This fall, Dr. Maureen Elgersman-Lee was named Executive Director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center in Jackson Ward. She is currently juggling her teaching position at Old Dominion University with work at the Museum. She will be there full time after the New Year. www.BlackHistoryMuseum.org
Bio Brief: Born in Toronto, Maureen grew up in the province of Ontario in a family of 13, the daughter of Sophie and the late Fred Elgersman. “We were a multi-racial family. My parents had nine of their own children and adopted four more,” she says. “One of my earliest memories [is] my mother going out, stopping at a garage sale, and finding a book on Phyllis Wheatley. It was her collected poems. There was something very magical about seeing a black woman on the cover of the book. When I would be in my room by myself, I would take it out and read it. I knew I was connected to her. That ties into one of my strong interests, which has been the history of black women.”
Family & Leisure: She’s been married for ten years to Christopher, a Human Resources professional. They have two girls, ages 2 and 7 months. On rare free afternoons, she enjoys making chocolate truffles and reading. In Richmond, restaurants she enjoys are The Jerk Pit and Can Can.
Education: She majored in French at Redeemer University College in Ontario, and went to Clark Atlanta University for her Master’s and Ph.D. For the next ten years, she was Faculty Scholar for the African American collection at University of Southern Maine. Last summer she began teaching at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
Choosing African Studies: “There was something personal as well as academic, certainly. Going to [Atlanta] seemed to offer some of the personal dimensions of being in and among a larger group of blacks. But at the same time, I have to credit the fact that my parents raised me with a very strong sense of pride. So I wasn’t going there looking to build my esteem. I came there with very strong esteem.”
An Emerging Field: “I left Canada at a time when you wouldn’t find a Black Studies department, so part of [studying in the U.S.] was out of necessity. African-Canadian studies has really come into its own in the last decade or so. I count among my professional colleagues and friends some of the people who’ve really made an impact on Black Canadian history, so that’s been amazing to see that.”
Borders: “I was treated very differently once people found out I was Canadian, that I was not American. It didn’t matter if it was my African American colleagues in graduate school or if it was someone who I happened to meet just out and about. For colleagues, it would be, ‘You haven’t had the real experience.’ When I was talking with non-African American people, their perception of me went up. They were much friendlier. Their estimation of my intelligence went up. They just treated me entirely differently. It was like day and night. So I saw very quickly what it meant to be black in America. I was like, ‘To grow up with that burden, with that weight on your shoulders [must be very difficult].’ It was very revealing.”
The Author: Dr. Elgersman-Lee has published Unyielding Spirits: Black Women in Slavery in Early Canada and Jamaica and Black Bangor: African Americans in the Maine Community, 1880 – 1950, about the black community in Bangor, Maine.
Museum’s Future: “I like to talk about the nobility of everyday living; raising the everyday experience of African Americans, of world citizens to a higher level. You don’t have to have a doctorate behind your name and you don’t have to be wealthy to matter [in history]. I see that theme as something that I absolutely want to carry forth in the work. In some cases, the changes [I will introduce at the Museum] are really just capitalizing on and building on a strong tradition. One of the things that I’d like to do is raise the profile more. I hope to have more ‘home-grown’ exhibitions, capitalizing more on the collections that we have.”
You are Invited: “Come see us. Come see us often. Consider a membership. If membership is not for you, don’t be a stranger to us. I look forward to meeting a lot more members or people who patronize us on a regular basis. We really want people to know that we’re here, and we want the state to know as well. We want to tell the stories of the people of Virginia. The events of this month show that we have a lot of reasons to be optimistic. We are entering into a new era. There’s a new energy. We ask people to come in and be part of the energy.”
“In Motion: The African American Migration Experience” is on loan from New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and will be at the Museum at 00 Clay St. through March. www.InMotionAAME.org