bryan, TX, a town of about 75,000 right next door to Texas A&M University. It’s everything you’d expect from a tiny, community-built museum: a couple small rooms, a haphazard collection of objects, labels typed on printer paper and laminated or stuck to the wall.
But this museum, more than many others I’ve visited, had a very powerful and apparent reason for being. Its founders, Willie and Mell Pruitt, came to the area in the 1950s and were concerned that no one seemed to be documenting the history of the local African American community. They were educators and were heavily involved in the schools, first the segregated black schools, and then later, in the 1960s onward, with the integrated school. The curator of the museum, Wayne, is the son of the former principal of the black school, and about a third of the exhibits showcase people and objects from that school. The museum itself is in a building that used to house one of the segregated black schools.
Walking around, I felt a strong sense of the urgency and importance that the founders of the museum put on its existence. There were several exhibits that just told the stories of the founders and other local folks, and other displays that simply presented biographies of famous African Americans who were born in or had some connection to that part of Texas. Every display, from the ladies’ church hats to a prize-winning quilt to former Miss Teen Texas photos to artwork brought back from Africa, seemed to be filled with the stories and the lives of the people who had created, contributed, or were featured in them.
My favorite part was a wall of photos and transcribed oral histories from local elderly community members. It didn’t look promising (I wish I’d taken a wide view shot) –a bunch of framed pictures with full pages of text fixed to the wall next to them. It wasn’t even 100% clear which stories went with each photo. But the stories were totally captivating. I eagerly read hundreds of words and then moved onto the next one. I’ve included a couple of pictures I took of ones I particularly enjoyed. The stories conveyed the unique voice and spirit of these people in a way that helped me feel connected to them—even though we come from entirely different worlds. I learned about Juneteenth, the annual celebration commemorating June 19, 1865, when news of Emancipation finally reached Galveston Texas. I read stories from women who wore hat and gloves every day of their lives and women who trusted “Dr. Jesus” to help them deliver fourteen children. I read about penny candy and the circus coming into town on wagons that got stuck in the mud. It was one of those rare times where you read something in a museum and it helps you really understand something outside your own experience.
I don’t think I’m over-romanticizing my experiences in Brazos Valley, but I’m not entirely certain why I took such pleasure in this small museum. I’ve been in other small historical societies with a comparable level of amateurism without feeling comparably affected by the experience. I think what I loved about the Brazos Valley African American Museum was the fact that it told a story that might not otherwise be shared. I felt lucky it existed. People—a lot of people—had to put in a great deal of time and effort and care just to make those stories available. As a non-Texan, non-Christian, non-African American, I learned a lot from people who I perceived as generously and genuinely sharing their life experiences. I never questioned why the museum existed or who it was for. It was for the people who had built it. It was for their unique, small community. And it was for me, too.
Have you ever had an experience like this?