When Tanika Apaloo was hired as the adult education coordinator for the Wisconsin Historical Society in the fall of 2016, one of her first tasks was to plan an event for Black History Month.
She suggested an open house, not realizing, she said, that “nothing like that had really ever been done.”
Rather than offering the traditional lecture, Apaloo envisioned an entertaining and interactive experience she thought would make the African-American community more comfortable attending the event.
“It showed the community, especially the black community, that this is a new story. We’re here to tell the histories of people of color,” said Vaunce Ashby, another WHS employee.
The event was a success and last week WHS put on its 2018 celebration, including a performance by the Mount Zion Baptist Choir, African-American-related Wisconsin artifacts, spoken word poetry and soul food.
That’s just one example of how Apaloo and Ashby, two African-American women hired into educational services roles at WHS in 2016, have been changing up the historical society, partially through their strategies and plans, and partially just by being themselves.
Having Apaloo and Ashby at WHS, said Michael Edmonds, the head of their division, “has really opened things up here in many, many ways. It’s possible for us to imagine things and do things that 10 years ago weren’t entering anybody’s mind here.”
A few years ago, WHS’s Board of Curators endorsed a strategic plan that prioritized diversifying the audience, programming and staff of the historical society.
Edmonds became the director of a new division: programs and outreach, with a specific mandate to reach out to traditionally underrepresented communities like people of color.
The motivation was two-fold, Edmonds said. From a strategic standpoint, with America’s changing demographics, “if its cultural institutions are not giving citizens relevant stories,” he said, citizens will not support them.
And from an ideological standpoint, “if we believe our own rhetoric and we believe history is really important to people,” then everyone should be able to benefit.
Enter Edmond’s two new hires: Apaloo and Ashby. Ashby is the director of education and Apaloo is the coordinator of adult education.
WHS’s efforts since then have included a partnership with the March on Milwaukee committee to make traveling exhibits on the fair housing marches of the late 1960s. The division hosted three UW-Madison PEOPLE program interns. Ashby and Apaloo worked to add more people of color to marketing pieces and the WHS website.
Edmonds noted that these are just the overdue first “baby steps,” and WHS plans to keep working at inclusivity.
Apaloo and Ashby have also made efforts to help kids of color claim their part in Wisconsin history, encourage the unearthing of more African-American artifacts and act as a welcoming point of contact for people of color.
WHS has artifacts documenting African-American history in Wisconsin in its archives, but those artifacts may not be correctly categorized or easily discoverable, Apaloo said.
Ashby and Apaloo’s presence and initiatives have helped make other WHS employees “more aware of collections that have been here for years,” Apaloo said.
Now, historians in the building send email or come running when they find more African-American history in the archives, Apaloo and Ashby said.
“We get excited because we’re like, we knew it was here, we knew it was here!” Ashby said
When Ashby first arrived at WHS, a museum curator gave her a copy of a picture from 1901 of an African-American family in front of its homestead in Pleasant Ridge. It hangs in her office.
“(The curator said) ‘You know, we’ve got a rich history of African-Americans in this society, but we don't have a lot of people telling those stories,'” Ashby said. “And I just thought, ‘This is where I needed to be.’”
Apaloo has also helped bring more items to the WHS collection by reaching out to African-American communities.
That necessitated building a lot of trust, so that the people who held important pieces of history — like a T-shirt worn in the March on Milwaukee and an NAACP hat worn in the March on Washington — would feel comfortable entrusting their artifacts to the museum.
For one item, Apaloo drove to Milwaukee several times to build a relationship with the owner and answer her questions about how the item would be preserved and displayed. That surprised some WHS staff, who usually collect items on a single visit.
“From my experience so far … people from the African-American community seem to have more of a close connection with the items,” Apaloo said. “They want as much detail as possible.”
Outside of these intentional efforts, Apaloo and Ashby’s presence in the WHS building has yielded positive results. People of color who may not have felt comfortable asking questions at WHS now approach them. Since they have backgrounds in education, not history, they often don't know the answers, but work to find someone who can help. Now, Ashby said, “people are like, 'when you go, ask for Vaunce or Tanika.'”
“We’re considered, I think, the point people for the society. And not just for the African-American community. We’re reaching out also to the Latino communities, the Hmong communities and also broaching Native Nations as well,” Apaloo said.
KIDS ‘SEE THEMSELVES IN HISTORY’
Ashby is passionate about taking history to kids, especially kids of color.
“Kids want to know, just like adults, Where am I in the history of our state? Was everybody who came here a slave? When did we come? What did we do when we were here?” she said.
The WHS’s fourth grade textbook, “Wisconsin: Our State, Our Story,” is used by 65 percent of fourth-graders in the state, and Ashby aims to “bring this book to life in the classroom.”
The WHS’ Hands on History program, launched in March 2017, brings historical artifacts to classrooms throughout the state. The program offers a show-and-tell experience of different “kits” of artifacts about topics like lumber and lead mining or fair housing in Milwaukee, and is conducted by school services director Kurt Griesemer.
One of the items is a traditional Hmong story cloth, which Griesemer introduced for the first time in a Milwaukee classroom that had three Hmong students.
“When he pulled the Hmong cloth out, the kids just got so excited that they started talking to him in Hmong. He’s like, ‘Wait, I know I have the cloth but I don’t know what you're saying!’” Ashby said.
That’s powerful for kids, and gives them a sense of belonging.
“It just makes kids proud of where they are and who they are, to see themselves in that history,” Ashby said.