Toneisha Brown: A Fervent Preservationist for African American History
February 12, 2021
Toneisha Brown graduated from VCU in 2019 with a B.A. in history. She had her heart set on doing an internship at the Maggie Walker house for her senior year, but the government shutdown due to the pandemic caused her to change course. Not deterred, she has found fulfillment through becoming a volunteer at the house. Sianna Westley, a junior in VCUarts and student worker for the history department, reached out to Toneisha to ask her about the Maggie Walker house, her goals for the future, as well as the significance of Black History Month.
Tell me a little bit about your VCU experience, and as a recent alum, where you’d like to go from here.
Sianna, it is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with you today! Thanks for having me. I graduated in 2019 from VCU with a Bachelor of Arts in history. I really enjoyed my time, as an Undergraduate history student at VCU. I learned so much from my beloved VCU history professors. They taught me how to be a great historian. My greatest joy was sitting in the front of their classes, reticent like a butterfly, and imbibing their immense intellect and vast knowledge of history. I am forever grateful to them for cultivating my intellect and infectious curiosity. They encouraged me to pursue a higher education in history. I am currently pursuing a Master of Arts in public history at Southern New Hampshire University.
My goal is to get a Ph.D. in public history after graduate school. I want to work as a curator or archivist in a museum. I am very adamant about historic preservation because it helps us solidify the past. It is so important for our nation to preserve our history for posterity. I am very fervent about the preservation of African American history, which is at risk of being obliterated if we do not take the necessary steps to preserve it. One example of this is the desecration of African American cemeteries around the nation. A lot of historic documents like slave manuscripts are at risk of being annihilated if we do not digitally preserve them for posterity in the archives. Old slave dwellings in remote areas of the South are in a dilapidated state architecturally and are not being properly preserved for posterity.
For your senior year, you wanted to intern at the Maggie Walker House, but COVID-19 had other plans. Tell me what happened, and how you moved forward?
My best friend, who was an African American studies major told me about the internship at the Maggie L. Walker House. I was so ecstatic to intern at the Maggie L. Walker House. It was a great honor to work at the house of the first African American female bank president. I grew up with her history as a native Richmonder, so it was a great experience to share her great history with the public. I applied to be an intern at the museum and interviewed with the museum staff. I was selected for the internship, but I ran into an impasse, due to the government shutdown.
This was so frustrating for me as a student. I did not know when the museum was going to open again to the public. I had to make an intractable decision to either wait until the museum reopened or risk not being able to graduate on time. So, I decided to take a seminar course on American slavery instead to fulfill my senior seminar requirement to graduate. When the museum opened back up, I decided to work as a volunteer, which was a very edifying experience for me.
Tell me about your volunteer experience at the Maggie Walker House.
The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site preserves Maggie L. Walker’s home for posterity. The site interprets her historic achievements as a civil rights activist and prominent entrepreneur. I really enjoyed volunteering at the Maggie L. Walker House, and it was a very illuminating experience for me as a history buff. The NPS staff at the museum was phenomenal and passionate about the perseveration of Mrs. Walker’s history. I enjoyed working under the auspices of the Supervisory Ranger Ajena Rogers and Park Rangers Ben Anderson and Nathan Hall. I learned so much more about Mrs. Walker’s history from working with them at the museum.
My favorite part was meeting new people from all over the country. I enjoyed sharing her history with visitors and acclimating them to the site. People would come into the site completely oblivious of her history, and they were always so inspired by her story when they left the museum. I remember one visitor saying to me in tears, “She is my new shero.” (click here for the extended interview for this question)
What do you want people to know about Maggie Walker?
She always talked about the importance of unity and economic uplift within the Black community. She lived during a time when African Americans did not have any political power, so she advocated for them to make their voices heard with the power of the Black dollar. Richmond was very segregated in the early twentieth century due to pervasive Jim Crow laws, which mandated segregation. Mrs. Walker encouraged Blacks to open their own businesses, and she understood the power of the Black dollar.
