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Making America Better

September 23, 2016 Think THF

NMAAHCWH-HR3491
The attendees are members of the Presidential Commission on the Development of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. From left, they are: Dr. Robert Wright, commission Chairman; Renee Amoore; Vicky Bailey; Andrew McLemore, Jr.; Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.; Senator Rick Santorum, R-Penn.; Michael Lomax; Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga.; Harold Skramstad, Jr.; Barbara Franco; Robert Wilkins; Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; Cicely Tyson; Lerone Bennett, Jr.; Congressman John Larson, D-Conn.; Eric Sexton; Claudine Brown; Larry Small, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; Currie Ballard. White House photo by Paul Morse. 

NMAAHC-logo_mobileWe celebrate a new national museum for the citizens of the United States – the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The idea of a national museum for African Americans started 100 years ago when black Civil War veterans announced their intentions in Washington D.C. to create a building on the Mall that would commemorate the deeds, struggles and contributions of Black Americans for the advancement of our nation. In 1929, the same year Henry Ford opened his museum complex in Dearborn, Michigan, President Herbert Hoover appointed a commission to study the idea of establishing an African American museum. However, the commission languished and was eventually dissolved 15 years later.

The Civil War veterans’ dream to commemorate the history and culture of African Americans was revived by civil rights icon and U. S. Representative John Lewis, who knows about perseverance and leadership through his many key roles in the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement. For 15 years, Representative Lewis co-sponsored and reintroduced legislation annually to establish a national museum to preserve and present African American history and culture. The museum bill finally passed in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and, on December 16, 2003, President George W. Bush signed the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act authorizing the creation of the new Smithsonian Institution museum. John Lewis attended the presidential bill signing ceremony along with members of the African American Presidential Commission, including The Henry Ford’s President Emeritus Harold Skramstad.

In July 2005, Lonnie Bunch was appointed as the founding Executive Director to lead the establishment of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Mr. Bunch’s vision is that the stories, objects and lives presented in the museum will “make America better.” On September 24, 2016, the museum opened to the public with a dedication ceremony led by President Barack Obama. Our new national museum enables current and future generations to engage in their history at an institution destined to, as Mr. Bunch hopes, “make America better.”

Christian W. Overland is Executive Vice President of The Henry Ford.

by Christian W. Øverland, presidents, African American history

1949 Mercury Customized Convertible

A museum presenting America’s ideas and innovations mourns the passing of George Barris, “The King of Kustomizers.”

George grew up building models of cars and then working on cars during his youth. He had a spark of ingenuity in the way he looked at the world as well as in the world that he built. In the mid 1960s Barris Kustom City acquired a Lincoln Futura prototype that was built for the Ford Motor Company in Turin, Italy in 1955. George had been given a contract in August of 1965 by television show producers to build a batmobile for their upcoming television show. As the legend has been told many times, he had only three weeks to build the “winged mammal” car before filming started. George had the winged-like Futura in his shop and saw the possibilities immediately, and of course the result was the most iconic movie car ever built, the Batmobile. George’s ingenious creation appeared on January 12, 1966 to millions of television viewers experiencing the spoof and kitsch of Batman. Continue Reading

making, popular culture, cars, by Christian W. Øverland, in memoriam

Rosa Parks Visiting Mattox House in Greenfield Village, 1992 (Object ID: P.B.108917.7)
The Rebellious Life of Rosa ParksJeanne Theoharis’ definitive political biography of Rosa Parks sets out to correct the popular myth of Rosa Parks as the quiet, tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat on Montgomery City Lines Bus #2857. Through extensive and intricate research, Theoharis asserts that Rosa Parks spent years working courageously for civil rights. She prepared herself with an assured readiness, which she could rely on when an opportunity occurred as it did on the bus on December 1, 1955.

As Theoharis points out, Parks started her political activist career at an early age, decades before she refused to give up her bus seat. Parks and husband Raymond, who met in 1931, shared a passion for taking action against segregation laws. She joined the Montgomery NAACP in 1943 as a volunteer advocate organizing black youth groups and trying to bring justice for young black women raped by white men. A few years later, she became the secretary of the NAACP — working with E.D. Nixon, president of the Montgomery NAACP chapter — to advocate for anti-lynching laws and overcoming the formidable process of registering black people to vote.

Rosa Parks also was a strong advocate for integrating whites and blacks. In 1947, the Freedom Train, carrying historic copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights and the original Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation, “was scheduled to stop in Montgomery and Parks published a report objecting to Montgomery’s all-white train committee,” according to Theoharis. The national requirement that the exhibit be racially integrated was highly controversial in Montgomery, Birmingham and Memphis. Parks and her colleagues were instrumental in bringing the Freedom Train to Montgomery as they pressured city officials to ensure all children would actually enter on a first-come, first-served basis. As the Montgomery NAACP secretary, she created several campaigns for racial integration, wrote numerous press releases countering white arguments for segregation and continued to mount successive and tireless campaigns for black voter registration.

Theoharis brings us through six decades of Parks’ courageous life as a political activist, which had serious consequences for her and her family. Great economic stress, constant harassment and people threatening physical harm and even death were now part of her life. Despite the private toll, Parks continued to publicly urge perseverance for the civil rights movement, never retiring as an advocate for racial justice.

Theoharis’ The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks is an exceptional scholarly work that offers a great story for its readers and should be part of every library and classroom. This work provides a new awareness of the importance of an American icon whose real history is better and far more relevant to move our society forward than the myth of a tired seamstress.

Review by Christian W. Øverland, Executive Vice President of The Henry Ford.

Civil Rights, Rosa Parks bus, books, Rosa Parks, African American history, women's history, by Christian W. Øverland