This historian at the Afro-American museum says she must ‘keep digging for all the secrets we’ve hidden’

Hadley Drodge never knows what her day may involve — it could be research, writing or firing up an acetylene torch.

Drodge is the assistant curator at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce.

History helps us understand who we are, and it represents “a blueprint for our collective identity,” Drodge says.

Today our Daytonian of the Week talks about her passion for history and her work at the museum.

Tell us about your background. What has led you to this point in your career?

As a historian, I always want to take the story as far back in time as I can, but I don’t think that will make for exciting reading here! I’ll just say that by a very early age, I was already interested in other cultures.

I loved to study how social norms changed over time and space. The history that I value today is so much more about the why than the what because it helps us understand who we are. History is more than a series of dates, it’s a blueprint for our collective identity.

I moved back to Dayton in 2014 after a brief five years in New York City. One day I watched a NOVA documentary about the murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby and saw that an archivist was involved in revisiting the evidence and possibly solving the crime. It made me wonder what other secrets lay hidden in our archival strata.

After watching the documentary, I went to a Wright State University (WSU) Public History Symposium, met Dawne Dewey, who was then head of the concentration, as well as Linda Collins, National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center (NAAMCC) collections manager, and Dr. Charles Wash, NAAMCC museum director.

I decided to apply for the graduate degree program and dreamed that one day I might intern for the museum. I got my wish and more. Now I just have to keep digging for all the secrets we’ve hidden.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to my professors. During my undergraduate study at UD, I met Dr. Clare Talwalker, who became my unofficial mentor. She helped me see the world through a new lens. At Wright State, Dr. Drew Swanson stepped into that role. I also really appreciate Dr. Daniel Fouke at UD and Dr. Kathryn Meyer at WSU, for helping to improve my writing. We are in a student-loan crisis in this country, and I wish we could find a way to make education more affordable, because everyone deserves to have this life-changing experience.

What’s special about The National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center?

First of all, the museum is the direct result of real grass-roots action. It exists because the people demanded it and because the idea was so important that it got the attention of legislators like U.S. Sen. John Glenn and State Rep. C.J. McLin, and eventually, then-President Jimmy Carter.

When the museum first opened in 1988, its permanent exhibit won prestigious awards and was even used in exhibit textbooks. Unfortunately, it quickly suffered massive budget and staff cuts. A less-important institution might have died thirsting for resources, but too many people believed in it and struggled against impossible odds to keep it alive. Members of the original staff are still standing by our side today as friends and mentors, including Dr. Floyd Thomas, Jocelyn Robinson, and founding director Dr. John Fleming.

Over the last 32 years we have managed to offer groundbreaking exhibits, build cultural connections through our programming, and care for many extremely important collections, including more than 9000 artifacts, fine art, and over 600 linear feet of archival documents and photographs. I think about every one of those objects and pieces of paper as a story, a link to someone’s ancestor.

We are a division of the Ohio History Connection. I cannot wait to see how we grow our presence in Ohio over the next 10 years with the support of our OHC team. We have the opportunity to guide the state (and the nation) towards a more equitable future while helping to heal past trauma.

I should also mention that every person I work with is incredibly passionate, intelligent, hard-working, and creative. I am so lucky to not only love my job, but literally every single one of my coworkers. I don’t think many people have that privilege.

What is a typical day like for you in your role at the museum?

We throw around a saying in the curatorial department when we get a little exasperated: “Everything changes!” One of the things I love most about my job (but that can also be exhausting) is that there is no typical day. We see a project through from start to finish. Some days I’m researching people, places, and artifacts. Sometimes I’m calling donors or working with descendant communities to gather stories. I also have the privilege of writing the histories with all this rich new information and doing the graphic design. Then when we start constructing the exhibit, I’m prepping the objects, designing mounts, installing graphics, or sometimes even giving tours. This job has even required an acetylene torch here and there. Occasionally, my day is just one or two long meetings, but at least before the pandemic that meant a potluck carry-in. I’m very lucky to work with some great cooks.

What’s been your most recent professional challenge, and how did you push through the challenge?

