If your social media feeds were an exhibit at a museum, what would you learn?
You might find out that former acquaintances are getting engaged, married or having babies, or that Beyoncé is Insta-posing in another fabulous outfit you’ll never be able to afford.
But if you expand who you follow, you could scroll through your Instagram feed and discover an African American jazz pianist and singer named Hazel Scott, a musical prodigy who got a scholarship to study at the Juilliard School at age eight.
Follow the right people on Twitter, and you could learn that in June 1964, black protesters jumped into a whites-only pool at Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Fla. In response, the hotel manager poured acid in the pool.
More of a Tumblr fan? You could read that during World War I Adah Belle Samuels Thoms successfully campaigned to have black nurses admitted into the U.S. Army Nurse Corps at a time when they were not welcome.
These are historical events and figures that you probably didn’t learn about in school. They are nonetheless crucial parts of the American story.
These are the stories the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is trying to bring to the forefront. And you don’t even have to visit the museum, located in the nation’s capital, to explore these historical moments.
All you have to do is follow NMAAHC on its social media accounts, run by Lanae Spruce, the manager of social media and digital engagement, and Ravon Ruffin, a digital engagement specialist. Along with two interns, Spruce and Ruffin run the museum’s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr accounts. Their posts about African American figures in history reach thousands of people across all platforms.
“In the museum digital field, a lot of museums don’t invest in social,” said Spruce, who was the museum’s first social hire in 2013, long before the physical space opened on the National Mall in September 2016. “This museum has shown that they are committed to expanding narratives beyond our physical location.”
“We’ve been able to provide a space that’s #fortheculture,” she added. “Online, there’s a space where people can go, see their stories told and engage.”
The investment has paid off, Spruce says: “The engagement we receive on social is phenomenal, and we continue to grow.”
Part of the museum’s mission is to make African American history part of the normal lexicon. On social media, the NMAAHC is constantly contributing threads to the nation’s historical fabric. Literally.
In March, Spruce and Ruffin started a thread on Twitter with the hashtag #hiddenherstory to honor Women’s History Month. Every day, they shared facts about black women to “celebrate the legacy of women who were often unsung in traditional historical narratives.”
The hashtag took off, and audiences reveled in the stories the team told with 140 characters and a social image: From Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who refused to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus before Rosa Parks, to Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a formerly enslaved woman who sued for her freedom and became one of the first black women to own land in California.
“People don’t know these stories,” Spruce said. Online, people thanked them for sharing and sometimes asked for more. They saw women who, despite dealing with segregation and gender discrimination, “were empowering during a time when so many people tried to stifle black women.”
In her research for the #hiddenherstory campaign, Spruce discovered Gladys Bentley, an openly black lesbian who made a name for herself during the Harlem Renaissance by performing in full drag in speakeasies and nightclubs.
“[As] a queer black woman, the first time I came across her photo, I was absolutely floored,” Spruce recalled. “Seeing her fully dressed in a tuxedo, standing tall and proud with a cane or microphone in her hand. There was one instance where she married a woman. This was in the 1920s!”
If a name was recognizable but significant, Ruffin wanted to share different aspects of that person’s history.
“I really hammered in that we were going to talk about Madame C.J. Walker as the activist,” Ruffin said. Walker is famous for being an entrepreneur in the beauty industry — she owned more than 200 beauty salon shops across the United States — but she was also a philanthropist who strongly believed in global equality. “We don’t hear about that side of her,” Ruffin added.
Black history is deeply personal to NMAAHC’s social following, and Spruce and Ruffin take that seriously. On social media, they try to add humanity to historical figures that have gotten lost in the narrative of American history.
They too, have their own experiences.
In school, Spruce was an honors student and often the only black person in her classroom. She eventually attended Hampton University — a historically black university — before landing a job at LivingSocial.
Ruffin, who spent her early childhood on a military base in Kansas, was also the only black girl in a sea of whiteness. She got her first relaxer, tucked her hair behind her ears and tried to fit in with the white kids. A move to Chicago shifted the makeup of her peers, but she eventually went to a Catholic high school, where she was one of three black students.
“Obviously my blackness was a spectacle at that point,” Ruffin recalled. One day, in an American history class discussing slavery, her frustration boiled over.
“I yelled out something like, ‘I still feel oppressed,’” Ruffin said. “Then one of the girls across the room laughed and said, ‘That was so long ago,’ and completely downplayed my feelings. I always look back on that moment and wonder why I didn’t say anything.”
Spruce’s great-great grandmother, Emma Fair Bush, was alive during her childhood. She raised 13 children and lived to be 102. Her mother was enslaved at the tail end of slavery.
“I learned that when I was 13,” Spruce said. “That really impacted me as a kid to be so close to that history.”
At work, Ruffin and Spruce are constantly discovering new aspects of black history that weren’t taught to them growing up. It can be exciting, Spruce said, but it can also be infuriating.
For the past four years, Candra Flanagan, the coordinator of student and teacher initiatives at the museum, has organized an annual training for educators called “Let’s Talk: Teaching Race in the Classroom.” The weeklong program brings teachers together to talk about how they can have explicit, age-appropriate conversations about race in their classrooms. During sessions, NMAAHC staff and experts teach racial literacy and encourage teachers to share their own experiences.
Flanagan is working on a study with Oberg Research, in which they surveyed more than 500 teachers nationwide. The preliminary results show that students are learning about African American history more than we might think. Curriculums do focus on slavery and the Civil War, as well as the modern civil rights movement. Flanagan discovered that some teachers wanted to go deeper and explore the more complex parts of history. Others were less comfortable with the material.
“All educators definitely expressed interest in wanting to get more stories about African American history,” Flanagan said. But teachers have a finite amount of time. Sifting through information and finding primary sources they could trust would be a huge time suck. The museum is working on creating resources for classrooms since teachers know, given the status and purpose of the institution, “the material is solid.”