“The Museum that Greene Built”: Carroll Greene Papers

Erena Nakashima

Erena Nakashima is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Cincinnati with a concentration on Public history. Her dissertation examines the life and work of Carroll Greene Jr., a Black museum professional as a window of institutional formation of Black Public history movement in the late twentieth century, the longstanding effort among Black Americans to collect, preserve, interpret and popularize the Black experiences in the past in the American public sphere.

Black public history is an ongoing effort by both individuals and institutions to collect, preserve, and present the experiences of Black Americans in public spaces. Historian Pero Gagio Dagbovie conceptualizes that Black public history originated multiple forms of social justice by employing “interpretation of the Black past to give substance to Black humanity and refute racist historical discourse.”[1] Over time, Black public history professionals have developed various tactics and enterprises to highlight the diverse and rich experiences of Black Americans. They have challenged the discriminatory practices and racialized institutional hierarchy of major museums that preserved control and power. Additionally, they have transformed public space by creating community-based museums that involve local residents in Black urban neighborhoods in resource collections, program designs, and daily operations.[2]

Carroll Greene Jr. Photo taken by the Baltimore Sun, October 21, 1985. Box 19, folder “Greene MD photo” Carroll Greene papers, Stuart A. Rose Library, Emory University

In my dissertation, I focus on the life and work of Carroll Greene Jr. (1931 – 2007) and its significance in the formation of the Black public history movement in the late twentieth century. Although Greene is primarily known for his curated exhibitions, publications, and connections to prominent African American artists like Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, his contributions are much broader than that. Since the 1960s, he has worked in public institutions in cities with large Black populations such as Washington, D.C., New York City, Annapolis, Maryland, Los Angeles, and Savannah, Georgia. His work as a curator, writer, researcher, cultural resource consultant, preservationist and historian extended to multiple venues such as the Museum of African Art (later the National Museum of African Art) in Washington D.C., the Smithsonian Institution, the Modern Museum of Art in New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Through his projects in both public and private sectors, Greene has promoted Black public history as a discipline and encouraged broader participation in historical dialogues to promote a more democratized and widely shared historical consciousness.

Carroll Greene Papers at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library is the only comprehensive collection preserving Greene’s private and public life. With the generous support of the Rose Research and Travel Fellowship, I conducted three-week archival research of Greene papers in May 2023. The boxes consist of memorandums, letters from his friends and families, his notes, and article drafts. I was thrilled to find his high school diploma, birth certificate, and photographs that showed his youthhood before entering his museum career. Magazines, such as several issues of the Negro History Bulletin (currently renamed the Black History Bulletin of ASALH), Art News, The Art Gallery, and clipped newspaper articles, reviews, and museum catalogs, attest to his routine of stay tune with the latest information on Black public history world. The importance of information also showed up in his letter to a newly established King-Tisdell College in Savannah, Georgia, advising a successful museum operation. He wrote, “Information. […] Hit or miss won’t do in today’s world.”[3]

After working as a research fellow at the Smithsonian Institution and a full-time museum consultant in the early 1970s, Carroll Greene Jr. became frustrated with the systematic marginalization of African American culture and institutional hierarchy in prestigious major museums. What he experienced there was uncertain at this point, however, in his own words, “Black historians and specialists in Afro-American history and culture have largely concentrated their preservation efforts on written documents, leaving the safeguarding of ‘material culture’ to museums. But curators have traditionally ignored black history and culture until recent years.” [4] As a result, Greene shifted his focus to the private sector and became involved in grassroots projects with a vision of building “the control of Afro-American cultural institutions by Afro-Americans.” [5]

Carroll Greene Jr. and other Commission members visited the Mt. Moriah Church in August, 1972. Box 11, folder “Mt. Moriah Church research” Carroll Greene papers, Stuart A. Rose Library, Emory University

Annapolis Project indicates his practices on belief and success. From 1972 to 1986, Greene was appointed as the executive director of the Maryland Commission on Afro-American History and Culture (MCAAHC) and directed the Annapolis Project, a series of efforts to prevent the demolition of the Gothic-style building that housed the Old Mount Moriah Church in Annapolis, Maryland, one of the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the nation. Greene organized the Citizens Committee for the Preservation of Mount Moriah Church to win a court case and build community-based support and fundraising, which successfully restored the building as the Banneker-Douglass Museum of Afro-American Life and History, the state’s official Black museum opened on February 24, 1984.  His fourteen years of dedication to save, rebuild, and furnish the site formed the most significant volumes of Carroll Greene papers. Correspondences displays Greene’s work as an executive director to communicate with local preservationists, historical organizations, and commission members to proceed with the Annapolis Projects together. Meanwhile, Greene conducted research on forgotten historical Black Marylanders, the tradition of Highland Beach, and the history of Anne Arundel County. The Carroll Greene papers includes some issues of The Maryland Pendulum, a quarterly newsletter by the MCAAHC since the 1976 winter. The newsletters are useful sources to follow the process of Annapolis Projects and the events that MCAAHC hosted.

Banneker-Douglass Museum of Afro-American Life and History, “From Church to Museum- Banneker-Douglass Museum Story” Box 5, Carroll Greene papers, Stuart A. Rose Library, Emory University

I am still in the process of reviewing the materials I received from the trip in May and am excited to dive into Greene’s experiences. Of course, Carroll Greene Jr. was not alone in keenly recognizing museums as an instrument to change American culture’s hegemonic racial discourse. Yet decades before prominent Black museum professionals and activists successfully lobbied for establishing the current Museum of African American History and Culture in the nation’s capitol, Greene envisioned and worked to create spaces to tell the story of Black America. Examination of his concerted, broad-based efforts to wed historical practice with social justice in public and private institutions and the challenges he faced helps us see the importance of a historical approach to the broader Black freedom struggle and the importance of this moment in American history to the development of the Black public history movement.

I want to express my gratitude to the Stuart A. Rose Library for their support during my archival trip. Special thanks to Kathy Shoemaker and the hospitable staff who made my archival experience enjoyable. I also appreciate Dr. Randall Burkett and his spouse, Nancy, for sharing valuable insights about the collection’s provenance.

[1] Pero Gaglo Dagbovie, “Reflections on Black Public History: Past, Present, Future” in Radical Roots: Public History and a Tradition of Social Justice in Activism, ed. by Denise D. Meringolo (Amherst College Press, 2021), 527, 528.

[2] Andrea Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement (The University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 4.

[3] Letter from Carroll Greene Jr. to Westley Wallace Law, June 24, 1988. Box 18, folder “Ed.” Carroll Greene papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library, Emory University.

[4] Carroll Greene Jr., “An S.O.S. for…Saving Maryland’s Black Heritage” Maryland (1973 Autumn), 15. Box 12, folder “Dawn Mag Jan-Feb 1975, John Brown, 115 year later C Greene.” Carroll Greene papers, Rose A. Stuart Library, Emory University.

[5] Letter from Carroll Greene Jr. to Westley Wallace Law, June 24, 1988. Box 18, folder “Ed.” Carroll Greene papers, Stuart A. Rose Library, Emory University.