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Rowena Stewart

Culturalist Rowena Stewart was nationally known as one of the foremost African American museum directors having led four major African American historical museum societies between 1975 and 2002 (The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, the Motown Historical Museum and the American Jazz Museum). She became one of the most sought after African American museum directors in the country.

Stewart was born on March 6, 1932 in Jacksonville, Florida, as the only child of Essie (Brozle) Rhodes and Oliver Rhodes. She grew up in New Berlin, Florida, and graduated in 1955 from Edward Waters College in Jacksonville. She began her career doing social work in settlement houses and reformist-minded community centers in Jacksonville and then in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1975, Stewart became the first director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society in Providence. And then, from 1985 to 1992, Stewart served as the Director and Curator of Philadelphia’s Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum. She transformed what was a rather static museum into one that was interactive. In 1992, Stewart moved to Detroit to head the Motown Historical Museum and three years later, she was recruited to Kansas City, Missouri where she oversaw the development of the American Jazz Museum and became its executive director upon completion in 1997.

In 2002, Stewart retired and moved back home to Jacksonville where she served for a time as President of the A.L. Lewis Historical Society Board and Coordinator of the American Beach Community Center and Museum on Amelia Island north of Jacksonville. She worked as a consultant to museums utilizing historical preservation, presentations and educational programs.

Stewart was the mother of four - Gwendolyn, Clarence, Alvie and Wannetta Johnson.

Stewart was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on October 19, 2006.

Stewart passed away on September 19, 2015.

Accession Number

A2006.126

Sex

Female

Interview Date

10/19/2006

Last Name

Stewart

Maker Category
Schools

Boylan-Haven School

Edward Waters College

New Stanton High School

First Name

Rowena

Birth City, State, Country

Jacksonville

HM ID

STE08

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Florida

Favorite Vacation Destination

None

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Florida

Birth Date

3/6/1932

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Jacksonville

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Shrimp

Death Date

9/19/2015

Short Description

Museum chief executive Rowena Stewart (1932 - 2015 ) was the director of four major African American museums and historical societies between 1975 and 2002: the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, the Motown Historical Museum and the American Jazz Museum.

Employment

Boston United South End Settlements

Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia

Motown Records

18th and Vine Authority

Favorite Color

Red

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Rowena Stewart's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Rowena Stewart lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Rowena Stewart describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Rowena Stewart describes her mother

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Rowena Stewart describes her maternal grandparents

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Rowena Stewart describes her father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Rowena Stewart describes her stepfather

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Rowena Stewart describes her father

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Rowena Stewart describes her earliest childhood memories

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Rowena Stewart recalls going to school with her grandmother

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Rowena Stewart recalls her grandmothers' homes

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Rowena Stewart recalls her home in Jacksonville's Durkeeville section

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Rowena Stewart describes her schools in Jacksonville, Florida

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Rowena Stewart recalls Mary McLeod Bethune's visits to her elementary school

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Rowena Stewart recalls the influence of her paternal grandmother

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Rowena Stewart describes Stanton Senior High School in Jacksonville

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Rowena Stewart recalls her extracurricular activities

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Rowena Stewart describes her childhood friends

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Rowena Stewart describes the sights and smells of her childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Rowena Stewart talks about urban renewal

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Rowena Stewart remembers the Ku Klux Klan in Orangeburg, South Carolina

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Rowena Stewart recalls marrying Clarence Johnson

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Rowena Stewart recalls her mother's reaction to her marriage

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Rowena Stewart describes her children

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Rowena Stewart recalls finishing her degree at Edward Waters College

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Rowena Stewart recalls finding work with the help of Melvin King

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Rowena Stewart remembers Boston's United South End Settlements

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Rowena Stewart describes her work at Boston's Harriet Tubman House

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Rowena Stewart describes her work in Connecticut and South Carolina

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Rowena Stewart recalls becoming interested in history

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Rowena Stewart recalls her work to memorialize the 1st Rhode Island Regiment

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Rowena Stewart remembers founding the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Rowena Stewart describes her legacy at the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Rowena Stewart describes the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Rowena Stewart recalls visiting museums in West Africa

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Rowena Stewart recalls directing the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Rowena Stewart describes the exhibits at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Rowena Stewart recalls her difficulties while developing the Motown Museum

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Rowena Stewart describes her oral history project in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Rowena Stewart recalls establishing the Motown Museum in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Rowena Stewart describes her museum career in Kansas City, Missouri

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Rowena Stewart describes the 18th and Vine Authority project

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Rowena Stewart describes the 18th and Vine Authority museums

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Rowena Stewart describe her retirement in Jacksonville, Florida

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Rowena Stewart talks about American Beach, Florida

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Rowena Stewart reflects upon the state of African American museums

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Rowena Stewart describes the impact of tourism on African American museums

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Rowena Stewart talks about African American museum professionals

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Rowena Stewart reflects upon her life

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Rowena Stewart describes her plans for the future

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Rowena Stewart shares her advice for aspiring museum professionals

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - Rowena Stewart describes her legacy and how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Rowena Stewart narrates her photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$3

