By Michael Collins of The Commercial Appeal
WASHINGTON — A simple gold crucifix and a white collar worn by the Bishop G.E. Patterson of Church of God in Christ in Memphis sit behind a glass case on the fourth floor of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Just around the corner, a short video clip of Patterson delivering one of his sermons plays on a continuous loop.
“That’s pretty powerful,” Deidre Malone of Memphis said Wednesday as she looked over the exhibit honoring the man she worked for and admired. “He was well-loved, well thought-of, not just in Memphis, but really around the world.”
One floor below, another exhibit celebrates the life and career of another Tennessee trailblazer.
A fedora, trench coat and Coronet electric typewriter belonging to Nashville Banner reporter Robert Churchwell, known as “the Jackie Robinson of journalism,” are on display, along with copies of his articles and personal recollections of the hardships he faced as one of the first black journalists to work for a white-owned newspaper in the South.
“I wrote a story every morning … but it never got in the paper,” reads one Churchwell quotation, referring to the difficulty he had getting stories published about student-led sit-ins and mass protests that rocked Nashville in 1960.
The museum won’t open until Sept. 24, but reporters got a sneak peek Wednesday during a special preview for them and other guests.
The exhibits honoring Patterson and Churchwell are among more than 3,000 artifacts on display when the 400,000-square-foot museum opens on the National Mall near the Washington Monument.
The museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, traces the history of African-Americans from slavery to the civil rights movement to the historic election of President Barack Obama. Its 11 inaugural exhibits include a slave cabin, a cell from Louisiana’s Angola prison, the original casket of Emmett Till — the 14-year-old killed in Mississippi in 1955 for reportedly whistling at a white woman — a 40-ton Jim Crow railroad car and Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac.
Many of the objects on display have ties to Tennessee.
A wooden chair used by the deacons of Spruce Street Baptist Church in Nashville is there. So are a printing plate and a Sunday school program printed by R.H. Boyd’s National Baptist Publishing Board in Nashville.
“Honor King: End Racism” reads a placard that’s part of an exhibit on the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The poster was carried by Memphis sanitation workers during a memorial march for King on April 8, 1968, just four days after he was gunned down at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
A 45-rpm single of the song “B-A-B-Y,” recorded by Carla Thomas in 1966 on the Memphis-based Stax label, hangs on the wall in a section celebrating the musical contributions of African-Americans. A black-and-white photo of Memphis-born Aretha Franklin, eyes closed tightly, mouth open wide in song, shows the legendary Queen of Soul performing during a Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in Memphis in July 1968.
All told, nearly five dozen objects from Tennessee are among the museum’s 40,000-item collection. Less than 10 percent of the collection will be part of the inaugural exhibit, so many of the Tennessee items remain in storage but could eventually be put on display as other items rotate into the exhibit.
The crucifix and collar belonging to Bishop Patterson are part of a larger exhibit on cultural expressions, including the language and oral traditions of African-Americans.
“Who is a better example of preaching traditions than G.E. Patterson?” said Anne Hyppolite, the exhibit’s curator.
Patterson’s widow, Louise, donated the items to the museum after his death. The museum is developing a center for religion, so some of Patterson’s memorabilia not currently on display could eventually end up there, Hyppolite said.
Patterson’s artifacts are important in helping the museum tell his story, Hyppolite said.
“It really brings it home to have a cross — a crucifix that he actually wore every Sunday, when he did his sermon,” she said. “It’s a personal aspect of the man himself, and it’s an implement of his trade.”
Malone, a public relations executive whose firm worked with Patterson, said his widow, Louise, is delighted by his inclusion in the museum. Louise Patterson will attend the formal ribbon-cutting on Sept. 24, when guests of honor will include President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
Rhonda Parks of Memphis, who worked for Patterson for 32 years, said it’s fitting the bishop’s crucifix is on display.
“That cross means just what he stood for — the cross of Jesus Christ,” she said. “Not rubies and diamonds, but what Jesus did on the cross to request and receive salvation. That was his thing.”
Other Tennessee items in the museum’s collection include a sign from a segregated public bus in Nashville, a 1902 marriage certificate belonging to a couple in Centerville, an advertisement for a slave market in Memphis and a clock used by Citizen’s Savings and Trust Co. in Nashville.
Dozens of vintage, black-and-white photos depict everyone from a mourning Coretta Scott King to a beaming young woman receiving her voter registration card in Fayette County. The young woman holds the card up in the air for everyone to see, a smile stretched across her face.