When Artifacts Talk, Stillman Intern Joshua Johnson Listens
If 1892 is emblazoned in gold letters on an antique shaving mug, the mug was probably made in 1892. During a recent internship at Howard’s and Linton’s Barber Shop, Stillman College senior Joshua Johnson found that some aspects of historical documentation are fairly logical. For Joshua, archiving shaving mugs, antique knives, photos, newspaper articles, telephones and other artifacts in the shop was the least stressful aspect of his internship. His greatest challenge has been trying to get other young people to care about the stories behind the artifacts.
Joshua and fellow Stillman intern Christopher Williams were not familiar with the historic barbershop until Dr. Linda Beito, Chair of the Department of Social Sciences and Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences at Stillman, offered them the internship so that they could learn to archive artifacts and provide a public service. Dr. Beito, who is writing a book about Reverend Linton, his barbershop, and its prominent role in the Civil Rights movement, introduced the students to Reverend Linton and asked them to document all of the shop’s artifacts, including items that have been around since it opened in 1949 and antiques that Reverend Linton acquired from other places.
The assignment from Dr. Beito came at a time when everything in Joshua’s life seemed to be pointing to the past. “Around the time my internship started, I was already becoming more interested in my family history. I was talking to my grandparents in Savannah, Georgia and they were telling me more and more about their lives. They knew all about Emmitt Till, and they talked about how my grandfather and other grown men used to be called “Boy.’ Then I met Reverend Linton, and I started reading old newspaper articles in his shop and listening to stories he told me about when he was my age and about how Stillman students were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Also, at my job in the Office of Alumni Affairs at Stillman, I had to search through yearbooks to identify former student leaders who were actually enrolled in the College during that era.”
As he documented historic newspaper clippings, Joshua became immersed in Tuscaloosa history. He was shocked when he read about Autherine Lucy, the first black student to be enrolled in the University of Alabama. Lucy was taken to Howard’s and Linton’s Barber Shop to be cleaned up after a mob pelted her with eggs and sent her fleeing from the campus.
“The most shocking thing I learned was about the involvement of Stillman students in Bloody Tuesday in 1964. Protesters wanted to plan a peaceful walk from the First African Baptist Church to the Court House on Greensboro. When I started talking to Reverend Linton and reading documents in his shop about the march, I realized that many of the people involved were young people. It was hard for them because older black people were upset with them and afraid they would cause trouble. So they faced opposition from their parents as well as whites. The police tear gassed the church, beat people and threw a lot of them in jail.”
“When I started telling other people about my internship and what I was learning, they would say, ‘Cool.’ But, they weren’t excited. Growing up in the West End in Atlanta, near Morehouse College, I was exposed to a great deal of information about black history. Speakers always came to my elementary school and my high school. But it didn’t have the impact on most kids that you would think. Maybe sometimes people become numb. They hear about history so much that they just stop listening.”
Joshua, who says that he would rather watch an historical documentary than see a movie, is concerned that most young people do not seem to care about the past. “Older people like Reverend Linton express that if we don’t care about our history it won’t be passed on. This is important to me because I understand the concept that history will die if no one keeps it alive by remembering,” says Joshua, who plans to one day earn a Ph.D. in history.
Although he suspects that young people are indifferent about the past because racism “is not as blatant today,” he argues that Black history is not just about the Civil Rights Era. “Even in Reverend Linton’s shop, there are all kinds of artifacts that have nothing to do with that time period. I got to see pictures of Stillman and articles about Stillman that are over one hundred years old. I learned about the evolution of knives—how different a blade from the 1930s is from one from the 1970s. I learned about shaving mugs and how they were a status symbol and how wealthy customers had their names engraved on them.”
“Reverend Linton is so open to sharing knowledge and advancing the message of keeping history alive. That’s why he opened the shop up to us to document items for Dr. Beito’s book. He was so glad to see folks from Stillman come here. He wants to make sure his story is told.”
Joshua hopes that young people will listen.
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