RALEIGH, N.C. — Juanita Palmer has dedicated her life to her community: to educating it, nurturing it, and most recently, commemorating it.
After a long and historic career in public education, Palmer, together with her husband E. B. Palmer, is the founder and operator of the African American Cultural Complex, a museum of African-American history on the grounds of the couple’s home in Raleigh.
It is considered one of the most comprehensive resource centers on African-American history in the United States.
As the first African-American teacher in the then all-white Chapel Hill school system in the 1960’s, Juanita Palmer knows first-hand about making history.
When she came to work at Estes Hill Elementary School that first day, “everybody looked at me like I was somebody different,” she says.
With a soft voice and elegant demeanor, Palmer, the daughter of a Baptist minister, might appear an unlikely revolutionary. But she was a determined one.
Palmer went on to teach in Chapel Hill for 22 years, racking up a total of 33 years before retiring in 1989.
As that day drew near, however, Palmer and her husband, also a public educator, had a strong feeling that their work wasn’t done.
“Dr. Palmer and I both realized that there was a need to include more African-American history in our schools,” she says. “There is so much history that they just didn’t know about.”
Research at local libraries turned up accomplishments of African-Americans and stories of their struggle that were little-known, such as the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad.
Both Palmers were eager to change that and began to consider how they might accomplish such a goal.
Right at Home
“I came home one day and he’d started to dig a trail back in the wooded area,” Palmer says of her husband, pointing to a stand of trees in their nearly three-acre backyard. “I thought, uh-oh, he’s lost it.”
He hadn’t lost it, he’d found the solution, which was to create a museum on their own property, and with their own money.
The trail he began in 1984 now is paved, leading visitors from a welcome room at the back of their home, past an amphitheatre and stage, and down a nature trail to series of three cottages, each filled with artifacts, documents and displays of African-American history and accomplishments.
“It was an exciting time getting all of this information together,” she says. “We did this project with a passion, and it’s still that way today.”
Indeed, both Palmers work every day leading tour groups from schools, churches, sororities, fraternities and other community organizations through their museum.
They also take it on the road, bringing African-American history to schools, rest homes, correctional facilities, hospitals and local businesses.
And the success of the museum has attracted additional funds, including grants from foundations and corporations, as well as individual donations.
One of Palmer’s favorite programs at the museum is the annual theatrical production of “The Amistad Saga: Reflections,” performed in the amphitheatre.
This July will mark the play’s 10th anniversary, of which Palmer is particularly proud.
“It is the only outdoor drama written, produced and directed by and about African Americans in the country,” she says.
And soon, there could be new traditions to celebrate as the Palmers consider moving their museum to downtown Raleigh, perhaps to a site near the city’s landmark Memorial Hall, a change that would raise the organization’s public profile and help it reach a broader audience.
“We have been talking with Mayor Meeker and some of the officials downtown,” she says. “We would certainly like to carry all of our programs with us, including the Amistad.”
In the meantime, Palmer and her husband will continue advocating for a more comprehensive history of African Americans to be taught in schools.
Black History Month, for instance, is not enough, she says.
“I actually feel that we need to teach African-American history year-round,” Palmer says. “I like the emphasis, and I hope it will encourage them to include it more, but there is still not enough of this in the schools.”