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Sunny Nash Photos in the National Museum of African American History and Culture

March 2, 2012

The National Museum of African American History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC has collected photographs from Sunny Nash’s storefront church collection.


Sunny Nash at City of City of Artists Exhibition, Long Beach, California

Sunny Nash’s photography is  among artifacts collected by the Smithsonian for its National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Nash’s photography was collected along with other items of American historical significance, including slave shackles, narrative histories, underground railroad escape materials, symbols and signs that represent Jim Crow laws, books, documents, oral histores, plantation financial records, fine art, electronic sound recordings, arrest records of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights activists, a trumpet owned by legendary jazzman, Louis Armstrong, Michael Jackson’s fedora and other memorabelia from African American professional and entertainment industries.

Museum of African American History and Culture founding and Executive Director, Dr. Lonnie Bunch III, told a group at the Stanford Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity that he wants to open up discussion about how this museum can confront the terrible period of slavery and its legacy while still celebrating the breadth and depth of African American culture and the immense accomplishments of African Americans in science, medicine, industry and a host of other endeavors, according to an article by Gina Arnold. “People come to the Smithsonian to commemorate and affirm traditions,” Bunch says. “By contrast, this museum will [also] have to engage with fundamental questions of culpability.”

Sunny Nash, award-winning, internationally acclaimed photographer, author and Texas A&M University journalism graduate (’77), said she began taking pictures of storefront churches in Houston, Texas, in 1989. A colleague of hers, also a photographer, the late J.R. Mac, drove her to those secluded areas of Houston and waited for her to photograph the structures, establishing a model that Nash would use over and over again in years to follow to photograph storefront churches in other innercities. “J.R. knew the dangers of what I was doing. He told me, ‘Get the pictures quick and let’s move on. We can’t come back.’ He never turned off the engine. Sometimes, I shot photos from the open window of his truck.”
Nash said her training as a journalist helps her see stories others may take for granted, such as African American religious legacy, which began on plantations during slavery. “These little innercity churches were disappearing and needed to be documented and preserved for future generations,” Nash said. “Not just African Americans, but for all scholars and those interested in this integral part of American history. During slavery, under the cloak of shout meetings, the predecessors of storefront churches were a haven for clandestine gatherings, where  slaves shared plantation news about who might be sold or made plans for escape. During the era of Jim Crow laws after emancipation, churches provided shelter for the Civil Rights Movement.”

Storefront Church by Sunny Nash

Images of Nash’s Houston storefront churches eventually helped her to create a national exhibition and book manuscript, Shopping For Hope: a Photographic Study of Storefront Churches Across America.  “I’ve been working of this book for a number of years,” Nash said. “I had to stop a few times to work on other projects. But that’s the way it goes when you have several things going at one time. Fortunately, others were interested enough in my photographs to help me keep Shopping For Hope alive.”

Shopping For Hope was featured for a Martin Luther King birthday clebration on ABC Good Morning Houston and. later, included in the Symposium on African-American Religion: Research Problems and Resources for the 1990s, sponsored by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and included in Symposium Proceedings (May 26, 1990). In 1991, many of Nash’s Houston storefront church photographs from the Schomburg Symposium were acquired as artifacts and placed within the Smithsonian Institution’s African American collections.Reflections in Black: a History of Black Photographers, 1840 - Present

“I credit Deborah Willis for promoting me as a world-class photographer,” Nash said. “I have been taking pictures most of my life, but Deborah discovered my work and brought it the attention of the world when she included it, first, in the Schomburg Symposium and, second, in her coffee-table book, Reflections in Black: a History of Black Photographers, 1840–Present (W.W. Norton, New York), in which two of my Shopping For Hope photos from New York and Nashville are published. Being included in this valuable edition and reference book gives me credibility as a photographer and historian,”  Nash said. “It recognizes my photography with an importance it didn’t have before.”

Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840-Present is the first comprehensive history of black American photographers, illustrating black life from slavery to the great migrations with more than 600 images. Deborah Willis, author pf numerous books, photographer, and professor of  photography and history of photography at New York University, is a member of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Executive CommitteeI am fortunate to have met Deborah,” Nash said. “She told me many years ago that my storefront photography had historical value. I’m glad I listened to her, continued to add cities across America to my study to create a useful tool for research.”President & Mrs. Obama, and Former First Lady, Laura Bush

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, created by legislation signed into law in 2003 by President George W. Bush, will open  in 2015, 100 years after the idea was introduced in 1915 to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the end of the Civil War.  Commemorating a groundbreaking ceremony February 22, 2012, were President and Mrs. Barack Obama; former First Lady, Laura Bush; civil rights activist, Congressman John Lewis; Executive Director for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Dr. Lonnie Bunch III; and many other dignitaries.

