Growing up in the Lincoln Heights community, Willie Griffin used to ride his bike past the homes of some of the true giants of Charlotte’s black history and culture.
Still, it wasn’t until he went off to Morehouse College, where he majored in African American history, that he came to appreciate the roles his former neighbors played in building the city he called home.
Now a civil rights scholar who holds a doctorate in American History from UNC Chapel Hill, Griffin will return to Charlotte as the newly appointed historian at Levine Museum of the New South. His first day on the job will be June 4.
Griffin, 43, said he wants to tell the story of Charlotte in a way that spotlights the city’s proper place within the broader Civil Rights Movement — a story too often overshadowed, he said, by the well-known protest movements in cities like Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama.
“I have come to believe that, after studying the Civil Rights Movement, that Charlotte had one of the most dynamic movements of any place in the South, and yet it is not known,” he said. “The resistance that we pay attention to in the Civil Rights Movement is not the only story.”
Rethinking the past
Griffin, who most recently taught African American history at The Citadel, joins the Levine museum at a time when officials there are working to implement new strategies designed to reach new audiences, especially younger people in the “millennial” age rage.
Kathryn Hill, the museum’s president and CEO, said it is an exercise being repeated at museums all over the nation.
“It used to be that (museums) competed with shopping malls and movie theaters,” she said. “Now we are competing with the couch, because you’ve got Netflix and social media.”
Hill said that whereas the museum once focused on lectures and in-house programs – all designed to lure audiences in – she now wants to take more events beyond the museum’s walls. And internal exhibitions, she said, will become more interactive and family friendly.
This year, for example, the museum is working to partner with the House of Africa retail store, which hosts an annual Juneteenth festival. Hill said the museum also is looking for opportunities to partner with Dupp & Swat, an African American-owned meeting and retail space, to host future events.
“Charlotte is changing. The world is changing, and Levine Museum of the New South is embracing change,” she said.
Hill added, “We have been issue driven in the past. We have done dialogues and hoped everybody would come, or panel discussions and hoped everybody would come. Well, we’re finding that young adults don’t come to lectures much.”
The museum’s research shows that people of color, Hill said, are generally more aware of the Levine museum and tend to be more motivated to attend than are white audiences.
“That makes us pretty unique in the history of museum space, and we are proud of that heritage, and we are committed to that legacy,” she said.
Hill said she wants the museum to become more of a “thought leader,” working with policy makers and the media to “position today’s stories within a broader historical context.”
“We will be successful when this feels like a community center,” she said, “when this feels like a place where you have to come to understand what is going on in the world or you have to come because you want to tell your story or you want to explore more about the people who live in your neighborhood.”
History in context
As museum historian, Griffin would play a significant role in helping to implement this new strategy. He said he wants to use his time at the museum to help residents understand how history has shaped the city’s economy and social structure.
“If you don’t understand the history of the city, you just sort of focus on, well, what’s going to make me money — progress is money — and that’s not always the case,” he said.
While some observers said they were surprised when violence broke out in Charlotte following the 2016 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, Griffin said the seeds of that unrest were planted decades earlier. In fact, he said, they are rooted in the city’s racial history, where some of the first African American organizing occurred around economic and police-community relations.
Echoing former Levine Museum historian Tom Hanchett, Griffin said he wants to tell story of the countless unknown people who set the stage for the national civil rights struggle – the protest movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and his associates.
A student of history
As a boy growing up in Wesley Heights, Griffin said some of those people lived in his immediate community.
He recalled cutting the lawn of the woman who was appointed the city’s first black librarian, and he used to ride his bike past the home of Bertha Maxwell Roddey, a pioneering educator in the study of black history. And one of his grandfathers, he said, made history as the first African American driver hired by one of the city’s large trucking firms.
Griffin said he first began to appreciate history after he studied the Jewish holocaust as a student at East Mecklenburg High School. Later, at Morehouse College, where he enrolled thinking he would become a lawyer, Griffin worked as a student assistant for the Journal of Negro History, which was founded in 1916 by Carter G. Woodson.
That’s when “the history book opened up for me for African American history,” he said, “and I realized there was so much more that I didn’t understand and that history was a lot more complicated than I thought it was.”
After graduating from Morehouse with a degree in African American Studies, he later earned a master’s degree in history from Morgan State University.
Along the way he returned to Charlotte, where he taught history at West Charlotte High School and Johnson C. Smith University.
As a doctoral student at UNC Chapel Hill, he produced a biography of Trezzvant W. Anderson, an unsung Charlotte native, journalist and national civil rights figure. He
Also served as a research fellow with UNC’s Southern Oral History Program, where he worked on “The Long Civil Rights Movement Initiative,” which challenged the popularly accepted timeline of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Griffin said he has learned throughout his years of study that African American history is far more rich and complex than most are lead to believe.
“The tragedy for African Americans is they are not taught their history and what roles they played in the building of America,” he said. “These are things that kids need to know about. They need to know what their community’s history is, what place it has and how it has defined them. You need to understand how you can continue that legacy.”
Correction: This story was updated to correct the Charlotte neighborhood where Willie Griffin grew up and the high school he attended.