200 Years and Counting 

The Idaho Black History Museum almost sounds like an oxymoron. Stereotypes would have us believe that Idaho's past (not to mention its present and future) is as much about diversity as it is deep-sea fishing, though the annals of multi-racial history in this state stretch back to its very founding. Evidence is scattered, but photo, written and verbal records kept by the descendants of African-American settlers allowed the January launch of part one (1805-1919) of a three-part, permanent collection exhibit called The Invisible Idahoan: 200 Years of Blacks in Idaho.

Clutching an invitation to the opening of the second installment (1919-1968), I scanned Julia Davis Drive for another structure on the scale of BAM and the Historical Museum. Then I saw it-a modest white church with red carpet spilling from its carved, heavy doors. Built by black parishioners nearly 80 years ago, the former St. Paul Baptist Church was donated in 1993 to a preservation committee, moved to "museum row" and restored so it would be fit to house the domestic ancestry of local blacks.

Walking in, I was immediately struck by the intimacy of the space and the warmth of the people gathered there. The crowd was split in regard to skin color, but everyone was smiling and talking in hushed tones while admiring what exhibit committee co-chair Christian Lybrook called "a labor of love that has taken 10 years of blood, sweat and tears, hand-wringing and hair-pulling."

Lybrook is a well-spoken, well-dressed publishing coordinator for Idaho Power who donates much of his free time to researching and preserving Idaho's black history-and he's white. Many of the museum's board and committee members are white, a fact that reflects Idaho's current racial demographics. African-Americans make up less than 1 percent of the total population, yet their culture has played a significant role in shaping the landscape and culture. The Invisible Idahoan communicates that.

"We don't expect visitors to walk out of here different people; we are too limited with time and resources, and there's no way we can fit all the affecting information in such little space-no one would read it," Lybrook said. "Our goal is to initiate change, whet people's appetites, pique their curiosity, steer them in a direction. We can open the doorway to new ideas, thoughts and experiences, and they can see where it leads."

The figurative doorway leads quite literally to a series of beautifully designed panels, a bound collection of newspaper articles, enclosed artifact displays and resonant quotes sewn to hanging tapestries. Emptied of its pews, the building retains an air of sanctity, a quiet importance that echoes in the stories of people like Jenny Hughes, the first African-American graduate of the University of Idaho, and Andy Horton, a waiter at the Owyhee Hotel who was also a veteran and elected official of the Republican Party.

Tracking down such details continues to prove a struggle, as much of the information about black families in Idaho is still with those families-in their attics or stored in their memories. Janet French, chair of the permanent exhibit committee and a historian by trade, oversees the extraction process and credits the bulk of acquired research to Dr. Mamie Oliver, the first African-American professor at Boise State University, a current professor of social work at Northwest Nazarene University and author of Idaho Ebony, an historical chronicle of Idaho's black history from the late 19th century to the present.

"She contributed a lot of time, knowledge, energy and artifacts. We couldn't have done it without her," French said.

Even with Oliver's help, French and her dedicated committee were hard-pressed to balance Lybrook's graceful text with images that were not only poignant and appropriate, but also well preserved. Enter Jane Rohling, an exhibit and brochure designer for the Forest Service who volunteered her expertise after visiting the Idaho Black History Museum several times and not seeing what she hoped to see.

"It was all about famous black people everywhere but Idaho," Rohling said. "The director at the time told me they were just getting started on the permanent exhibits, so I told her that I'd be willing to meet with their exhibit committee to give them some pointers. I really told myself I was just going to offer a little feedback now and then, not get too involved." But much like Lybrook, Rohling fell into the project headfirst and has never looked back. "My personal interest and rewards come from meeting new people, learning new things and feeling like I've been able to participate in a really meaningful effort to retain part of the state's history that has been largely overlooked," she said. "While the black people of Idaho share a unique place in the state's history and have a unique culture, they aren't so different than all of the other people who have chosen and continue to choose Idaho as their home."

With Rohling's help, the exhibit committee focused its ideas and got real about the scope of the work and the time and funds required to make it happen. The finished product is a testament to their dedication, a striking collection of pictures and stories about cowboys, prizefighters, authors, musicians, soldiers, politicians, doctors, lawyers, and students-all of them black, all of them Idahoan. The third installment will fill the exhibition space, but the exhibit committee insists there is still much digging to do.

"When I first became involved, the board said my commitment would be about 40 hours a year," Lybrook laughed, shaking his head at the countless hours it has taken over many years to get the exhibit off the ground. "But this is one of the best things I've ever done. This is what I do for my soul. It's so important to have a place in Boise where anyone-black, white, green, purple-can come and learn about something that is a great part of our nation's history."

On my second visit to the Idaho Black History Museum, I witnessed the realization of this dream. A stunning little girl with smooth brown skin and a mass of dark curls shuffled in with her mother. She looked unsure at first but eventually moved to the center of the room near a bust of Martin Luther King. She lingered there, letting her fingers graze his shoulder as she passed to one of the glossy panels. Her brown eyes were wide and curious yet somehow knowing as she read and searched the faces of those who came before.

"What stood out to you?" Rohling asked.

"The girl," she said, pointing to the portrait of Jenny Hughes.

Maybe she forgot the experience as soon as she stepped back into the sunshine, but I would like to think she tucked it away, inspired to make a little history of her own.

Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., until October, then Wednesday-Saturday, 11a .m. to 4 p.m., Idaho Black History Museum, 508 Julia Davis Dr., 433-0017, www.ibhm.org.

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