By John Hanley
“Everybody can be great because anybody can serve.”
Words from Dr. Martin Luther King, but repeated by Sadie Roberts-Joseph this past Saturday before several young volunteers.
Roberts-Joseph has been founder and curator of the Odell S. Williams Now and Then African American History Museum for all of its thirteen years of existence, and several days ago, welcomed a group of local youth to help restore some areas of the museum.
The museum itself is a 13-year-old, faith-based project affiliated with the neighboring New St. Luke Baptist Church. It boasts a massive collection of historical artifacts and information-rich exhibits.
Roberts-Joseph and Blair Elizabeth Brown, a History major at LSU and a local activist, started the restoration project after the two met at the March with Congressman John Lewis event several months ago. When Brown came to the museum later to speak with Roberts-Joseph, she grew disappointed in the neglected state of the museum and the lack of action from the surrounding community. So, she took it into her own hands to remedy the situation.
After much social media outreach, Brown brought together students from LSU and Southern as well as other local volunteers to help paint, garden, clean, and spread awareness about the museum. The event was a success, spanning two separate days with potential projects still to come.
“It’s always good to give back to entity that’s going to…encourage the community or enlighten them about your history,” said Shante Harvey, a student at Southern University and volunteer at the restoration event.
Harvey says she hopes the restoration project will help to preserve the museum – and the information it offers – for future generations.
“When I’m older, those after me like my little sister or brother…if they come to Baton Rouge or if they come to this area, they’re able to see a museum such as this and learn their history,” she said.
Nicholas Belson, another volunteer and Digital Arts Senior at LSU, says he wants to see more projects like this around Baton Rouge.
“There’s not really enough projects like this in the Baton Rouge community as far as I’ve seen,” he said, “and it’s a need that has to be filled.”
For Belson, participating in the restoration is a personal matter.
“Whether indirectly or directly, this is a part of my history, [and] this is a part of who I am as a person based on the people that were here before me,” he said.
Many others like Belson and Harvey have taken time away from their schoolwork to take on the task. Roberts-Joseph said she is excited to see these young people ready to help their community and spread awareness.
“It’s always good to see what [the younger] generation is doing, whether black or white, because there’s always the perception that we’re not moving forward,” she said.
But she believes people like Brown and other organizers can be the bridge between older and younger generations to help make progressive changes in the community. And since the museum is not directly funded, running instead largely on volunteer work, Roberts-Joseph hopes the restoration will bring visibility to the museum and what it has to offer.
“Our museum…is not very widely known, so I think this will help,” she said. “And then people will come in and see what we have and help to embrace diversity and move forward.”
Volunteers like Harvey agree with that concept of longevity and understand that the work they are doing is for future generations as well.
“There need to be specific buildings with this type of information for children to go to, and I think this is a great, innovative way to teach a child…I think that’s perfect, teaching them while they’re young.”
Roberts-Joseph hopes she can do just that.
“We teach,” she said. “We teach African American history. It is the history of America. We look at the movements that have happened, and it has been people of [all] races and nationalities pulling together, working for a common cause. And I think that that’s what this museum can do.”
Visit the Odell S. Williams Museum at 538 South Boulevard in downtown Baton Rouge, or contact the museum at firstname.lastname@example.org or (225) 343-4431.