Centre Theater Gallery in Pennsylvania Opens Charles L. Blockson Exhibition 80 Years After Teacher Told Him Black People ‘Have No History’

Charles L Blockson addresses people at Centre Theater Gallery where some of the 700,000 items from his Afro-American collection are on display in Norristown. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)

A 1942 classroom with old-style wooden desks, a chalkboard, and a large, blown-up grade-school class photo showing Charles L. Blockson, one of only a handful of Black children in a predominantly white group, greets you early in the exhibition.

Blockson looks shy and pensive in the class photo. But it was a fourth-grade history class that fueled Blockson, then just 9 years old, with anger and lifelong determination.

The reconstituted classroom is part of the “Charles L. Blockson Exhibition: an African and Afro-American Collection,” opening Friday, June 17, at the Centre Theater Gallery in Norristown, which is the celebrated historian’s hometown and birthplace.

Blockson wrote about the fourth-grade incident in his memoir: Damn Rare: The Memoirs of an African-American Bibliophile. He had raised his hand to ask his teacher why she never discussed Black people’s historical achievements.

The teacher replied: “Negroes have no history. They were born to serve white people.”

From that day on, he would make it his life’s mission to search for, collect, preserve, and teach the history of Black people in America and all over the world.

A Blockson quote is printed on the wall above the entrance to the classroom exhibit: “She said Black people have no history. I set out to prove her wrong.”

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SOURCE: The Philadelphia Inquirer, Valerie Russ