Photos by Michael Barrett
On the outside, the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center looks typical of schools built around the turn of the century in Jackson. The school was originally built in 1894 as the first public school for black students and was named after Smith Robertson, a slave from Fayette, Alabama, who moved to Jackson after the Civil War and operated a successful barber shop. He was also Jackson’s first black city alderman.
The original wood structure burned to the ground in 1909 and was replaced by the brick structure that stands today. It was enlarged in 1929 and remained in operation as a school until 1971, when it was closed and abandoned.
A group of Jacksonians fought to preserve the building, now a museum and cultural center, with the mission of increasing public awareness and understanding of the historical and cultural contributions of people from Africa.
Visitors enter the museum through the front door, just as students did for generations, but one step inside lets them know they are in a special place. A mock classroom setting to the left features a life-sized image of W. H. Lanier, a teacher at the school who later had Lanier High School named after him. Lanier taught perhaps one of the most famous students to attend Smith Robertson—acclaimed novelist Richard Wright.
Pamela Junior, director of the museum, explained that many of the teachers at the school went on to have schools in Jackson named after them. “Dawson, Isabel, Powell, Clausell, Brown and others,” Pamela said, “were named after educators who taught at Smith Robertson.”
All of the fabrications in the museum were made on site by museum personnel. “We had a limited budget, so we had to do what we could with what we had. We have a team of employees who are invested. We may have a small staff and a small budget, but we’ve done great things here.” Pamela stressed that she didn’t allow her budget to work her; instead, she had to work her budget. “We actually closed the museum for a year in order to get all this done.”
The museum features both permanent and temporary exhibits. Inspiring people like James Meredith and Oseola McCarty are featured. “I like this exhibit with Meredith, because it’s so powerful,” said Pamela. The display is in a long, narrow room, just off the lobby. Photos of Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi are on display, along with photos of him as he lay on the street after he was beaten during a march. At the far end of the room a grouping of school desks are positioned with an image of Meredith sitting in the middle. “Imagine sitting in a college classroom and no one wants to sit near you.”
Amid the slick displays are preserved remnants of the past. A plastered wall in the hallway on the fine arts side of the Museum features a mural painted by school children in the 1930s.
One of the most powerful areas of the exhibit is located upstairs. “From Slavery to America” depicts the years from 1670 to 1864, from the kings and queens of Egypt to Africa and the horrors of slavery, made real inside a mock-up of a slave ship that visitors walk through. “This chronicles their struggles and achievements,” said Pamela. The Hall of Fame showcases pioneers in the political world.
Walking through the building’s atrium—once a playground, now covered in skylights and used as an art gallery and event space—Pamela pointed to the large diamond- shaped window near the ceiling. “I love that window. At night, we leave the lights on in this space, and you can see them shining through that window like a beacon of hope.”
The Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center is located at 528 Bloom Street in downtown Jackson.