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Exhibit documents African Americans' lasting mark on history

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 17, 2011 - An imprint, a legacy, that is what talk show host and author Tavis Smiley plans to leave with his exhibit, "America I Am: The African-American Imprint," now at the Missouri History Museum. St. Louis is the sixth stop on a 10-city tour going from New York to Los Angeles in four years.

"This exhibit reminds us that everyone is capable of achieving great things even against the most impossible odds," Smiley said. "We wanted to expose people to what has been done and to remind people that they have a responsibility to leave their own imprint."

The 15,000 square-foot exhibit, which runs until Sept. 25, celebrates nearly 500 years of African-American contributions to economics, politics, culture and spirituality in America. The exhibit features more than 200 culturally resonant artifacts including: sports memorabilia from basketball legend Michael Jordan; the typewriter Alex Haley used to write his genealogical epic "Roots"; personal belongings of Malcolm X; and the key from the Birmingham, Ala., jail cell that held Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

With audio of slave ships, clinking chains and historical speeches heightened by dramatic lighting, the exhibit works to capture the emotion of the historical moment.

Smiley believes that these artifacts allow the public to participate with the history they are viewing.

"When you actually see those people that you have heard about come to life, it takes on a different meaning," Smiley said. "It is important for young people to realize that there is an opportunity and an expectation that they are going to put their imprint on the nation and we want to show them that with this exhibit."

Soldan International Studies High School senior Douglas Bell felt "touched" after he viewed the exhibit.

"It inspired me, it makes me hunger to achieve a bigger and better goal," Bell said. "It was emotional and it was a good representation of our heritage and history."

Bell works for the Teens Make History program at the Missouri History Museum; he enjoys acting and interpreting historical figures in St. Louis. His group is currently writing plays to complement the exhibit.

"It is really neat to learn about history that wasn't fully explained in class; to be able to interact with it helps it come to life for me," Bell said.

With 20 years of experience in the broadcast industry as a talk show host on BET, NPR and PBS, Smiley said, "My broadcast career has given me a platform that has allowed me to raise issues that I think are important. There is no way that I could pull this exhibit off without the broadcast career that has allowed me to have the resources, the friends, the celebrity, the standing, the connections, the access to pull of a project like this."

That celebrity paid off for Smiley as he toured the King Tut exhibit in Los Angles a few years ago. Afterward, he approached the exhibit company Arts and Exhibitions International (AEI) with an idea that became "America I Am." AEI and the Cincinnati Museum Center organized the exhibit, and Wal-Mart became one of the major sponsors.

"It was a gem of an idea. I have never seen people more engaged, more compelled to read every label and more excited to interact with each other about the artifacts the way they are with this exhibit," said Mark Lach, AEI senior vice president.

With three months left at the Missouri History Museum, Smiley hopes that the exhibit continues to draw crowds and attention from the St. Louis area.

"I don't care who you are, you will find something you that will engage you in this exhibit," Smiley said. "It is important for people to find their own voice and their own imprint and I hope this exhibit inspires others to overcome the hard times."

Jonathan Ernst, a student at Saint Louis University, is a summer intern at the Beacon.

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