Located on Auburn Avenue, the APEX Museum focuses on local Black history and details the story of Atlanta’s historically black Sweet Auburn Avenue neighborhood. Atlanta is located in the South and the museum certainly doesn’t shy away from the city’s controversial past. But what sets the museum apart from others is that it is completely focused on the history and experiences of Black people from a Black perspective.
I first heard about the Apex Museum through a search for Black history sites and museums in Atlanta. I finally visited on a weekday during the spring. The streets in the area are quite narrow and there’s a fair bit of traffic but not a lot of people walking about in the area. It’s easy to get a parking space nearby but you will most likely have to pay.
I parked on the street and realized from just looking around that quite a few nearby buildings were historical landmarks. Located across the street is a large building that I believe was boarded up but that had been owned by Alonzo Herndon’s Atlanta Life Insurance Company. A few doors down was a building that housed a Black publishing company or local newspaper. Further down the street was a theater at which several notable Black entertainers had performed when passing through Atlanta.
I approached the museum and attempted to enter through the front door but found that it was locked. I followed a sign that pointed to a side entrance that was next to a parking lot. Entering through the front entrance would have been a better start to the experience because it looks like a normal storefront and is more welcoming. Whereas, the side entrance faces a parking lot, has a sign that’s easy to miss, and you’re pretty much walking into an alley.
You press the doorbell and after a few moments, someone from inside the museum walks over to let you in. When I entered the APEX Museum, at first glance I was a bit underwhelmed and somewhat disappointed. Looking around the museum looks tiny and compared to other museums the space and physical experience are not as well designed.
My visit was self-guided but it seems that guided tours are also available. Whichever method you choose, the experience usually begins with two short films. But I entered shortly after another group of visitors had already been seated and the films were in progress. So it was suggested that I explore the Hall of Black Inventors and begin reading while waiting for the film to end.
This was a great suggestion as I thoroughly enjoyed reading about both famous and lesser-known Black inventors. I’d previously heard about Garrett Morgan, George Washington Carver, and the inventor of the Super Soaker. But it was cool to learn about new inventors that I knew little about or had never heard of. I also enjoyed the fact that the hall included Black inventors from other parts of the world.
There were household items such as ironing boards, ice cream scoops, and manually operated mixers. But there were also more complex inventions related to medicine, electronics, telecommunications, and other industries. The displays included information about the inventors along with where possible descriptions of their patents, images of the inventions, explanations of how they were developed, and their purpose/application. I like learning about how things are made and the inner workings of not necessarily electronics but general everyday items. As a result, I enjoyed this part of the museum.
I made it about halfway through the Hall of Black Inventors before being called to watch the museum’s introductory videos. The films are shown in a fair-sized room with bench seats that are designed to look like a traditional streetcar. In the past, Downtown Atlanta had street cars. There are still some streetcars at present but they’re modern and look completely different from the streetcars of the past.
Before the start of the film our host, Deborah, provided a short intro which included a brief history of the Sweet Auburn Avenue neighborhood. I thought Deborah was an amazing storyteller and very warm and welcoming. The videos are admittedly outdated from a visual perspective as I believe they were created in the late 80s or early 90s. They seem to still be on VHS and are very blurry. But try not to allow yourself to be put off by the visuals as the videos contain a lot of interesting information.
The first video focuses on Black history stretching back to Africa and into the recent present. This is something to note because quite often Black history is glossed over. Or when it is discussed the history begins was slavery. Black history stretches back into Africa for thousands of years yet these ancient societies and civilizations are rarely mentioned.
I love world history and over the last few years have made a conscious decision to delve more deeply into learning about Black history. Not just the American Civil Rights Movement or slavery in America. But rather Black history and the Black experience of the entire diaspora. I smiled while watching this video because it was in lockstep with much of what I’ve been learning and also taught me some new things.
The second video focused more locally on the history of Sweet Auburn Avenue. It spoke about how the community developed and the role that local prominent Black entrepreneurs, activist, entertainers, and everyday citizens played in the neighborhood’s history. In between clips and tidbits about the area, there were dance sequences which some might enjoy but I actually disliked. (I have a pet peeve about random dance and song breaks in movies and documentaries.) They weren’t bad, just not my cup of tea.
I really enjoyed the videos and would have liked to see/hear more. It would be pretty cool if the Apex Museum updated the current films and also created new films. For example, diving more deeply into the history of the people of Africa prior to contact with Europeans and colonization and maybe also creating a film or several short films about Black inventors.
Following the end of the films we were led back out into the main area of the museum to a historical timeline. The timeline takes up most of a large wall in the museum. You’re handed a guide that helps to explain how the content is organized. This is another incredible section of the museum. Beginning in 6500 BC the timeline covers the history of Black people in Africa before, during, and after the slave trade.
Depending on where you live and who’s teaching you, Black history is often confined to February. Within that one month of the year, Black history often focuses on a small select group of well-known Black history icons. And then only the superficial soundbites about their lives, accomplishments, and philosophies are shared. Textbooks gloss over slavery and in some states even go so far as to describe slaves as simply workers and even immigrants. Downplaying the true inhumanity of the institution.
