A journey to justice

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2018 / ,

Writer: Lee Roscoe

Zion Union Heritage Museum Art

“The Journey” stands outside Zion Union Heritage Museum in Hyannis. Photo by Janet Murphy Robertson

Zion Union Heritage Museum marks a decade

A bronze statue of an African American man holding the world stands outside the small former church that is now the Zion Union Heritage Museum on North Street in Hyannis. Its title, “The Journey,” is the museum’s theme, celebrated through the contributions of African Americans, Cape Verdeans, Wampanoags and people of color on Cape Cod, illuminating their little-known history to locals, school groups and travelers to the Cape alike.

The museum, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2018, can trace the start of its journey to 1909 when William Drew, a Baptist lay leader, took issue with his congregation when they refused a black woman participation. With two others, Drew bought land and built the original small, spired wooden chapel where, as its pastor, he preached to blacks. The structure was added on to over the years.

Harold Tobey, Zion’s first executive director, grew up in Hyannis in a small house without electricity a hundred yards from Zion, attending services there as his forebears had. When the mixed congregation moved to a larger church elsewhere in Hyannis, Tobey, who became Barnstable’s first black police officer and president of the town council, didn’t want to see the building demolished. He and John L. Reed, an award-winning retired teacher and Zion’s current executive director, worked with 15 other founders to conserve the building for its current purpose. Enabled by funding through the Lyndon Paul Lorusso Charitable Foundation and the Town of Barnstable Community Preservation Committee, the museum opened in 2008.

Through a collection of artifacts, art, books and documents, visitors can better understand slavery, lynching, bigotry and Jim Crow segregation, as well as the Civil Rights movement and the continuing peaceful struggle for justice and equality by people of color and their allies. Tobey, who is of African American and Wampanoag descent, recalls, “In my youth, discrimination was in the schools. My mother couldn’t get a job unless she wanted to clean houses in Hyannis Port. There were no jobs for males of color, save for landscaper or cook. This went on for many years.” He adds, “Things have changed, but there is still discrimination here; it went underground. It’s in people’s attitudes. Sadly there’s even blowback on the Cape, with so many people now against immigration and people of color.”

Zion Union Heritage Museum Art

Executive Director John Reed with Julia Monteiro Johnson, vice president of the museum’s board of directors, and Larry Johnson, a board member. Photo by Teagan Anne

As it celebrates its 10th anniversary—being marked by a gala at the Cotuit Center for the Arts on June 2—the museum is no longer a fledgling organization but a substantial presence. Reed discusses the museum’s growth and development in terms of three phases, the first of which was getting it off the ground. “People said we couldn’t do this. But we are positive thinkers and hard workers with different skills and knowledge,” says Reed, who has served as president of the local NAACP and was equity officer for the Barnstable School District in addition to teaching history at the high school for two decades.

“Phase Two,” he says, was attracting clientele to the educational exhibits. These include memorabilia of pioneers for social justice Margaret Moseley and her friend and ally in spearheading the local branch of the NAACP, Eugenia Fortes. Here, visitors learn why Fortes was dubbed “the Rosa Parks of Cape Cod,” and view the special “Town Watchdog” chair the Barnstable Town Council gave to her, as she attended every meeting. “Eugenia Fortes showed us all the way,” Reed says. “She was a renaissance woman who went on instinct, God and good faith until she got it done.”

There are homages to Cape Verdeans (who are admixtures of Portuguese, African, Jewish and Catholic) and their participation in the Cape economy as whalers, fishermen and cranberry and strawberry growers, as well as those who served in the military, including Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.

A case of slave manacles and dog collars near a mannequin of a “black knight of the KKK” are reminders that, although Massachusetts law ended slavery in 1783, bigotry’s fires burned. In 1826, for example, Yarmouth Port demanded that non-whites dig up their dead and move them to a separate part of the town cemetery.

There’s a compendium about the late Joseph Daluz by his wife Dolores, the museum’s historian. Joe helped Reed get his teaching job, advocated to end racial segregation in housing as Barnstable’s building commissioner and was a beloved longtime Cape NAACP president. The Daluzes were instrumental in the growth of Zion.

Zion Union Heritage Museum Art

Works by Robin Joyce Miller. Photo by Teagan Anne

A highlight of Zion is the art on its walls, created by its resident artists Pamela Chatterton-Purdy, Carl Lopes and Robin Joyce Miller.

Lopes, a retired visual arts director at Barnstable High School, is known for inspiring generations not only to make art, but to also take pride in their heritage. Descended from Cape Verdeans who emigrated to New Bedford three generations ago, Lopes says he taught students “they need not fear people who are different,” and the museum does the same.

Miller, a former art teacher in the Bronx, incorporates collage, paint, beads, feathers and metal, often in the form of quilt patterns, for her varied exhibits, which span slavery and the plantation era. Miller says growing up she didn’t see herself represented with dignity anywhere, so she felt shame at being black; nothing “encouraged us to feel we were of significance.” African American art and her studies about African history have increased her pride.

Both Lopes and Miller say the museum has had a profound effect on them, expanding opportunities for their art and increasing their knowledge and pride in their own roots.

In the chapel, light seems to bounce off the whitewashed walls and enlarge the space where, glittering in gold, hang Purdy’s renowned series of over 30 “Icons of the Civil Rights Movement” with texts by her husband, the Rev. Dr. David A. Purdy. The portraits depict heroes of justice, from early abolitionists such as Harwich’s own Jonathan Walker (“The Man with the Branded Hand”) to the 2015 victims of the mass murder in Charleston.

The museum’s store includes items such as Janet Murphy Robertson’s documentaries—one about Purdy’s icons and the other titled “Journeys in the Light: Untold Stories of Cape Cod”—and original jewelry, clothing, paintings, sculptures and carvings.

Proof of the museum’s popularity and the success of its second phase of development is the increase in bus tours, from 15 the first year to 60 already booked by February for 2018, and over 8,000 visitors a year.

Reed’s “Phase Three” is the future. The museum, like all nonprofits, struggles to make ends meet. He says he’d welcome an endowment to enlarge collections, engage with more artists, increase collaborations with museums and civic groups on and off Cape, and uncover information on local history, like the Cape’s involvement in the Underground Railroad.

Miller and her husband call Zion “the pulse and heartbeat of the African American community on the Cape.”

“It’s not all about race, per se,” Tobey says, “but about humanity for everyone.”

Lee Roscoe is freelance writer, playwright, actress and naturalist from Brewster.