My most recent professional challenge is, sadly, the same for so many people right now. Anyone who works with the public has had to face the same difficult task through this pandemic of balancing accessibility and safety. When we experienced the first shutdown in Ohio, I was right in the middle of developing our exhibit, Queens of the Heartland. While the artist, Nichole Washington, and I were already collaborating remotely, I suddenly began to hit brick walls in my research because libraries and archives were inaccessible. People stopped emailing me back. In the end, the entire project was postponed until we learned more about the virus and how to safely work again on-site.

We have since opened the exhibit and I’m very proud of what we accomplished, but sadly, we were forced to again close our doors due to the rising cases in the county. We hope to reopen again in early 2021. We will just have to reassess when we get there. In the meantime, we are working on new ways to continue telling these stories through innovative means.

We’ve all had a chance to reflect during the pandemic. What have you found to be positive during this time?

I’ve experienced moments of survivor’s guilt every time I’ve felt thankful during this pandemic. Nothing is worth the more than 1 million deaths globally, the anxiety and depression so many feel right now, the job loss, and the time we have lost with our loved ones.

I am lucky to have a job that allowed me to work from home, and because of that, I have been able to spend much more time with my son as he journeyed through his first year. I am extremely thankful too for my family, who have helped care for him a few days a week so I could open Queens of the Heartland and continue work on upcoming exhibits and educational resources. Because we’ve had to distance from everyone else, in some ways, it’s brought my family closer together.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

I enjoy a lot in life and don’t feel guilty about any of it! Hah, kidding. I think my love of county-fair food qualifies: corn dogs, elephant ears, cotton candy, you name it. Part of the appeal is the ambiance, and truth be told, I’m not interested in these foods without the rides, the crowd, the races, the animals, and the arts and crafts. I love the unadulterated American-ness of it all. It’s something I greatly missed this year.

I also have a guilty work pleasure, and that’s my once-every-few-weeks shift at Trader Joe’s. It’s such a fun job with of some of the best people you’ll ever meet. They allowed me a flexible schedule all through graduate school, my pregnancy, and especially now. I just can’t find a way to say goodbye even though I’m full-time at the museum.

What would your perfect Dayton date be?

The most important component of a perfect date is my partner Seth Graham. Any date we have is fantastic, even if it’s just a carry-in pizza and a new episode of Fargo. But if I’m allowed to dream, we’d start with a smoothie from the Juice Caboose at Natural Foods Plus and a morning walk at Wegerzyn. From there we’d spend the day at World A’Fair at the Convention Center. This is another event I really missed this year. We’d try all kinds of new foods and enjoy the performances and visit Marie, co-owner of Partial to Pie, at the Slavic booth for her delicious pastries.

In the evening, we’d see the Dayton Opera at the Schuster Center or catch some stand-up at Wiley’s in the Oregon District. I always thought I’d hate the opera until I actually went, and I love how over-the-top it is. I think all the drama somehow makes it feel more true-to-life and honest about human emotion. I love that I can get tickets for $10 or $15 through the cheap tickets program!

What inspires you about the Dayton area?

There is so much to be proud of in Dayton. We have such a rich history, as well as a present that is full of powerful grass-roots activism.

I am inspired by the Gem City Market team and Amaha Sellasie working to end the food desert in West Dayton. I can’t imagine taking this little seed of an idea and growing it into real food to feed our neighbors. I love what Larry Watts has done with Seeds of Peace and making sure that Dayton kids are fed and have opportunities for experiences as simple as swimming and going to the movies. I love that there are historians all around us digging for those good stories, like Faheem Curtis-Khidr and all the research he’s done in capturing the importance of Hog Bottom, as well as my friends at the Funk Center. I am forever grateful they allowed me to curate that first exhibit at the Northwest Branch of the Dayton Library.

I will also never forget the work that the Dayton Young Black Professionals did after the tornadoes hit in 2019, or Donald Domineck and the men and women of Dayton’s New Black Panther Party showing up for the KKK protest, ready to protect the city. I am thankful for all kinds of unofficial leaders, like Yolanda Simpson for her work with Black Lives Matter, for Bing Davis and his creative legacy, and Shirley Tucker’s work with the HAALO (Helping Adolescents Achieve Long-Term Objectives) program.

I am happy to think that there are so many other people I don’t know, or I am forgetting to name, working to improve our community. The passion of people in Dayton to continue to fight for equity, for a greater understanding and future, is what inspires me.

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