“In the City” was one of the first projects born out of the Commonwealth Project, which was conceived by musician Tef Poe five years ago when he was at Harvard as an American Democracy Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. The project’s goal is to bring emerging voices from St. Louis into conversation with academic voices at Harvard to exchange ideas and create a sustained partnership. The exhibition was intended to debut at the Griot during spring break of 2020, followed by an installation at Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies two months later.
“We wanted to operate on a model of exchange, one of radical hospitality. Let’s welcome each other into the places where we live. I was so depressed about how it ended up, due to COVID,” said Johnson. “But De pulled me out of it. It was important to get this done. It was important for me not to break faith.”
Added Conley: “We never stopped talking about it. The message is: Somebody else values the work of the Griot.”
Especially as the museum celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, Conley wants to elevate the people and parts of the city that have long been underrepresented and undervalued. The Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District is one of the largest tax-supported districts in the country, though it does not support any Black-founded, Black-owned, or Black-centered cultural organizations, Nichols said.
“St. Louis doesn’t value our stories the way they value other stories. There’s hardly a story around where St. Louis African Americans didn’t have some role to play. I don’t know when it will ever happen, but I hope we will see it. My hope is that the Griot’s persistence in telling these stories will eventually change people’s perception of Black folks and elevate them, and their role in developing this country, to its rightful place,” Conley said.
Nichols led the project, curating the images and overseeing the shift to the digital format, which debuted alongside the museum’s new website.
“No matter what we do online, it cannot replace the vulnerability of seeing these images in a physical realm. The timing placed us back a year, but my hope is that the digital exhibition is just the beginning. From the audiences we have to the ones we can cultivate even more — perhaps this will bring even more people to the Griot and set a new path for how we do this work moving ahead.”