Each February, Dennis Doster is in the middle of the busiest time of the year as the manager of Prince George’s County, Md.’s Black History Program.
“We’ve been in existence since 1982, so we’ve been doing exhibits for Black History Month since the late ‘80s,” said Doster, who holds a Ph.D. and manages black history events year-round for the county, a suburb of Washington, D.C. “This is a process we take about a year to do. The luckiest thing for us is most of our stuff is done in house within our organization.” Most of that “stuff” includes research, writing and creating exhibits.
Doster and his team recently unveiled a large exhibition tied to a theme promoted by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, based in Washington, D.C. The association founded Black History Month in 1915 and develops themes each year to celebrate African American heritage. This year, the theme is black migration. The national association usually gives plenty of notice — a year or more — about the themes in order for anyone organizing an event to plan ahead.
The Prince George’s County exhibit this year tells the local story of unprecedented numbers of African Americans moving to the urban North from the rural South in search of a better life. The county exhibit explores the factors spurring black migration and immigration as well as the resulting changes in society.
How did Doster and his team do it?
“The easy part was telling the story of ‘the great migration,” but the more challenging part was doing the research on history connected to our county,” he said.
Doster and the research team focused on local history, searching through old newspapers in Baltimore and Washington (The Baltimore Afro-American and The Washington Post) and looking at how migration and immigration have impacted the history of Prince George’s County.
“We looked at the 1960s to the present, because that’s the time period when there was a mass movement,” he said. “Prior to that, in Prince George’s County, blacks were in the minority, less than a third of the population.”
By 1990, African Americans made up the majority of the county. In addition to looking at the numbers, he also looked at the impact, including the growth of black-owned businesses and the influence of black politicians.
The exhibit features two former county officials: Floyd Wilson and Wayne Curry. Doster interviewed Wilson, the first black member of the County Council, who was elected in 1974.
“He had migrated from Louisiana to Washington, D.C.’s Howard University,” Doster said. As part of the exhibit, a waiting room at Union Station’s train station in DC was recreated.
Curry, who passed away in 2014, served as the county’s first black county executive; he served as chairman of NACo’s Large Urban County Caucus.
In addition to looking at newspapers from back in the day and interviewing Wilson, Doster and his team also gathered “time capsule” type artifacts such as farm tools and yearbooks from the 1960s and ‘70s that are on display in the exhibit, to tell the story of the changes in the county.
After working on getting the exhibition up, Doster helped get the word out about it by promoting it with commercials, short videos pushed out to social media and on the county Parks and Rec social media pages. An opening reception was held in late January and included speakers, food and music. A local professor spoke about black migration and a state delegate spoke from a personal perspective as someone who migrated to the region from the Caribbean.