“Separate And Not Equal”

Spencer Museum Exhibit Explores History of Discrimination in Education

If you needed a compelling reason to justify public funding for the arts, look no further than KU’s Spencer Museum of Art this summer. Thanks to a six-figure grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Spencer Museum will offer two in-depth K-12 teacher workshops this summer on the subject of “Native American and African-American Educational Experiences in Kansas, 1830 – 1960.”

At a time in our nation’s history when conversations on race have never been more poignant and necessary, our teachers are uniquely positioned to facilitate fresh discourse among new generations of students.

Participating educators from around the United States will visit and study several important historic sites in Kansas and Missouri. The Shawnee Indian Mission State Historic Site, Haskell Indian Nations University, Nicodemus, Kansas — the first African-American settlement on the Great Plains — and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, are some of the sites where educators will engage with museum staff, KU faculty and community activists to unpack the difficult histories of institutional racism in the American education system.

On May 27, the Spencer Museum opens a companion exhibition, “Separate and Not Equal: A History of Race and Education in America,” drawn from their permanent collection of artwork that addresses the painful experience of discrimination experienced by Native American and African American students. The objects in the exhibition span diverse media, representing both historic and contemporary responses to the problems of racism in education.

John Orville Green’s turn-of-the-20th-century documentary photographs show sanitized scenes of cultural assimilation at residential Indian boarding schools like the one in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Shorn, shod and clothed in the garments of the white man, several Native American boys stand attentively at a chalk board learning the names of gardening tools. Driven by misguided mottos like “kill the Indian to save the man,” these institutions justified their harsh methods through industrial education.

Contemporary artist Gina Adams speaks directly to her own ancestor’s history of assimilation and the recovery of Native American craft traditions in her ceramic basketball sculpture, “honoring Modern Unidentified 4.” Her use of clay connects to an ancient lineage of material culture while the encaustic exterior reveals beadwork patterns specific to her Ojibwa heritage. The form of the basketball connotes both the “civilizing” influence that sports played at Indian boarding schools and the opportunity they provided to young people with limited means of survival.

Randy Regier’s retro, tongue-in-cheek toy, “Impending Future Bus,” flips the script on the history of racial segregation in public transportation. Under the clear dome of the sleek lined, mid-century toy bus, identically dressed passengers of color occupy all but the last two rows of seats while a lone white male sits at the back. The accompanying box for the toy proclaims, “Turnabout is fair play!” suggesting that the defiant sacrifices of civil rights activists like Rosa Parks were not only hard won but unthinkable in the artist’s imaginary revision of segregated busing.

In their commitment to “teach the teachers” as well as museum visitors, the Spencer Museum of Art is putting their money (federal funding) where their mouth (public programming) is, reminding us to take stock of the social costs of racism and to unlearn the harmful mistakes of the past. The exhibition, like the empathetic portraits of African American, Native American and Mexican immigrants created by Kansas born printmaker Marguerite M. Nellis (there are three in the exhibit), shows us how art can humanize the most vulnerable and oppressed people in our community even when the rule of law did not.

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

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