Melissa Raveed - Manager, School Services
Monday, January 17, 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King
by means of a federal holiday. For most of us it means a day off of work or school, but for Conner Prairie and many other cultural institutions around the Indianapolis, it is a day that we are open to the public to entertain, educate and celebrate the life of a man who has helped shaped the course of modern American history.
This is only the third year that Conner Prairie has been open on MLK day
, and one may ask, what does Conner Prairie, a place that focuses on life in Indiana during the 1800’s have to teach us about the Civil Rights Movement?
The history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States stretches far before the 1960’s. During the 19th Century in Indiana, African Americans and other minority groups fought hard to establish themselves in the state of Indiana. In 1831, black settlers in Indiana were required to register with local county clerk to post a $500 bond as a guarantee of good behavior. This law, meant to serve as a deterrent to African Americans desiring to settle in the state, did not have the effect intended, as by the 1850’s, thousands of African American were living and working in cities and settlements throughout the state. An example of a black settlement was right here in Hamilton County. In 1837, Roberts settlement was founded by a group of settlers that migrated to Indiana from North Carolina.
Additionally, during the height of the Underground Railroad, Indiana, Levi Coffin provided refuge for hundreds of people journeying toward freedom from the institution of slavery in the south. These facts, as well as many others, are conveyed during one of our most immersive programs, Follow the North Star, where you take on the persona of a escaped slave struggling towards freedom.
During our Dr. Martin Luther King Celebration, we will unveil another story of freedom, courage and sacrifice. As part of our new exhibit opening June 2011, 1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana
, we will introduce a man named Albert Cheatham. Albert was an African American who escaped slavery and joined the 28th Indiana United States Colored Troops.
So you see, the dream that Dr. King so eloquently spoke of more than 40 years ago was one that built upon the experiences of lives spanning generations. As I finish this blog, the words of Mrs. Ward, a free black character from our Follow the North Star
program echo in my head:
“Things are better but it's still a struggle. So you just keep goin'. You'll make it! You've made it this far and, you know, a lot of folks never get so far. So don't give up. You had to be strong to come as far as you have, you had to be brave... I can see it in your eyes. Don't ever give up. I reckon freedom is goin' to be one of those things we'll have to struggle a long time to really get but that time will come.”
Ellen M. Rosenthal - President and CEO
Sitting behind my desk at Conner Prairie, I have a sweeping view over the entrance to 1836 Prairietown and the pasture behind the Conner Barn. All too often, I am so focused on my computer screen or on the person sitting in the chair next to my desk that I forget to look outside. Just before the holidays, a colleague walked into my office and asked if I had looked outside recently. I had not. When I raised my head, I saw families trudging through snow, stopping to look at animals, engaging with costumed staff and even throwing a snowball or two. It was December 21st, Conner Prairie’s FREE day
, part of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association’s 12 Free Days of Indy Christmas. More than 3,000 people crowded into Conner Prairie, having a terrific time both outdoors on the historic grounds and indoors -- families and groups of adults experiencing and learning about history, the arts, science and each other. This year Conner Prairie attendance grew by 15% over attendance in 2009 – a remarkable measure of success.
This specific incident tells you a lot about my day-to-day life at Conner Prairie and about how we now measure success. I am charged with keeping Conner Prairie sustainable – balancing the budget even though funds are tight, raising money and attending functions. I represented Conner Prairie at the White House on December 17th to receive the National Medal from the Institute of Museum and Library Services
, one of only five awarded in 2010. But what keeps me going is the thought that year after year Conner Prairie is getting better at fulfilling its mission of “inspiring curiosity and fostering learning.”
In 2011, we will open 1863 Civil War Journey: Raid on Indiana
just in time for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. We’ve worked very hard to make the central immersion experience one that entire families can experience together. I hope that parents will use this exhibit as a moment to talk to children about their values and that teachers will use the exhibit to blow history dust off the Civil War. But for those who choose to avoid the subject, a marvelous children’s outdoor and indoor play area
will be available. I suspect it will become a favorite among our members. With the opening of the exhibit, we will also be reaching out to those who cannot come to the museum, adding historical information to the tremendous wealth of research already on the website.
There will be other new programs and activities to announce this year. I will not attempt to catalogue them now. Suffice to say, they will be intended to reach out and engage families, school children, and adults in great, fun learning experiences. If at the end of the year, I look up from my computer to find Conner Prairie continuing to delight ever-increasing audiences, I will feel we have been successful.