Switching gears, can you talk about the significance of Black History Month to you?
Black History Month is significant to me because it highlights the many contributions that African Americans have made to American culture, history and society. The Black influence on society can be seen in many different areas like religion, music, dance, art, STEM, politics, engineering, fashion, food, the Armed Forces, finance, sports, politics, business, literature et cetera. Black History is a time for our country to reflect on the history of the Black pioneers, who paved the way for us today. African Americans have been the architects of American democracy.
We have made this country live up to the promises that it made on paper. For me, African American history is a story of survival, resistance and courage. The Black spirit is indomitable and indefatigable, and it continues to persevere in the face of adversity. We have been able to turn our pain into power. We stand on the shoulders of warriors, who did not succumb to the fear of politics. Our ancestors were willing to die, so that we can have a seat at the table. Our basic constitutional rights have been paid for with the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors.
I really believe that African American history has the power to make the world a better place because it is imbued with nothing but hope, faith and courage. If we are going to dismantle systemic racism, history is the balm that is going to help us heal our wounds. In the words of the great physicist Stephan Hawking, “The past tells us who we are. Without it, we lose our identity.”1 To heal the racial wounds of our country, we must study all aspects of our history intrinsically to create a more equitable future. A nation that does not study its past will suffer in the present and future.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson the great historian and scholar is my hero. Dr. Woodson advocated for African Americans to know and be proud of their history. He created Negro History Week in 1926, which is the predecessor to Black History Month. He dedicated his life to preserving our stories for posterity. He is forever the “Father of Black History Month.” A man who does not know his history is like a tree without roots, and Dr. Woodson felt this way too. This is what he said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”2
Black History Month is a time for us to celebrate the pioneers, who have paved the way for us today: Pioneers like Maggie L. Walker, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Georgiana Simpson, Sadie Alexander, Mary McCleod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Phyllis Wheatley, Mary Church Terrell, Elizabeth Jennings, Percy Julian, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Hill, John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Robert Smalls, Hiram Revels, Shirley Chisholm, Sarah Bickford, Jeffrey Brace, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Bessie Coleman and many more.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
It is so important for us to understand that Black History is 365 days a year and not one month. African American history is American history and not a footnote within it. It is so important for people to understand that Black history does not start with slavery. We must change the parochial narrative around Black history. African American history is an extension of American and African history. African history begins with the inception of our beloved human ancestors home sapiens, who evolved in east Africa about 200,000 years ago.
Africa is the mother of civilization and the bedrock of human history. Some of my favorite ancient African civilizations are: Ancient Egypt, Kush, Carthage, Aksum, Mali, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Benin, The Land of Punt, Songhai and many more. These were great civilizations with sophisticated social and political systems. So, slavery was an interruption of our history, but I would hate to see the history of slavery eradicated from public memory. For me, the history of slavery is a story of resistance and resilience. Slavery played a pivotal role in the foundation of our nation. Slavery was capitalism in its earliest form. Enslaved individuals resisted against the institution of slavery in many ways. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs and Olaudah Equiano used their words as a form of literary protest against the institution of slavery. Enslaved individuals resisted the institution of slavery by running away, writing compelling narratives, participating in slave rebellions, braking tools, refusing to work et cetera.
They should be viewed as influential historical figures, and not the victims of history. They created their own thriving world within a country that treated them like aliens due to their skin color. In the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to receive a PH.D. from Harvard University in 1895 and co-founder of the NAACP in 1909, “There is in this world no such force as the force of a man determined to rise. The human soul cannot be permanently chained.”3 African American history is the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity! We must continue to bend the moral arc of the universe. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”4
Thanks for your time Sianna, it has been a great honor to speak with you today!
Note: Toneisha Brown had much more to say about the life and legacy of Maggie Walker. Please click here for the extended interview and source end notes.