In some instances Black history is boiled down to just being that of slavery. There is an ideology that Black history began when Europeans arrived in Africa enslaved the people, brought them to the Americas, and then depending on where the newly enslaved people landed they were emancipated at some point thereafter. So that if the history of Black people is told, it begins at the start of slavery and only a few events and people have been of any significance since then.
There’s a quote towards the beginning of the timeline that I thought was very poignant. I don’t remember the exact quote or the name of the person who said it. But the gist of the quote was that as a people, Black people must not allow the telling of our history to begin with slavery. I completely agree with this quote not because we have anything to be ashamed of with regards to some of our ancestors having been slaves. But rather because we had a story before the enslavement of our ancestors. We had a home continent before the enslavement of our ancestors. And we had our own societies before the enslavement of our ancestors. And in the telling of our history, it needs to include the full story of who we are, where we come from, and our journey to where we currently are.
It’s hard enough to learn about American Black history living in America. And for myself to learn about Caribbean Black history living in America. Where quite often both of these histories are not being told by the people or the descendants who lived them. So it’s especially difficult to learn about the history of Africa and its many peoples from the other side of the world.
I’d heard of some of the historical African figures and events included in the timeline but I learned about so many new people and events.
For people of African descent living outside of Africa it can be incredibly difficult to know exactly where your ancestors originated from in Africa. I thought it was pretty eye-opening to see maps on the walls that showed the major territories of Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. And to then see how the continent was carved up and the area from which its enslaved people were transported from and where they were taken to in Europe and the Americas.
I won’t go into further detail about the historical timeline but just know that this part of the APEX Museum by itself, having all of this information collected in one place, is worth the price of admission. Obviously, because of the time span covered, the display can’t go into too much detail about any one person or event. But the timeline is a great jumping-off point for finding particular people and events that are of interest to you and about which you might like to do additional research.
There is a table that contains info cards about the major crops that were produced with slave labor in the Americas. The major crops were indigo, tobacco, cotton, sugar, rice, and wheat. I didn’t know that plantation owners had preferences for slaves from particular regions based on what they were used to growing in Africa. They wanted slaves from regions that were well-versed in growing the crops that they were growing in the Americas. It was interesting to see that there was some kind of logic or pattern to where enslaved people were transported to in the Americas. And it could be tied back to the area from which they might have been captured and transported from in Africa.
Another thing that I enjoy learning about with regards to history is the development of a particular place. When people came to inhabit it and how it developed over time. A part of the museum experience is dedicated to the local history of the Black population in this historically Black Atlanta neighborhood. As you might know, Atlanta is located in Georgia which was a slave state that participated in the Civil War and went on to adopt segregation.
No matter how much I read about Black history and the experiences of Black people I’m still always shocked at the inhumanity and pettiness. Reading about how the neighborhood developed and the entrepreneurship that was sparked at least in part as a result of segregation was inspiring. But I was then filled with disgust when I read about Georgia’s Black Codes.
To be completely honest I didn’t have high expectations when I first walked into the museum and assumed I would be there for only a short amount of time. But I found myself completely wrapped up in the content and enjoying everything from the videos to the timeline the modern history makers displays.
Yet the one area that I did not particularly care for was the recreation of the slave ship. I thought the concept was interesting and didn’t mind the idea of a visual representation of what ship holds were like. But the execution wasn’t very good. The display features mannequins wrapped in a loincloth as some Africans might have worn at this time. But the mannequins seemed generic and there weren’t enough of them to really convey how confining it would have been below deck.
The hold of a ship would be too large to house indoors so I obviously wouldn’t expect it to be to scale. But the mannequins and ship seemed thrown together. The presentation wasn’t as mentally or emotionally effective as it should have been. It might have been more effective to create a smaller display and use smaller scale figures to show what a ship hold might have looked like with human bodies packed into a small space.
The APEX Museum is organized in somewhat of a circuit where you begin with the past and work your way through the museum into the present. Towards the end, there is a modern exhibit that features Black women who have made and are making history in STEM fields. And not just women who are scientists, doctors, and engineers. But also women who are teachers in these fields. Advancing STEM not just with their acquisition of knowledge but through teaching students who may also one day make an impact in STEM and possibly the world.
Overall I enjoyed my visit to the Apex Museum. I would highly recommend visiting if you’re in Atlanta and are interested in Black history. It’s not a perfect Museum but it is an amazing experience. I found the staff to be very welcoming, passionate, and willing to share their knowledge. The museum is admittedly quite small and not very state-of-the-art. This is probably a result of being independent and their need for funding.
Along the back wall at what would be the end of the museum experience is a rendering of the future Apex Museum. It’s a large building beautifully designed that is on par with just about any other Museum. At first, I was a little bit confused because I thought there might be another building. But then I realized this is the Museum’s dream for its future self. Given what The Apex has done with the small space that they currently have and limited resources I can only imagine how much more amazing that future Apex Museum would be. I would certainly visit.
Learn more about the APEX Museum and plan a visit at www.apexmuseum.org.
- The Center for Civil and Human Rights
- The Legacy Museum
- National Memorial for Peace and Justice
- Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
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