DAStory

4$10

DATitle
Rowena Stewart recalls her the influence of her paternal grandmother
Rowena Stewart remembers founding the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society
Transcript
Before we get into the high school years [at Stanton Senior High School; Stanton College Preparatory School, Jacksonville, Florida], did you like school, elementary and the early years of the private school [Boylan-Haven School, Jacksonville, Florida]? Were you a good student?$$I wasn't good at all in private school, I really wasn't good. In elementary school I did like it. I did like it a lot. Our schools were always terribly overcrowded, never enough, never had good books. And they were in the worst condition. But my [paternal] grandmother [Irene Brill] supplemented so much material even though--'cause I didn't live with my grandmother all that time, I lived with my mother [Essie Brozle Gilmore] when my mother got it settled. But I'd go to my grandmother two or three times a week sometime and I would spend the night. My grandmother always supplemented our reading material with other things.$$What kind of things did she give you to read? Do you remember?$$She would give us, she would give us lots of fairytales and she would give us--she had encyclopedias. She always wanted you to read encyclopedias. She always felt--and my grandmother had been a Garvey-ite so she knew about Marcus Garvey, so she wanted you to read those kind of thing. Here's what my grandmother used to do that really I just to this day, I think was so remarkable. She was so far ahead of her times. They would have pretty bad articles in the Time-Union [Florida Times-Union] about black people, pretty bad, I mean, they would really be bad articles. And every time the discussion would come up, when my grandmother got home, she'd pull out the trunk and she would pull you something to show you that this is not true 'cause, see, this person has done this great thing. And as she was constantly doing that, she had her own way of backing up the story. She would simply say, I remember somebody had a discussion on Negro cloth and they were talking about this hard cloth, and somebody said it wasn't that bad and all of that. And my grandmother went--and I was a little girl. My grandmother went to the trunk and pulled out this piece of fabric that felt like bark. And she said, "Now here is Negro cloth, feel it. Tell me this was tender that didn't exist." And she could do that, she could pull out fabric, she could pull out things that she had collected over the years to make you feel stronger in yourself, because and I, as I talked about class and color because in the world that I was in my grandmother was very, very dark. And my mother's family was very, very light. And she use to say to me, "It doesn't matter about the beauty. It is about what you have in your head." She was de- "They can't take that out of your head. You must remember, you will have something in your head." And she was always this trunk just kind of told, told you, "What time is it?" I mean, she would say to you, "This is what it's all about. Don't believe that, look at this. Here is, here is somebody." She would pull out things like famous singers. People that I hadn't even heard of, you know. She'd say, "Look at this, look at this music." And she'd pull out the Fisk [Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee] book. She would--she could do all kinds of things like that to make you--strengthen you in your culture.$$Gee, that really tells us a lot about where you went with that, yeah.$$Oh, I didn't recognize it at the time, that it was so profound. And, you know, I, I didn't really realize that until I got to Rhode Island.$$But given your future work, that stayed with you given what you've done professionally.$$Yes. Yes, Yes. The music--she use to say to me about music all the time. I use to hate to take this piano lesson, and I never did learn to play the piano well. Never did. And she was struggling so, I use to feel so sorry for her, for struggling trying to get me to learn how to really love this music. And she use to say to me, "There will come a time in your life when you will be glad you heard that sound, just remember what I said. It doesn't matter to me that you're tired, it will come a time in your life you'll be glad you heard that sound." And it has come to pass.$And then I did--I did all kinds of things. I went to the state, I found every burial ground that they had. I went to the towns and I was so amazed 'cause when I got in the towns, people not only knew the regiment [1st Rhode Island Regiment] but knew where their descendants lived, you know. And I'm saying to myself, where can you find this in America? And I just got so caught up. So I said, okay, I gotta form this organization. So, Textron [Textron Inc., Providence, Rhode Island], G. William Miller realized I had given up my job. I don't know how he did, I guess it might've been Fred [Frederick C. Williamson] or I don't know who it was, but he called a meeting. He had just gone to Washington [D.C.] to be the, the secretary of tresure. And he said to his--the people he had left to help me get this organization off the ground. So they called a meeting in February of Errol Hunt, Al Klyberg [Albert Klyberg], Fred Williamson, William Robinson, Cliff Moore [Clifton Moore], and they all met and they said, "We'll help you form, form this organization." And I said, "Okay, that's great but I don't want you to pay me any money, I want to learn how to do this myself. I wanna learn how to do this." And Al Klyberg from the Historical Society [Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence, Rhode Island] said, if you got that much guts to do that, I'll teach you. The Historical Society will teach you, and they did. They gave me an office. And I didn't get a dime for two years. I only got--the only income I got was for my gas mileage to come from Newport [Rhode Island] to Providence [Rhode Island] every day. And I learned everything I did. But by the time I did it--but, see, I came with skills now remember. I was, I was a heck of a fundraiser. So I knew how to tap things to do the things that I need to do. So I brought those skills to the table. But that's how I got in it. And I was hooked then.$$All right. So you were the founder--$$I was the founder.$$--of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society [Providence, Rhode Island]?$$That's right. It was the black historical society. And it was so good back in those days. If you had a name that was a Rhode Island name, I could tell you, I could tell you where your people were buried or if they were there.$$Well, I didn't meet you in Boston [Massachusetts] when you were in the South End United Set- [South End United Settlements, Boston, Massachusetts]. I met you when you were with the Rhode Island Society.$$Oh, really?$$Yes. And I remember the passion that you had at that time. You were so passionate about what you were doing. And I'm from New Bedford, Massachusetts and I said, all this went on in Rhode Island. So you, you were breaking ground, I tell you.$$I was so caught up in it.$$Yeah.$$(OFF CAMERA VOICE): Just let that, hold on one beat. And go ahead.$$I was so caught up in the passion of it. I mean, I was so excited that I had found these men that I could tell you what they did. I could tell you where they lived. And I had found people in the town who knew them. I was the one who could say to the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution], "Hey, I got some black members that ought to be members of the Daughter of the Revolution." And, I mean, I could--you could just simply call me--I could--I was the one that published and, and found funding for Jay Coughtry to do his book on the slave trade in Rhode Island because there was nobody doing this kind of stuff, and it was just so fascinating. And I said, wow, you know, this is just amazing. And I was caught up and I mean, I was so caught--I was driven by it. Just driven. It was, it was wonderful. It was really wonderful.$$Well, for ten years you opened up the papers, and opened up opportunities for people.