History center's Samuel Black has found his calling
By Rex Rutkoski
Published: Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 3:39 p.m.
Samuel Black has always liked a good story.
He is convinced he found one in Western Pennsylvania's African-American experience, one that he believes has resonance for all races and cultures.
As director of African-American programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center, the curator, archivist and author is passionate about telling the story in as many creative ways as possible — through the collections he helps build; his preservation work; the books and other literature to which he contributes; his award-winning, meticulously researched exhibits; and his many talks wherever he is given a platform.
“It's a really rich, tremendous history,” says Black, 52, also president of the Association of African-American Museums. “One of the things that drives me is I am able to go into that history and share it with the public. My job is to find something different and present it, something that adds to that story,”
The Point Breeze resident feels “a real sense of deep pride” in what he does.
”After having black history ignored, voided, erased and now having an opportunity to present the truth and fact of that history is most satisfying,” he says.
Black will ask people to take a look at everything they know about themselves, their community and their country and see where African-Americans fit into that narrative. “And, then, I ask them to take a look at what we do as historians and curators to see if we can give you greater knowledge,” he says.
A case in point is the new exhibit “From Slavery to Freedom,” which took four years to develop and will run for at least 10 years.
“I don't want the history of slavery in America to be trivialized, and I want people to understand that it is much more complex and meaningful to how we define ourselves as Americans than maybe we think it is,” says Black, who served as chief curator and project director. “These were real people, not objects. They were not property but human beings that had children, families and emotions.”
Black views the enslavement of Africans in America as the central factor in the country's development — economically, politically and socially “Our problems of race, culture and gender issues stem from the enslavement,” he says.
“From Slavery to Freedom” highlights the history of the anti-slavery movement, the Underground Railroad and the impact of 19th-century activism on the modern quest for civil and human rights in Pittsburgh.
“It talks about American history from the perspective of African-Americans,” he says. “Black history should be appreciated as part of American history. There is a wealth of life we are able to learn and appreciate from different cultures.”
Black is doing commendable work in presenting a realistic view of the African-American experience in this country and beyond, says Lawrence Pijeaux Jr., president and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. “It's definitely an important story to tell, and it is one not frequently told, and definitely not told correctly in many circles.”
History center leader
Black came to the Heinz History Center in 2002 as its first curator of African-American history, and was promoted last year as its first director of African-American programs.
“We are proud to have him as a key member of our leadership team” says Andy Masich, president and CEO of Heinz History Center. “Sam is a national leader, a solid scholar and a terrific researcher.”
Masich says Black delves into stories that are important to people in Pittsburgh and beyond. “He's reached a large audience with his exhibition projects and books related to African-America history,” he says.
He quietly goes about accomplishing great things, says Anne Madarasz, museum division director and director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the history center. “He is a wonderful storyteller. His vision has resulted in some very important scholarship and exhibits that open the door to history and tell stories about this region that have not been told before.”
His “Soul Soldiers: African-Americans and the Vietnam Era” premiered at the history center on Veteran's Day in 2006 before embarking on a four-year, seven-city museum tour. Nearly 350,000 visitors in Pittsburgh and across the nation experienced it.
“America's Best Weekly: A Century of the Pittsburgh Courier” ran from February 2011 through June 2012.
Joe Trotter, who collaborated with him on “From Slavery to Freedom,” is very impressed with Black's commitment to telling the story of Pittsburgh in the context of the national and even global experience of black people.
“Sam has been an extraordinary contributor to the story,” says Trotter, professor of history and social justice at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the Center for African American Urban Studies and the Economy at the university.
Black brings an even temper to what he does, says Sylvia Cyrus, executive director of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, the founders of Black History Month, at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “He thinks things through with much thought and deliberation. His decisions are sound.”
Black and his wife, Edda Fields-Black, an internationally recognized historian and Carnegie Mellon University associate professor, are parents of two children. Fields-Black, whose research specialties are pre-Colonial and West African histories, is as proud of her husband's accomplishments as he is of hers.
“To most who meet him, Sam is very reserved and reticent, but still waters run deep. He is very passionate about African-American history and culture, its preservation and dissemination,” says Fields-Black, who currently is on leave on a Smithsonian Senior Fellowship, working on a new book manuscript. “I usually think of myself as the risk taker in our partnership, but he took a very calculated risk by re-positioning himself as a museum curator. It has certainly paid off.”
She believes that the “Soul Soldiers” exhibit is her husband's greatest accomplishment since he started at the history center. It was his first major exhibit and the first that he executed from conception to installation. “It captured an important moment, a transformational period, in African-American history and culture,” she says.
“ ‘Soul Soldiers' was closest to my heart because my brother Jimmy McNeil (a Vietnam veteran) was the inspiration for that project,” Black says.
“Sam's personal experience informed his desire to learn more about the war and the African-Americans who served and to share that story with other little brothers and sisters who might also yearn to know and understand more about the war and the experiences of their loved ones,” Madarasz says.
Madarasz says the exhibit touched many people, especially Vietnam veterans and their families, many of whom had never had their service and their experiences validated.
“Sam did that for them. It was one of the many gifts he has given people of this region,” she says.
Honoring his father
Samuel Black shared his love and respect for his father on a national stage.
The late John L. Black Sr., who worked 16 hour days in the boiler room of Cincinnati's public schools to support his wife, 11 children and children of relatives, provided an unforgettable example of a dedicated parent and family man, says his son. ”I don't know how he did it,” Black says.
In 2006, Black shared his memories of his father with StoryCorps, a nonprofit group that records and preserves oral history of Americans, in an interview conducted by his wife, historian Edda Fields-Black. (www.storycorps.org/listen/samuel-black-and-edda-fields-black)
“He and I were very close. He was close to all of his children. He really was my best friend,” says Black, who agreed to the interview so his son, Akhu, who was born in 2003, would have an oral history of his grandfather. John Black Sr. died in 2004.
“He was a family man, and family meant a whole lot to him. He took in five others,” Black says.
National Public Radio aired Black's reflections, among the ones stored at the Library of Congress, and Black began hearing from people across America for whom it resonated.
Dave Isay, founder and president of StoryCorps, featured it in his 2007 book, “Listening Is an Act of Love,” and last year, StoryCorps turned it into an animated short titled “A Family Man.” (www.storycorps.org/animation/a-family-man)
Black chuckles now at the memory of his dad not being very happy with his choice of majors in college.
“He didn't understand what kind of job I could get with a degree in African-American studies. Quite frankly, I didn't either,” he admits, laughing. “Everything really paid off for me. Right before my first major exhibit at Heinz History Center, he finally understood what the degree was for.”
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