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Exhibit explores history of African-American women

It was a busy day Sunday at the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society Museum for people interested in African-American and women's history.

Upstairs in the Community Gallery was the opening reception for an African-American women's exhibit called "They Kept Their Word."

On the main floor was a program honoring the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A capacity crowd attended the program.

Author Harry Bradshaw Matthews, an associate dean at Hartwick College in Oneonta, was the guest speaker for the fifth annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Program sponsored by the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier.

An expert in genealogical research, Matthews is the grandson of a formerly enslaved African named Richard Parler Jr. of Denmark, S.C.

During the King program, Sharon Holley was presented an award for her efforts to create the first African-American history tour at Forest Lawn.

Holley also was a co-writer of the "They Kept Their Word" exhibit, which opened Sunday in the museum's Community Gallery. It features the history of local African-American women's organizations, particularly literary societies that focused on improving black communities in regard to economics and education, as well as spiritual and moral conditions.

Buffalo native Debra Johnson curated and co-wrote the display with Holley.

Johnson's inspiration came from Maria W. Stewart, a black woman who was born free in Hartford, Conn. In 1832, she gave a speech in Franklin Hall in Boston about women's rights, morals and developing one's own intellectual abilities, Johnson said.

Stewart's lecture was sponsored by the African-American Female Literary Society.

"She was the first woman to speak publicly on a political agenda," Johnson said. "She was the organization's first speaker."

"That got me thinking about literary societies," Johnson said.

A friend of Johnson's told her about Stewart, but the other inspiration for the exhibit, Harriet Tubman, was someone whose history Johnson knew well.

Tubman deeded her property in Auburn to A.M.E. Zion Church, and the Harriet Tubman Memorial Library was built on it in 1975, said Johnson, who developed a retreat in 1994 on expanding the library.

Most of the information on Tubman for the exhibit came from there as well as libraries at Buffalo State College, the University at Buffalo and the Historical Society, Johnson said.

She brought Holley on board about a year later.

"This is Debra's vision," Holley said. "This is something she wanted to do. I was intrigued by the topic."

Holley said she knew a little about the history of local women's organizations because her mother-in-law, Ruth Holley, was a member of Litmus Study Club and the Empire State Federation of Women's Clubs.

Organized in 1922, Litmus is short for literacy and music. Members gathered to study and increase access to literature about and by African-Americans. It continues today.

"When people come to see the exhibit, I hope first they recognize what a rich history Buffalo has in terms of these clubs. They were not just social clubs. They did more than sip tea and eat cookies. They had missions. They wanted to uplift the community and educate the community," Holley said.

She also pointed out that similar organizations exist today. "Poetry slams are part of the whole literacy group," she said.

"They Kept Their Word" will be on exhibit through March 27.

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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