Secret ancestors, precious photos, and civil rights at the African American Museum

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It’s Saturday afternoon at the African American Museum in Oakland, and archivist Sean Heyliger is showing a small group how best to preserve and care for old photos as part of an open house for Black History Month. A few have brought in fragile images of ancestors long dead. Some, like Rhonda Spears, want to make copies of beloved photographs for friends and family.

“I have ten brothers and sisters,” she says, “so that’s going to cost me some money. I’ve been watching my money since I am retired.”

The event brings Spears together with an older man, Bjoe Morris, who has brought a 1960s era magazine of photos from the civil rights era. Morris was active in the civil rights movement, and with an old Brownie camera documented everything he could, including the movement’s most famous figure, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Morris recalls the death of Dr. King, and how the leader requested that some musicians play an old spiritual before he was assassinated. “He said ‘Play Precious Lord, Take My Hand.’ I think he knew he was going to die,” says Morris, and then breaks down in tears.

“You get those feelings,” says Spears compassionately, and puts her hand on Morris’s shoulder, until the crying spell is over.

The museum’s open house included family history workshops on photo and document preservation. It was a one-time only event for Black History Month.

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