The idea was born more than three decades ago when Vashti Dubois was one of a small group of African-American undergraduates at Wesleyan University, an elite private liberal arts school in Middletown, Conn.
As a black woman on a predominantly white campus, Dubois dreamed of fostering an environment where women of color could communicate with each other and have a space to call their own.
Today, Dubois, 56, has done just that as she has turned her 127-year-old Victorian twin at 4613 Newhall St. in Philadelphia’s Germantown section into what she calls The Colored Girls Museum.
The themed installations inside her home, which is open to the public as a museum on Sundays between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., feature a wide range of artwork, distinct scents and writings. All depict the everyday lives of black women, a story that often goes untold in the history books.
“If anybody’s story is left untold, everybody’s story is incomplete,” said Dubois as she showed a guest around her home one recent Sunday.
Dubois opened her home to the public two years ago after her husband of 16 years was killed in a car crash and she faced possible foreclosure of the house.
She called her first exhibit “Eviction Show Home,” a place where visitors could journey through various rooms, each with a different motif, and reflect on the indignities of eviction. Everything in the house was for sale.
Dubois described the exhibit’s success, which was born out of circumstance, as “a demonstration of what love will do.” She added: “Everything can be used (for good).”
DuBois’ focus on eviction for her first show was prescient.
Until recently, the problem of eviction among single black mothers has largely been ignored by policy makers. But in Philadelphia and elsewhere, political leaders have now begun to pay attention thanks to Matthew Desmond, whose Pulitzer- Prize winning book Evicted, published last year, documented the lives of eight families in Milwaukie affected by eviction.
Like “Eviction,” Dubois’ most recent exhibit, entitled “ACT II: A Good Night’s Sleep – Urgent Care,” focusses on a pressing social problem – the need for African-American women to care for themselves after last fall’s presidential election brought a rise in hate speech toward racial minorities.
The exhibit features several rooms set up as an abstract representation of urgent care – healing space for women who may feel like outsiders.
Individual artists from near and far contributed to the collection piece by piece until the house was overflowing with hand crafted pieces, paintings, fabrics, and more. The artwork on display focuses on the importance of the object itself and its ability to resonate with many different stories among black women.
Dubois says the purpose of the museum is “to curate the conversation we want people to have.”
For example, one permanent installation designed by Denys Davis focusses on the washroom, a space where black women have labored for generations. The artist calls the work “a testament about how strong these women were.”
A new installation explores the relationship between black men and black women.
Michael Clemmons, who curates the exhibits, regards The Colored Girls Museum as the latest addition to the many “house museums” in Germantown. Most of these museums, such as Germantown’s famous Cliveden House, are historic houses that date to the Revolutionary War. Inside, are artifacts from the colonial period.
The Colored Girls Museum is a little different. It is a century-old home filled with modern art. But it depicts the lives of African-American women at different periods in history, including not just their struggles but also their everyday triumphs.
“Whether you come see us or not,” Dubois said, “I hope knowing that we’re here provides sanctuary.”