How Our ACTivists Bring History to Life

19, September 2017

#1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis has introduced a new feature to exhibits at the Missouri History Museum: live performances by four actor-interpreters, or as we like to call them, our intrepid ACTivists.

The Story Behind the ACTivists’ Stories

The ACTivists add a personal, human dimension to the exhibit through their portrayals of luminaries such as civil rights lawyers Margaret Bush Wilson, David Grant, and George Vaughn, as well as community organizers such as Pearl Maddox (who led the city’s first organized lunch counter sit-ins) and Charlton Tandy (who spearheaded a successful fight against local streetcar segregation in the late 1860s). ACTivists perform twice an hour in the exhibit and just about every hour that the Museum is open. So far an estimated 87,000 visitors have seen them in action.

Color photo of ACTivist Merlin Bell portraying Charlton Tandy in a classroom settingACTivist Merlin Bell as Charlton Tandy.

Although the plays are only about five minutes long, they represent hours of research into the vast and varied careers of the people portrayed. Additionally, each performance is set during a critical time in a particular civil rights leader’s life. For example, although Margaret Bush Wilson is known for being the first African American woman to chair the national NAACP in the 1970s, our play about her takes place in 1963, when she mobilized “just about every black lawyer in St. Louis” to represent activists jailed after protesting against unfair hiring practices at Jefferson Bank and Trust Company.

Color photo of Linda Kennedy performing as Pearl Maddox in "#1 in Civil Rights" exhibitACTivist Linda Kennedy performs as Pearl Maddox in the #1 in Civil Rights exhibit.

We’re fortunate to have good records and oral histories for many of the activists we portray so that we can tell their stories in their own words as much as possible. But sometimes, as with Pearl Maddox, we have only a few short quotes and a single document to work from. In Maddox’s case, we built the character by using quotes from others. For example, T. D. McNeal said that although he was the figurehead for the 1944 lunch counter sit-ins, “the women organized it all.” Those words reveal his respect for Maddox’s abilities as an organizer, giving us real insight into who she was.

Helping Students Imagine

Student groups also get to experience a special play as part of the exhibit’s field-trip programming. Dubbed The Imagine Play, this piece encourages students to use historical imagination as they study history. We ask them to think about historical figures as people with parents who might not approve of marching in a protest, making the decision to march far less clear-cut than it might seem from today’s vantage point. We ask them to visualize how difficult nonviolence would be if you’re being called names—or even attacked—and to think about what might motivate protesters to take such a chance.

In the second part of the play, we imagine and enact what training for a protest like the one at Jefferson Bank might have looked like. Civil rights organizers in CORE (Committee of Racial Equality) and the NAACP carefully planned and executed every aspect of their demonstrations for fair hiring at Jefferson Bank—including preparing people to protest effectively, which involved incorporating song.

Color photo of ACTivist Peggy Harris in Jefferson Bank section of #1 in Civil Rights exhibitTeaching students the song "We Shall Not Be Moved" helps us create a participatory field-trip experience and incorporate the sounds of the civil rights movement.

In footage from the Jefferson Bank protests you can hear that when the protesters were told to leave they responded by singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” We teach each field-trip group this song as a way of encouraging discussion about why singing was so integral to the civil rights movement. We begin by sitting together on the floor beside a large-scale picture of the protests so that students can feel how uncomfortable sit-in participants were prepared to be. Then an ACTivist teaches them the words and asks them to sing, immersing themselves in what this historical event was like.

Afterward, our museum educators ask students how they felt when they were singing and why they thought the protesters sang. “Less alone,” “braver,” and “to keep together” are just some of the answers we receive. We couldn’t have said it better.

—Elizabeth Pickard, Director, Education and Interpretation

Membership appeal