When Charles L. Blockson was 10 years old learning about George Washington and other American presidents, he became curious.
“Do Negroes have any history?” he asked in his newly integrated class.
“No Charles, Negroes don’t have any history,” his teacher said. “They are here to serve white people.”
This moment led Blockson to begin his collection of Afro-American historic items. At age 10, he began collecting, and his collection still flourishes today on Main Campus in Sullivan Hall.
The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection is currently showing the exhibit “African-American Education in Philadelphia and Beyond: Past and Present,” featuring rare books, photographs and other materials from throughout history. The exhibit debuted Oct. 8 and will run until April.
With the help of other Blockson employees, the exhibit’s curator Diane Turner pulled about 200 pieces out of the 500,000-piece collection to be displayed.
“I thought African-American education was timely with everything right now, when we’re talking about public education especially,” Turner said. “And the debates over money and so forth. … I think it’s pretty shameful that we can’t find the funds needed because our youth are our future. If you love young people, you need to find the money to educate them.”
The exhibit highlights photos with a focus on education by John W. Mosley, a Philadelphia-area photographer from the 1950s and ‘60s. Other features include pieces about Dr. Ruth Wright Hayre, the first African-American teacher in Philadelphia, and materials from the first two African-American universities in Pennsylvania: Lincoln University, and what now is Cheyney University. There is also a large display of African-American children’s books.
This exhibit is open not only to Temple students and faculty, but also to the surrounding community. Students from Julia R. Masterman School have frequently been in the exhibit, working on research for National History Day, Turner said.
Mechanical engineering junior Stefan Verdhi works within the Blockson Collection as a student archivist.
“Being from Philadelphia, there should be a place where African-Americans can see their culture—and a part of Philadelphia is African-American culture,” Verdhi said.
Verdhi added the collection should have a larger space for exhibits.
Blockson said he firmly believes in education, and said it’s part of the reason why his exhibit is being showed.
“It’s for all children, for all races and colors,” Blockson said. “You can’t put a label on education, it’s something for all of us. We’re all on this Earth for a short time. We all must leave with a legacy—and part of the legacy should be education.”
Blockson also hopes his collection helps to eliminate racism, which is “another form of enslavement,” he said.
“If you have a prejudiced mind, you’re still a slave, you’re not free,” he said. “Education can help eliminate that.”
Despite being in the same building as the President’s Office, President Theobald has yet to go into the collection. He is expected to visit with his wife in the near future, Turner said.
Turner has noticed the reactions of students and said many were excited about the exhibit.
“When you look at the images of the young people and the teachers you know like you can see that they feel safe,” Turner said. “A lot of these [Mosley photographs] are early on like ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. They have a willingness or excitement about learning.”
“One of the things we promote here is the fact that African-American history is American history,” Turner added. “Sometimes it’s lost, stolen, or strayed—but African-American history is American history and you can’t talk about American history if you attempt to exclude the African-American experience and contribution.”
Gillian McGoldrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gill_mcgoldrick.