Khalid el-Hakim started frequenting antique shops, garage sales and flea markets and collecting rare artifacts pertaining to Black history in the early 1990s.
Among his prized possessions: a document signed by Malcom X, slave shackles, and an old drinking fountain sign that differentiates between “White” and “Colored.”
What inspired the collection?
“Dr. David Pilgrim at Ferris State University had a very powerful and engaging way of teaching his diverse group of students about the history of racism in America,” el-Hakim recalls. “He would bring in Jim Crow-era artifacts and use those objects to provide context to different themes and concepts discussed in his lectures.”
For the Detroit native, seeing those “real” historical examples of America’s ugly past brought history to life, and more importantly, it sparked some much-needed conversations regarding race among his peers.
After returning from the historic 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C., el-Hakim became inspired to take his private collection of then 500 artifacts on the road. He started displaying the items around Detroit at various community meetings. His goal? Bring folks up to speed on the history that’s often omitted from textbooks.
“When people saw the material, they instantly saw the value in it, and I began receiving invitations to bring the collection to different places,” el-Hakim says.
The Black History 101 Mobile Museum was officially born in 1995. It didn’t take long for the museum to garner national and international recognition.
“All the artifacts in the museum are original,” says el-Hakim, “and there are no photocopies of content.”
Other prominent pieces in the collection include a KKK hood, a rare slave bill of sale and vintage EBONY and JET issues dating all the way back to 1968.
Over the past two decades, el-Hakim has amassed over 7,000 artifacts and visited at least 100 colleges, universities and conferences across the country. However, el-Hakim is all about making the museum accessible to everyone, so it means that churches, mosques, libraries and even folks’ living rooms are among stops on the tour, too.
The former Detroit Lions Academy social studies teacher describes his “picking” adventures as a “Black version of the television show, American Pickers.”
Although the museum showcases Black leaders, educators and freedom fighters, hip-hop remains at the core of el-Hakim’s work.
“Listening to artists, including Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Rakim, Poor Righteous Teachers and others raised my consciousness of the social and political realities of being Black in America,” he explains. “Hip-hop culture allows us to be unapologetic about who we are. With hip-hop culture being so bold, disruptive and grassroots based, I was able to carve out a niche for this project and challenge the way people viewed museums.”
Recently, the museum received a Pollination Project Seed Grant. The funds will help provide low-cost exhibits to students attending Detroit Public Schools.
When visitors come face to face with the artifacts, el-Hakim says he hopes they will walk away inspired to conduct some of their own research. He leaves them with one question: What side of history do you want to be on?
“Many of us say we would have marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the ‘60s, but we’re now being confronted with challenges, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, police brutality and a Trump administration,” el-Hakim says. “The artifacts in the museum speak to the work of phenomenal individuals and leaders who were successful in evoking change despite facing extraordinary obstacles.”
Visit the blackhistory101mobilemuseum.com for more information.
Princess Gabbara is a Michigan-based journalist whose work has been published in several national publications, including EBONY, Jetmag.com, Essence.com, HelloBeautiful.com, BET.com, Huffington Post Women, and Sesi Magazine. Visit her site or follow her @PrincessGabbara.