WASHINGTON -- Black Arkansans share the spotlight in a new exhibit on religion at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
"Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture," on display through November 2023, features the work of three acclaimed Natural State artists: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Rev. Al Green and Maya Angelou.
In addition to artifacts, the exhibit includes 37 photographs from the Johnson Publishing Company archive, images that originally belonged to the publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines but are now jointly owned by the museum as well as the Getty Research Institute.
David D. Daniels, professor of world Christianity at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, was on hand for the opening and was impressed by what he saw.
"I just thought it was well-developed and well-conceived. I thought the themes were so striking," he said.
Tharpe, a guitar-playing gospel singer from Cotton Plant who often performed church music in secular venues, is highlighted in a section titled "Blurred Lines: Holy/Profane."
Born in 1915, she was the first gospel singer to perform at Carnegie Hall and the first to sing at the Apollo Theater, according to Jet Magazine.
Her "unrestrained" Carnegie Hall performance in December 1939, "combining religion and jazz without offending either," had "left the house ecstatic," according to a review in the New York Times.
But her vocal expressions and her choice of venues -- she sometimes sang gospel at nightclubs, for example -- drew rebukes from some in the religious community. She died in 1973.
Toward the end of her career, she collaborated on a gospel record with rock pioneer Little Richard, contributing three of its 10 tracks. The album jacket is one of the first items a visitor sees upon entering the exhibit, hanging above Little Richard's own marked-up, heavily worn copy of the King James Bible.
The collaboration is just one of the exhibit's "wonderful surprises," Daniels said.
Two Tharpe standards, "Shout, Sister, Shout!" and "Up Above My Head," are featured on the exhibit's soundtrack. See tinyurl.com/37ppyjdj
Also making the cut are three songs by Green: "Belle," "Jesus Is Waiting," and "Love and Happiness."
After conquering Billboard's pop and R&B charts, the Forrest City native shifted his focus from soul music to soul winning.
"God had called me to a higher place, turned me away from earthly to heavenly love," he wrote in his autobiography, "Take Me to the River." "And while it hurt to say it, I had to leave the sensual for the spiritual."
These days, you can find him in Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or at Full Gospel Tabernacle, his church in Memphis.
Angelou, who spent part of her childhood in Stamps, appears in the portion of the exhibit titled "Lived Realities: Suffering/Hope."
Her memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," recounting the painful early years of her life, was a best-seller. "On the Pulse of Morning," the poem she wrote and recited at President Bill Clinton's first inaugural, further heightened her fame.
In addition to a yellow legal pad and ballpoint pen, her most important writing tools were a dictionary, a thesaurus and a copy of the Bible, she once told Ebony, the exhibit notes.
"Angelou's work has religious influences and often contains rhythm and imagery that evokes sermons by Black ministers," the exhibit notes.
She is featured on the soundtrack, too, performing "Life Doesn't Frighten Me," from the album, "Caged Bird Songs."
Angelou told Jet, in 1992, "I believe it is faith which allow human beings to try to rise in the morning, after evenings of terror and fear and grief and disappointment."
A third theme, "Bearing Witness: Protest/Praise," highlights the work of activists ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to Mahalia Jackson and Muhammad Ali.
Eric Lewis Williams, one of the museum's curators of religion, picked the images on display as well as the artifacts, ranging from Rev. Ike's jewel-spangled attire to James Baldwin's inkwell and a program from the funeral of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.
"Eric has a sharp mind that is able to see connections between things that people might think are disconnected or maybe not even connected at all," Daniels said.
There were plenty of items to choose from. More than 3,500 of the museum's roughly 50,000 artifacts are religious.
Items on permanent display include abolitionist Harriet Tubman's hymnal, insurrectionist Nat Turner's Bible and the casket that held the body of lynching victim Emmett Till.
The collection also contains shards of glass that were gathered following the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The terrorist attack, carried out by white supremacists, claimed the lives of four children: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.
The museum, Williams says, is a repository for "material culture."
"We have real stuff here -- real stuff from these real moments, these real experiences," Williams said.
Many of the items were donated.
"The people saw this as a place that they trusted, so these stories could be told to the masses instead of just the few. The platform, the stage, that we have to tell these stories is like none other in the United States," he added.
A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Duke University, McCormick Theological Seminary and the University of Illinois Chicago, Williams was a lecturer on African and African American Studies at Harvard University before joining the museum staff.
A member of the Memphis-based Church of God in Christ, he is an expert on Pentecostalism with a fondness for the Natural State.
"My mother was born in Portland, Ark., and she was raised between Portland and Dermott, Ark., and she came north during the migration," he said. "We always grew up going to Arkansas so that's a special place to me. I tell people that's the roots of my righteous beginnings."
He hopes the museum collection will eventually include items associated with Charles Harrison Mason, the church's founder and a one-time student at Arkansas Baptist College.