The postcard is horrific, but it’s from the South and it’s old, so it almost doesn’t feel real.
It’s a black-and-white photo of a smoldering body. “Burning of the Negro Smith,” says the caption, “at Greenville, Tex.”
Khalid el-Hakim had it on display Monday in the welcome center of the Northwest Campus of Wayne County Community College.
It wasn’t far from an authentic white Ku Klux Klan hood el-Hakim picked up at an antique store. The hood is canvas and surprisingly heavy; you had to be willing to be uncomfortable to hate that much.
Atop the hood was a simple business card. “If you are reading this, you are in Klan Country,” it said. “Join and support the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”
It was from the office of the Grand Wizard of New Jersey, and it was recent enough to list a ZIP code.
“The history is ugly,” el-Hakim says, but it’s real and it’s ours. All of ours, because as he points out, black history isn’t something separate or static.
It’s just another slice of American history — uglier and more outrageous, maybe, but part of who we are and what made us that way.
A mobile museum
El-Hakim bought his first piece of racist memorabilia 22 years ago, at a Southern gas station on spring break: a cartoonish figurine of a black boy sitting on a chamber pot and eating watermelon.
His collection has expanded markedly, not only in size — more than 5,000 pieces — but scope. With artifacts in hand from slavery to hip-hop, his goal now is to be authoritative, not just appalled.
There’s a Time magazine from May 17, 1963, with author James Baldwin on the cover. “Birmingham and Beyond,” says the headline. “The Negro’s Push for Equality.”
Above it is a signed Christmas card from Rosa Parks. Alongside is the New York Times front section from Feb. 22, 1965, with its top story the murder of Malcolm X.
El-Hakim, 43, owns a copy of the screenplay for “Malcolm X” signed by Denzel Washington and Spike Lee. He also has an ax handle signed by Lester Maddox, who hefted one to keep black customers from his Georgia restaurant and became so popular he was elected governor.
What he calls the Black History 101 Mobile Museum has been viewed in 23 states and on more than 50 college campuses. Next week, as Black History Month winds down, it’ll be in two places at once, with some pieces at the University of Cincinnati and some at Union College in New York.
He likes to ask visitors, “Have you ever seen this in American History books?” The answer is typically no — which is why the collection exists in the first place.
Filling in the gaps
El-Hakim taught in Detroit for 15 years, the last 10 of them at a middle school for kids who’d been booted out or never seemed to show up someplace else.
A Mumford High and Ferris State grad, he left Highland Park 2½ years ago to pursue a master’s degree at Western Michigan. Come fall he’ll be chasing a Ph.D., hoping to eventually write books and teach teachers.
“It’s about filling in some of the gaps,” he says. There’s more to the black contribution than Ms. Parks, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr., and more to King than “I Have a Dream.”
“People forget,” he says, that in 1967, King turned his eloquence against the Vietnam War. “He was always a radical,” el-Hakim says, and always a part of American history, just like the slave shackles that sat on one table at WCCC.
Another of el-Hakim’s pieces is a sorority convention program signed by the educator Mary McLeod Bethune, a daughter of slaves.
The second item on the convention agenda was the invocation. The first was a song, to be voiced by all:
“The Star Spangled Banner.”