When he shared material from his master’s thesis on the origins of Charlotte’s thriving civil rights movement, Willie Griffin noticed how students in his African American Studies class at West Charlotte High School were intrigued.
“This gave them something more tangible to touch and grab on to and realize that they have the power to make change,” he said. “They don’t need some larger than life figure to come to the community and lead them.”
But in those moments of teaching, Griffin, now 44, realized he’d have to pursue a doctoral degree to be influential in changing how African American history is taught to students.
A native Charlottean, Griffin just finished up his first year as staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. He’s now Dr. Willie Griffin, having graduated from East Mecklenburg High School, Morehouse College, Morgan State University and completed a doctorate from UNC-Chapel Hill.
At UNC, his area of study was African American history with a focus on the people who contributed to Charlotte’s civil rights movement.
At the museum, Griffin produces scholarly articles and exhibits and presentations with existing and new research. His work provides context to important historical social, cultural, political, and economic developments that have shaped the city, region and country.
Griffin’s comments were edited for brevity and clarity.
What’s your favorite Charlotte historical fact?
That my research subject, Trezzvant W. Anderson, a native Charlottean and journalist, turned out to be the city’s best kept secret. He was perhaps the most influential labor, civil and human rights activist this country has ever seen.
How is this museum unique compared to others in the United States?
The Levine Museum is the most comprehensive museum in the country dedicated to exploring how the South evolved following the Civil War. It highlights the history of Charlotte and the Piedmont region through diverse perspectives of people who shaped and were shaped by the society of their times. The (museum’s) founders imagined that these stories would provide diverse perspectives that could help visitors understand each other better and in turn help build a better community.
Which exhibit at the museum right now is most intriguing to you?
Each of our exhibits is intriguing in its own way. “From Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers” provides unparalleled depth and breadth on the history of the development of the New South. “Know Justice Know Peace” explores issues that are so current, so painful, and yet so complex in a way that breaks your heart and deepens your understanding. “#HomeCLT” marries rich data with authentic voices that memorably bring the history of some of Charlotte’s neighborhoods to life through the use augmented reality.
What would you suggest for people who want to learn about history?
I would suggest a tour of the museum’s core exhibit, “From Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers,” for an overview of Southern history. Those who are interested in history and culture of the Piedmont region and the city of Charlotte should attend a New South for the New Southerner program, which is hosted by the new historian-in-residence at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, Tom Hanchett. If you come to the museum, visit our gift shop, where you can find all kinds of books related to all aspects of history. Additionally, seek out good movies and documentaries that bring history to life.
What was it like being trained by the museum’s former historian, Tom Hanchett?
Not only has Tom Hanchett’s work on race, class and urban development in Charlotte informed my own research, he set the mold for Levine’s staff historian position. Since I assumed this role, he has been a great mentor to me. We meet once a month for lunch, where he has shared his past experiences and provided me good, sound advice for navigating this job.
What future plans do you have for the museum?
The Levine Museum has been exploring ways to incorporate new technologies to help bring history alive in whole new ways, both within our walls and beyond them. For example, our use of augmented reality has enabled us to tell stories in the places where history actually happened. We are using this technology to create a museum presence in community centers and classrooms in ways we never could before. But there will never be a substitute for face-to-face interaction between people, and Levine Museum will continue to convene authentic, productive, important dialogue about today’s critical issues within the context of history.
How does having a museum like this elevate the Charlotte community?
Levine Museum helps elevate Charlotte by providing expertise and a safe space to explore individually and/or engage in group dialogue about critical developments that have and continue to shape our community, region and country. We are committed to serving as a reliable mirror for the Charlotte community so that we will not forget the consequences for past decisions that were deemed necessary to sustain the image of a growing and progressive city.
What advice would you have for people who’ve never been to the museum?
Visitors can expect immersive experiences and opportunities to take control of their own learning. We encourage visitors to walk in the shoes of others, to compare the experiences of people who came before us to our experiences today. This is a museum that invites a conversation between the museum and visitors, so be generous in sharing your thoughts and feelings. There is no right way to dress. You can laugh at the funny parts. You can hum along to the music. You don’t have to “know” how to behave in a museum. This is a place that welcomes you, whoever you are and however you show up.
‘It Happened Here’
What: The museum’s latest exhibit, “It Happened Here: Lynching and Remembrance,” builds on the Equal Justice Initiative’s research into the history of lynching across America.
Where: Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. Seventh St.
Cost: $10 for adults, $8 for students
Meet Willie Griffin
What: Preyer Lecture: “Progress under pressure: Fighting Jim Crow in the Queen City.” Levine Museum historian Willie Griffin, explores how African Americans organized to confront discriminatory policies in policing, labor, housing and education across the 20th century in Charlotte.
When: Oct. 10, 6:30-8 p.m.
Where: Ketner Auditorium, Queens University of Charlotte
This article first appeared in the Charlotte Observer.