Abilene’s Black History at the Curtis House
By Kathy Barr (photos by Floyd Miller)
What is a curator?
According to the dictionary, a curator is a person who is a keeper of items at a museum.
Reverend Andrew Penns is the curator for the Curtis House Cultural Center, a two-story building located at 630 Washington Street in Abilene. Items of importance to African-Americans and others interested in black history are displayed and stored here.
“I’ve always been a curator,” Reverend Penns said.
Sometimes, another building is converted into a museum, and this is true for the center. Who was the Curtis family and what was their occupation?
“It was the original home of prominent funeral directors that served the community over fifty years,” said Reverend Penns.
After their death, siblings of the Curtis family stepped up and ran the home. After they all passed, the building was vacated and empty in a neighborhood blighted with crime. It sat for several years until ICAN (Interested Citizens of Abilene North) and the City of Abilene got the property and renovated it.
When visiting the center, visitors will be able to see panels where images of the slave trade, abolition, segregation and integration are displayed. There are also panels about the landmark case Brown vs. the Board of Education. There are pictures of the first African-American doctor in Abilene, Doctor William H. Butler, Sr. and his wife, Patrice, a teacher in an all-black school. Black schools such as the Abilene Colored School and Woodson Elementary, Junior and Senior High Schools are also represented. Visitors will also see panels about veterans – pictures that illustrate the segregation of military forces from WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
Artifacts such as cooking utensils, an original stove from the 1920s that belonged to the Curtis family, yearbooks of segregated schools, and reminders of churches and ministers that existed and worked in the Abilene area from 1925-1983, as well as artifacts from the first and only black service station owned by a prominent Abilenian. Sports such as track, basketball and football are also represented.
Does Reverend Penns have more plans for the center?
“We are seeking to gain more history,” he said. “People willing to tell their story about segregation.”
In addition to the display of panels and artifacts, the center is involved in an important event for African-Americans in Abilene.
Every other summer, there is an all-school reunion in July, and this year the reunion takes place the weekend of July 17, where people will gather to celebrate the progress that’s been made and reminisce about what life was like living under segregation. This year, registration takes place at the Convention center on Friday, and on Saturday night there will be a banquet and speaker. On Sunday, at the cultural center, there will be a time to get together to visit.
In addition to his work as curator, Reverend Penn has been the minister at Valley View Missionary Baptist Church for 32 years, is a member of the Taylor County Historical Commission and was one of the founders of Interested Citizens of Abilene North (ICAN).
The Curtis House is open Friday and Saturday from 10 AM until 2 PM. To schedule tours, please call 325-518-4604.
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