Project Highlights Black Experience During Pandemic

A Little Rock museum is accepting stories and artifacts to document the health crisis.

Black Arkansas family wearing masks
Courtesy: Ebony Blevins

The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center is seeking submissions for a project called COVID in Black: The African American Experience in Arkansas. Museum director Christina Shutt has a background as an archivist and says it’s important to document the pandemic as it’s happening, not just after the fact.

“One of the things that we know from studying history is that people’s perceptions change over time,” Shutt says. “The way they experience things, their memories about it change and so by documenting as it’s happening, by documenting throughout, we’re hoping to be able to both see those changes, but also document how it’s transitioned.” 

In March, the pandemic was being discussed strictly as a public health crisis. It took a different tone over the summer following the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests. In the fall, the conversation shifted to schooling and now the focus has moved to the holidays and travel.

“So the story changes, the story evolves and we want to be able to capture all of that,” Shutt says.

Researchers are looking for a breadth and depth of stories from Black Arkansans from around the state, regardless of if they’ve tested positive for the virus or not.

“It’s important that you share how this pandemic is impacting you — how your work has been disrupted, maybe you’ve had to stand in a line for food or you’ve lost your job, even how you’re crisis schooling your kids,” Shutt says. “If you’re teaching, we would love to hear stories from teachers who are maybe struggling to teach both virtual but also in-person classes.”

COVID in Black LogoArkansans can also submit images documenting their experiences. For example, some people have sent in photos of their churches hosting drive-in services. Researchers are encouraging people to submit digital content as well physical items like temporary hospital badges, takeout menus or artwork created while sheltering in place.

“We’d love for people to share things like homemade masks because, again, I think that tells a unique side of the story, that people were having trouble early on to access masks because they were meant for health care workers,” Shutt says. 

People have also shared photos of masks that match their outfit or masks that match the colors of their sorority or fraternity and those little details add to the story of this time.

Arkansans can submit their stories anonymously, but those who do share their names may be contacted about participating in a more in-depth interview. The Arkansas Humanities Council, through the National Endowment for the Humanities, is sponsoring this project and has provided resources to hire a researcher who is helping collect stories and conduct oral histories.  

“Our first and foremost priority is about collecting and preserving the stories and collecting and preserving the objects so that the information will be available for researchers,” museum director Christina Shutt says. “We are working on an online exhibit component that we hope to have probably late spring 2021, but right now we’re really focusing on that collecting and preserving.”

There is no deadline for submissions and Shutt says they plan to keep collecting stories and artifacts even after the pandemic ends because Arkansans will still have memories of COVID and will still be impacted.

“We’re writing a new normal — the idea of having video conferences and doing some of the virtual programming or other things that have come out of the pandemic are not things that are going to go away even as the pandemic goes away,” she says. “And some of that has to do because it’s opened up new opportunities for people to engage. It’s opened up a lot of different possibilities for the way in which we think about and live in the world, so we’ll keep collecting as long as people are willing to keep sending stuff.”  

Black Arkansans interested in participating in the project can fill out an online survey, email or mail items directly to the museum. More details about the project can be found here

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.