Discovering activism and advocacy in historic preservation through my grandparents’ furniture
25 March 2021 – Jacqueline Hudson
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of reflections from winners of NCPH awards in 2021. Jacqueline Patrice Hudson is the winner of the NCPH new professional award.
As a young child, I thought visiting my grandparents in Chicago was a fun adventure each summer when my younger sister Jephreda and I got the chance to ride a plane by ourselves (accompanied by an airline employee, of course). I remembered stepping into their two-flat home located on the south side of the Windy City and I have always been mesmerized by the house plan that my grandparents put in place since moving to Chicago from the South in the mid-1950s. (Years later, I found out that this house was not the first one they lived in once they moved to Chicago. More on that later.) While most people used their basements as storage, my grandparents used their basement as a functioning kitchen, bar, living area, and a bathroom! I always looked forward to seeing the furnishings in different rooms in their house because it made me feel like I was stepping into something grand. It was years later that I came to realize that my affinity for my grandparents’ furniture had helped me connect their lives (and my own family story) with larger currents in Black history.
My whole experience with my grandparents became embedded in their furniture. I was in awe of the reclining chairs in the den, the fancy dining set, and the wooden cabinet that housed antique china dishes. My favorite furniture piece was always the set of two armchairs and couch that my grandparents kept in the front living room. The living room set was primarily made of white velvet material with wood paneling on the arms and legs. The interesting part of this set was the fact that they made the decision to use plastic covering on the set for upkeeping. Even though I enjoyed looking at the set, I could not sit on it for long during the summers because the heat caused the plastic to get hot! (Maybe that was the reason why they decided to do that—to keep people from destroying their nice furniture…ha!) My love of this furniture, and the importance placed on it by my grandparents, later helped me connect their lives to key trends in the Black history of the 20th century:
- They were both part of the Great Migration (him from Arkansas, her from Mississippi).
- My grandfather was one of the many African American men who served in the U.S. Army.
- My grandparents were one of the many families who had to relocate because a major expressway was constructed through their former neighborhood.
- They were a young African American couple looking to achieve the American Dream—family, house, car, hard work—as blue-collar employees during 1950s and 1960.
In 1998, I moved to Chicago and lived with my grandparents while I went back to school to earn my master’s degree in Arts Management. Cohabiting with them was a constant reminder of the same furnishings I treasured as a young child. After earning that degree, I chose to continue living with my grandparents. I knew that they were getting older, and I wanted to make sure that there was someone to take care of them. In 2011, my grandfather died; my grandmother died in 2020 after moving to Mississippi three years earlier to be near my mother. When I moved to Bowling Green, Ohio, in 2017 to attend Bowling Green State University (BGSU) to pursue a doctoral degree in American Culture Studies, I kept many important items from my grandparents, including their birth certificates, their marriage license, my grandfather’s discharge papers from the Army, and an array of photos. The one item of furniture that I made sure I took from my grandparents’ home was that living room set that I had admired ever since I was a child visiting them during those summers.
Once the set was placed in my new space, the first thing I did was to take that plastic covering off even though I was worried about getting the white material dirty. (I could not imagine sitting on plastic in either the summer nor winter months here in Ohio.) To ease my worries, I decided to get the living room set refurbished. My next dilemma was choosing the color. In 2018, I became a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, a historically African American Greek-letter sorority whose members are dedicated to public service and assistance of the African American community. One of the organization’s colors is crimson (red), and I knew soon after that I wanted to refurbish with that hue. I thought this would be a perfect way to honor my grandparents while also adding a little touch of me, one of their legacies. After a couple of months of consultation and the fabric installation on the couch and two chairs with the upholstery shop in nearby Toledo, it was a beautiful moment to see the finished product in my living space.
As I was going through this process of getting my grandparents’ furnishings upholstered and studying public history at BGSU simultaneously, I realized that preservation comes in many forms. Plus, it does not necessarily come in the grand traditional ways like saving a historic building from demolition or protecting an old house from going on the housing market. While my reason for this project was cosmetic at first, I realize this became a bigger personal aspiration connected to my understanding of my career. In 2020, I asked Ms. Pamela Junior, executive director of the Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson, Mississippi, to briefly describe the career trajectory that led her to her current position. She described how she wanted the local community to be involved with the Smith Robertson Museum where she was the museum manager. When she said that, I figured out that activism and advocacy were the words that perfectly described the work that I wanted to do in the museum field, but I realized that I was already doing it.
Constantly thinking about Junior’s words drove me into figuring out how I can contribute to the museum and historic preservation fields, particularly for African Americans. In a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer titled, “Preservation Can Promote equity for Black Communities, Report Says,” reporter Michaelle Bond declared that “preservation should be community-driven and focused on people, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation report, but too often it is dictated by outside forces and is ‘building-centered.’” This statement is a direct reflection of the process at play in the refurbishing of my grandparents’ living room set. This project focused on connections to people and was imbued with both personal and historical significance.
As I navigate through the public history field as a new professional, refurbishing this living room set was my small act of revitalizing a piece of black history in honor of my grandparents and to continue the story of the black experience through activism and advocacy in my museum work.
~Jacqueline Hudson is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the American Culture Studies program and has earned a graduate certificate in public history at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in Bowling Green, Ohio. She is currently a graduate assistant in the Ray Browne Pop Culture Library at BGSU. Her interests are black music studies, black popular culture, black feminism, and museum studies. While working on her dissertation entitled I Am Every (Black) Woman: Negotiating Intersectionality in the Music Industry, Jackie continues to work on various avenues of fieldwork in curatorial and historic preservation independently with the hope of graduating this August.