People and places in Fayette County that tell the story of African-American life have long interested Dr. Norma Thomas.
“I’ve been doing research for years,’’ said Thomas, of Hopwood, “and several people have said, ‘You should spearhead having a museum.’ That was always my goal.’’
It became a reality this year with the unveiling of the East End United Community Center’s Traveling Fayette County Black History Museum at the Uniontown facility’s recent Community Spirit Day.
“I’m calling it a traveling museum because we can move it,’’ said Thomas, EEUCC board secretary who serves as museum curator, also explaining the center doesn’t have space to set it up on a regular basis.
The public will next be able to view the museum from 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 5 as the center’s Silver Generation includes it as part of its “1960s: Remember the Champions,’’ a celebration of sports heroes, championship teams, music and historic events.
“I’m so excited to get this moving forward, and I feel very grateful to have Dr. Thomas and her expertise, her passion for African-American history. She’s been collecting and reaching out to the community,’’ said Keeley Forrestel, EEUCC executive director. “We’re very fortunate to have such great people involved.’’
Funded in part with a Fayette County tourism grant, the museum received contributions for the collection from Thomas as well as Geraldine Jackson, Phillip Thomas, Al Owens, Herald-Standard clippings, the Pennsylvania Room of the Uniontown Public Library, and websites of Fayette County Sports Hall of Fame, Lantz Funeral Home and Fayette County Genealogy Society.
“A lot of the history I knew and then you find additional pieces, like this copy of the Courier-Digest, which was an African-American newspaper in the 1930s in Uniontown,’’ said Thomas.
The museum traces life to the 18th century.
“A lot of people don’t know Fayette County had a history of slavery,’’ said Thomas, pointing to census records that show households with free persons of color and slaves, dating to 1790.
As Pennsylvania outlawed slavery, Fayette County became part of the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses for escaping slaves.
Thomas said stops included John Wesley AME Zion Church and Baker Alley in Uniontown as well as Nemacolin Castle in Brownsville.
Noting Kenneth Johnson and the Black Homecoming Committee launched the effort for city recognition, the museum includes photos of an historical marker and monument in Uniontown’s East End that read, “The pathway to freedom led this way for slaves fleeing the South in the years before the Civil War. Here, they were given haven and helped along their journey by local people through one of the key stations in a house on Baker Alley.’’
The museum covers a variety of subjects. Some examples include:
n Churches, an important part of community life, are emphasized in a display of Uniontown congregations.
n African-American cemeteries are remembered with a placard noting, “Even in death, there is separation by race.’’
n Many Fayette County athletes rose to national prominence, such as C. Vivian Stringer, a German Township native who coaches Rutgers University and has one of the best records in the history of women’s basketball. Football stars from Uniontown include Ernie Davis, the first African-American recipient of the Heisman Trophy; Chuck Muncie, who played for the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers; and Gene Huey, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers and coached for the Indianapolis Colts.
n The museum emphasizes achievements by a variety individuals, such as U.S. Ambassador Ronald DeWayne Palmer and community activist Dr. Fred Vaughns, both of Uniontown; and Connellsville’s Harold Betters, a prominent jazz musician, and James Betters, who became the first black drum major in the United States.
Thomas would like to expand the collection.
“I’m encouraging people to give historical items to somebody – whether they give it to me, whether they give it to the library – because so much of it gets lost,’’ Thomas said.
This history is important, especially for younger generations.
“It’s a source of pride. It’s a source of culture,’’ said Thomas. “Having your history gives you a foundation upon which to build.’’