The 1915 commemoration of African American achievement through establishment of a museum, was stalled by World War I and by racial violence against returning black veterans after the war. The 1915 effort was followed, in 1929, when Congress established a museum commission, but because of the Great Depression, the idea remained just that, an un-funded idea. Then World War II erupted. When black veterans returned from this war, many joined the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement  in protest of Jim Crow laws and treatment of African Americans, causing another abandonment of the museum.
In 1968, during the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, museum legislative initiatives for the museum commission were ignited again, especially after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It took almost 20 years more for progress toward this goal to begin in earnest, when Congress passed a joint resolution in 1986 “to encourage and support” private efforts to build the museum. To this end, Congress introduced bills in 1988 and 1989 to create a National African American Heritage Museum and Memorial within the Smithsonian Institution.
Houston Storefront Church, Press Telegram, Long Beach, California

Houston Storefront Church by Sunny Nash © 1989

In 1991, the Smithsonian created a commission to study plans for a museum devoted to African Americans to collect materials, such as Nash’s  storefront church collection.
Although funding was still an issue, the committee collected, analyzed, researched and organized exhibitions on a national scale devoted to all aspects of American history and African American life.  “It was about this time that my storefront church photography was first brought to the committee’s attention and solicited for collection,” Nash said. “I was delighted to provide slides, copies of news coverage and other materials the committee needed, along with periodic upates regarding my ongoing national photographic study of storefront churches.”
The National Museum of African American History and Culture was the National African American Museum Project when Nash was invited to participate on December 11, 1991. Claudine Brown, then Project Director for the African American Institutional Study of the National African American Museum Project, currently the Smithsonian’s Director of Education, told Nash 21 years ago when she invited her into the project, “The participation of the African American arts community and its members is critical to the development and success of this project,”  Brown said.  “A great deal of work needs to be done in order for us to begin the process of surveying contemporary African American artists for our museum’s collections and programs.”
In 2001, a bipartisan group of U.S. Congressmen, consisting John Lewis, J.C. Watts, Jr., Sam Brownback and Max Cleland encouraged establishment within the Smithsonian Institution the National Museum of African American History and Culture, completing a 100-year effort to heal U.S. race relations. The opening of this museum celebrates African American contributions to the history of the United States of America, right along with historical collections representing historical contributions of all Americans.
“My study of storefront churches,” Nash said, “Reaches into the very belly of American history and our modern society, quite literally, establishing the quest of one’s hopes and dreams, religious or otherwise, as reasons for living. Storefront religion is not restricted to any one segment of our population,” Nash said. “Storefront religion can be seen in many parts of the nation where people are likely to be more in need of hope, especially the poor, cutting across all racial lines of supposed separation. I photographed non-African American storefront churches in New Mexico, Texas, California, Ohio and New York, and traced some forms of their existence back to seventhteenth century England. The landscape and architecture of these geographical regions are different, but the basic theme is the same–people shopping for hope, looking for answers to their philosophical questions about life.”
© 2012 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

Sunny Nash, Author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's

Sunny Nash writes the popular Blog, Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America. Writer, producer, photographer and leading author on race relations in America, Nash produces blogs, media, books, articles and images on American history and contemporary topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media and modern technology. Nash blogs about Rosa Parks, Woolworth Sit-ins and civil rights history, using her book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, selected by the Association of American University Press as a resource for understanding U.S. race relations.
Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash

Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s by Sunny Nash

Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s (Hardcover: Texas A&M University Press), about life in the Brazos Valley with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement. Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations; listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida.

Robin Fruble of Southern California said, “Every white person in America should read this book (Bigmama Didn’t Shop at Woolworth’s) ! Sunny Nash writes the story of her childhood without preaching or ranting but she made me realize for the first time just how much skin color changes how one experiences the world.  But, if your skin color is brown, it matters a great deal to a great number of people. I needed to learn that. Sunny Nash is a great teacher,” Fruble said.

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From → african american history, bigmama didnt shop at woolworths, photography, Sunny Nash

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