When Althemese Pemberton Barnes founded the John G. Riley Museum in 1996, her mission to was ensure that African Americans’ historical contributions to the city of Tallahassee and beyond would be preserved for generations to come.
She entered her role at the John G. Riley Foundation as the youngest person serving on the board. In her time as executive director at the museum, she worked with more than 70 interns and numerous staff. Together, they have made incredible strides towards that goal.
Now, as founding director emeritus, Barnes, who retired in 2020, is continually inspired to see the work being completed by new generations of historians and she is ready to pass the torch.
“I think the Riley House lit a spark so that all of these young people could see that scholarship is good, but until you touch the root of a people, you still don’t have that genuine history,” says Barnes. “They’ve had experiences presenting at national conferences, and many now are working in museums as curators and executive directors.”
Statewide conference on Emancipation
The upcoming “Journey to Emancipation” statewide history conference on Dec. 5-7 is one such event where Barnes is proud to see many familiar faces from her 24 years at the museum.
The conference will engage with historians, educators, archivists and political leaders on the history of the journey to Emancipation for enslaved Africans in America. Presentation topics span the history of the Civil War and Emancipation to Florida Maroon Societies and the Underground Railroad.
Conference attendance is limited to 100 people given COVID-restrictions and has been sold out, though Barnes says there will be recordings of the presentations.
The idea for the conference was first spearheaded two years ago. Barnes heard of a bill being submitted by Florida legislators that would recognize the day that enslaved peoples in Texas were freed — June 19 — as a Florida holiday.
Growing up in Tallahassee during the civil rights era and segregation, Barnes says that May 20, 1865 was widely recognized and celebrated in the African American community as the date slaves were emancipated in Florida.
“We felt we should do an education initiative on Dec. 6, which was the ratification of the 13th amendment that put an end to all slavery, period,” says Barnes. “The conference will bring people in to not only look at emancipation, but also other statewide initiatives like the Governor’s task force on abandoned African American cemeteries and making sure school curriculums embrace factual history, not perspectives, based on primary sources.”
Service to community
This conference represents the essence of Barnes’ decades of service to the community. In 1997, she established the Florida African American Heritage Preservation Network, a statewide professional museum association. Prior to restoring the John G. Riley House, she worked for 30 years with Florida’s Departments of Education and Labor.
She is a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Florida Association of Museums, the National Association of African American Museums, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida A&M University. In 2012, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Museum and Library Services Board. In 2015, she received Tallahassee’s Greater Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Leadership Award.
“I was always moving around in circles that dealt with people and trying to help make their lives better,” says Barnes.
Barnes grew up in a large family of nine children. Her family’s roots and background in Leon County encompass the days of the Jim Crow era, tenant farming, and slavery. Her maiden name, Pemberton, preserves the history of her father’s family — the road it is named for and the acres of land they owned and farmed.
Every weekend, Barnes says her family would travel up Centerville Road or Miccosukee Road to visit numerous grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Recognizing importance of family
“I admired the older people and the way they would sit and have a love for each other and shared out at the May 20 celebrations,” describes Barnes. “As time went on and they passed, there was a sadness that these people were leaving. I didn’t see in society what they stood for or what they had accomplished. The families they had and the kids they put through college. There was a lot of writing going on, but it was not written in color.”
Using her large family network, Barnes grabbed her camcorder and began recording oral histories that eventually evolved into cultural development projects, historical publications, heritage trail maps, guides, and documentaries. She says her mentors have always been the educators, ministers and religious leaders she grew up alongside— the hard-working people she says who don’t often appear in history books.
Barnes is looking forward to those histories receiving their due during the “Journey to Emancipation” conference.
The conference will open with a showing of filmmaker Valerie Scoon’s Emmy-nominated documentary, “Invisible History: Middle Florida’s Hidden Roots.” Among the presenters are Sharyn Thompson from the Center for Historic Cemeteries Preservation and distinguished Florida A&M professor, Larry E. Rivers who will discuss his book “Father James Page: An Enslaved Preacher’s Climb to Freedom.”
“When people know where they come from or have some idea of what the past was like and how systems came about and how they were built up and torn down, it makes them a whole person,” says Barnes.
“I think the living is limited in its wholeness when there is no understanding, honor, or respect for the elders. To forget the past denies future generations their heritage and a foundation for hope. If you don’t see people like you doing these great things and building, where’s your inspiration? Where’s your hope?”
If you go
What: Journey to Emancipation Statewide History Conference
When: Dec. 5-7
Where: AC Hotel Marriot, 801 Gadsden St.
Contact: For more information, visit rileymuseum.org/event/2021-journey-to-emancipation-conference/.
Amanda Sieradzki is the feature writer for the Council on Culture & Arts. COCA is the capital area’s umbrella agency for arts and culture (www.tallahasseearts.org).
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: 'Journey to Emancipation' culminates a vision for Althemese Barnes