Columbus has a rich and varied African-American history, and many of its leading figures are represented at the Columbus Museum. In honor of Black History Month, here are five highlights from our collection:
This gun was owned by Dr. Thomas Brewer, an African-American civil rights leader in Columbus from the 1920s until his death on February 18, 1956. Brewer began carrying this Belgian-made British Bulldog Derringer for protection after receiving threats against his life. After Brewer was shot and killed by Luico Flowers during an argument in Flowers’ clothing shop, this pistol was found unfired in his left pants pocket.
Gift of C. Dexter Jordan Estate G.1985.76.61
This 1925 photo shows Gertrude “Ma” Pridgett Rainey and Her Georgia Band, performing in a distinctive style that brought Rainey fame as the “Mother of the Blues.” Born in Columbus in 1886, she made her debut in a talent show at the Springer Opera House at the age of 14. Rainey toured for years in vaudeville and minstrel shows throughout the South and the Midwest before became a popular Paramount recording artist in the mid-1920s. When Rainey retired from performing in 1933, she returned to Columbus and used her years of business experience on the road to purchase and manage two theaters until her death in 1939.
Museum purchase G.2002.27
This piece of sheet music for the “Oliver Gallop” was written by “Blind Tom” Wiggins in about 1860, when he was just 10 years old. Wiggins was born enslaved on a plantation near Columbus, blind and mute, and would likely be diagnosed as autistic today. Though he could not communicate via speech, he had a knack for imitating almost any sound by voice or on the piano. He could also perfectly repeat a piece of music after hearing it performed one time. His owners quickly realized Wiggins’ talent and began touring him around the world. By some accounts, Tom Wiggins was the highest-grossing international music performer of the 19th century. However, he never saw a penny of it, even after emancipation when his previous owners acted as his guardians and “managers” while living near New York City until his death in 1908. The Museum recently acquired a substantial archive related to Blind Tom, and we look forward to continuing to tell his story.
Museum purchase made possible by the Endowment Fund in honor of D.A. Turner G.2003.14
This photograph shows masonry students in class at Spencer High School, which opened in 1930 as Columbus’ first high school for African Americans. For much of the early 20th century, education for African-American students in the South focused on learning a trade or specialized labor skills. Masonry in America had traditionally been practiced by black men, and this photo shows students learning to build fireplaces in a classroom, under the instruction of teacher D. Slater and Principal F.R. Lumpkin.
Gift of a Friend of the Museum G.2007.67.6
This decorative silver baby cup belonged to artist Alma Thomas, who was born in Columbus in 1891. Thomas spent her formative years in a house in the Rose Hill neighborhood before her family moved to Washington, D.C., to escape racial violence and persecution in the Deep South. She became a renowned Expressionist artist, as well as a long-time junior-high art teacher in D.C. The Museum is fortunate to own several of her bright, vibrant paintings in addition to many documents, photographs, and other memorabilia related to her life.
Bequest of Miss John Maurice Thomas G.2011.60.1