August Wilson Center exhibit builds bridges between civil rights figures large and small
A photograph of Rosa Parks, left, with Brenda Tate on display at the "Strength in the Struggle: Civil Rights" exhibit at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
A banner used in 1980 on display at the August Wilson Center.
Cecile Shellman, artistic director for visual arts and exhibitions at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, talks about the new "Bridge Builders" exhibit.
A photograph at August Wilson Center exhibit showing the Allegheny County Police Academy's 1976 cadet class, its first including women.
A transit poster showing Vera Avery, who provided security for the Port Authority.
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In the history of the civil rights movement in the United States, some names loom larger than others.
There is Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who in 1955 refused to move to the back of the bus she was riding in Montgomery, Ala. Her arrest led to the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott.
There is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a black minister whose speeches and marches and nonviolent approach culminated in the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
There are numerous others who played parts large and small -- but in the story of America's civil rights struggles, the names Parks and King sit higher than the rest.
"Many people, when they hear about civil rights, those are the only names they know," said Cecile Shellman, artistic director for visual arts and exhibitions at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. "We wanted to broaden those stories."
The result is "Strength in the Struggle: Civil Rights," an exhibit that draws a line from the struggles and confrontations that took place in the South to ones that took place in Pittsburgh.
"It is crucial that people know the fight for civil rights and the struggle [in the South] didn't just end there," said Ms. Shellman, who has worked at the August Wilson Center, Downtown, since 2006 and has been its artistic director since 2011.
To best tell the story of how African-Americans -- and black women in particular -- have fought for equal rights in Pittsburgh, Ms. Shellman turned to Patricia Ulbrich, a visiting scholar in women's studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Ms. Ulbrich had directed and produced an oral history and multimedia project called "Bridge Builders."
Ms. Shellman decided to pair the "Bridge Builders" exhibit with a traveling exhibit developed by the Smithsonian Institution called "381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story."
The Smithsonian exhibit, using photographs, text and videos, tells the story of Parks, the bus boycott and, using interviews gathered from across the United States, the broader story of the violence that African-Americans often experienced before and during the civil rights movement.
The "Bridge Builders" exhibit focuses on the stories of women who sought equality in the Pittsburgh region through their involvement in the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, and Allegheny County police departments.
There were women like Wilkinsburg police Chief Ophelia "Cookie" Coleman, who overcame hurdles posed by her race and gender to become a police officer at a time when police forces in Allegheny County were white and male.
Or women like Brenda Frazier, who became co-president of the East End chapter of NOW in the late 1970s and then served as a board member for the national NOW board from 1980 to 1983.
And the exhibit features women like Alma Speed Fox, who became executive director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP in 1966 and founded the Freedom Unlimited organization in the Hill District.
In telling the story of each woman, the exhibit uses photographs and pamphlets featuring them as they struggled to overcome hurdles posed by racism and sexism. Those historical documents are placed next to recent photographic portraits of the women. Two videos in the exhibit give more background to the women's stories.
Many of the women featured in the local section of the "Strength in the Struggle" exhibit visited the display when it opened in March, Ms. Shellman said. Decades earlier, as they tried to become police officers or joined groups to promote the rights of women or African-Americans, it may not have occurred to them that one day their pictures would hang in the same exhibit as people like Parks and King.
"They just felt the drive to do something righteous," Ms. Shellman said.
Every community has stories of women like Ms. Fox and Ms. Frazier and Chief Coleman, Ms. Shellman said, and in many cases they are unsung heroes who took up the torch passed on to them by more well-known figures.
"We wanted to be able to celebrate and make sure these voices weren't silenced and these faces never forgotten," she said.
The "Strength in the Struggle: Civil Rights" exhibit will be on display at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through June 30. The center is closed Mondays and Sundays. Admission is $8 for adults, $4 for students and seniors and $3 for children.
First Published June 20, 2012 4:15 pm