In some ways the Hannibal, Mo., that Faye Dant, 62, grew up in no longer exists. Dant remembers when schools in Hannibal were still segregated. Around town, there was an unspoken knowledge of the places where blacks could go and where they couldn’t.
“We were not the kind of community that had signs,” she said. Businesses didn’t label themselves as white-only. “But we knew.”
Faye left Hannibal for college and bigger cities, places in Michigan and Minnesota, and then Chicago. She and her husband moved back to his farm in Hannibal two years ago. Although some things had changed in Hannibal, Dant still needed to acknowledge the past of the town’s black population—”the invisibles,” she said.
“I felt like these people needed to know they had a history in Hannibal.”
On September 10, Dant invited Hannibal to view the project she cooked up in less than six months. In the back of the Hannibal History Museum, Dant unveiled the Hannibal African American Life and History Project. Two hundred people, mostly black, attended. She guessed it was probably the only time that many black people had been downtown at once.
The exhibits on the mustard-colored walls are monuments to the triumph and the oppression of Hannibal’s black community. Dant called on residents to lend their photos, clothing, books and papers to the project. As a result the faces of Hannibal residents fill the room. There are collages of candid photos—the faces of schoolgirls, newlyweds, soldiers, weathered old men—each one meaningful in its own way. Dant made an effort to showcase prominent members of the black community, which include Olympic athlete George Poage and Hiawatha Crow, the first black person elected to the Hannibal City Council.
There’s also a glass case in the middle of the room that holds Jim Crow relics, stereotypical posters and painted wooden figurines.
Dant’s project is the kind you can sit down and absorb. She specifically added a couple of folding chairs, an easy chair and a church pew so people can stay awhile. The exhibit isn’t permanent though, at least not yet. She used a $2,500 grant from the Missouri Humanities Council to get started. But she’s still facing the challenge of paying the rent. She has to leave the museum space at the of the year, and she’s seeking $25,000 for a new exhibit space.
“I want a room and I want a building and I want this to live beyond me.”