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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Black History Month at the Nathanael Greene Museum

"Our children need to know that there is more than one heritage within them."

Every two years, Johnnie Mae Swagerty brings a busload of the New Vision Youth to the Nathanael Greene Museum in Greeneville, Tennessee, to educate them on African-American history they might not know about. While in the process, the youth also learn about the role that Greene County played in the history of East Tennessee, Tennessee, and through Greene County native and President Andrew Johnson.. the United States as well.

"It gives the kids encouragement to know where they're from," Swagerty says. "Through the exhibits, they get to feel the dignity and pride that people struggled to achieve over the years. This really gives them an education and spurs their thoughts about being somebody."

During African-American History Month, visitors to the museum can peruse the Paths to Freedom display, and a special gallery that focuses on contributions by the county's African-Americans.

"Greene County was one of the counties where there were a lot of free African-Americans prior to the Civil War," says museum office manager Barbara Lawrence. "We are proud of that. Greene County was mostly Union during the way, not like a lot of the rest of the state."

Many historical items from churches and Greene County's former African-American school, George Clem High School, are also on display.

The Nathanael Greene Museum has been around just over 30 years, and in that time, has quickly become a respository for artifacts and collectibles that are native to the area and to time periods in Greene County. "The museum started with just one room and we quickly outgrew that," says Lawrence. "We get a lot of people donating many items that we always keep a record of," she says, opening files of names and donated merchandise native to Greene County.

"Last year, we had 71 donations," she says, "and so far this year, we've had 10. We could easily move into a larger building. Sometimes we have to turn down donations, because we don't have the room."

This would have been just some old milk jug, perhaps hidden in someone's closet, sitting dusty on a back porch, or even half-buried in the ground. Instead, someone cleaned it up, polished it, and donated it to the museum, now held proudly by Lawrence.

"According to the markings on it, this bottle is from the Sanitary Milk Company of Greeneville, Tennessee, right here in our backyard," she says. "Somebody thought enough of it to donate it to us so that others could be witness to the history of a business that our ancestors knew very well. The business is long gone, but its heritage is not forgotten."

Kids from the New Vision Youth took a brief tour when they arrived at the museum just to get familiar with items and exhibits that piqued their interest. Then after an assembly and discussion period where their individual imaginations were stimulated with input, the group embarked on a closer, more indepth tour that prompted question after question about what they were looking at and its place in history.

They were able to see exhibits featuring Greeneville's Main Street, as it was many years ago. Store fronts introduce them to miniature inside galleries, complete with furniture, food products, pictures, paintings and other items the stores used to sell. For space purposes, the exhibits are down to just a few square feet, but if one narrows their focus, the result is a quaint, big-city feel, in a small-town atmosphere.

Other exhibits feature items for the kitchen like a wringer washing machine, washboards, ice boxes (we call them refrigerators now), cupboards, wooden kitchen tables, utensils.. things considered antique these days, but thought of as modern 100 years ago. The item that commanded the most attention was a stove with a porcelain top. A note on the top of it, reminded students of the Depression years of their ancestors, when folks were glad to just have enough food to survive a good meal.

The Magnavox plant was one of Greene County's largest employers during the electronics boom of the 70's and 80's. An exhibit in the Greene Museum featuring Magnavox, Sylvania and Philco Consumer electronics products fills one room with products made by Greene County residents.

That display immediately got the attention of the New Vision Youth kids. Being born and raised in the digital age, none of them were familiar with things like record players, small analog black-and-white TV sets, console stereos, video disc players, floor model color TV's, and even AM/FM radios! Their questions about the items and the time period they were used, just came one right after the other.

Early Greene County farm implements from the 19th and early 20th-century comprised several exhibits, and the kids were intrigued at how the farm machinery played an important role in where food came from.. even other important commodities important to the county's economy, like tobacco products. Plows, tillers, dividers and other farm items were readily recognizable by the New Vision chaperones, but to the kids.. they were just iron and bent pieces of metal.

Also of interest, was the museum's collection of antiques, living room, dining room and bedroom furniture. Although they resembled items found in modern-day households, these items' bulk, girth and inflexibility produced a few chuckles among the New Vision visitors.

That was most evident in the room dedicated to native son Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States. Many items not already on display at the nearby Johnson National Historic Site, can be found at the Nathanael Greene Museum.

The Nathanael Greene Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 AM to 5 PM. Admission is three dollars for adults, and two dollars for students.

"It's important for people in a community to know where they came from," says Greene Museum office manager Barbara Lawrence. "Most people don't know how much history is in Greene County, even African-American history."

Swagerty herself has a link to Greene County's history. Her family is tied to Andrew Johnson's heritage.

"My great-grandmother was the nanny to Andrew Johnson's granddaughter here in Greene County," she proudly proclaims. "In my family, we have a pitcher that he used to drink from.. we also have the skillet and the main bowl used in the Johnson family kitchen for meals. Both were passed on down to my mother Geraldine Swagerty. That's our little link to history."

"It's good to know that everybody has a heritage somewhere," she says. "That's what we want the kids to know."

"It's something to be proud of."


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