In honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day, el-Hakim brought his mobile museum January 16, a collection he travels with around the country
Students quietly viewed artifacts from the transatlantic slave trade to modern day magazines featuring prominent African-American icons. People spoke in quiet tones to each other about what they saw and sometimes asked questions of the curator. Khalid el-Hakim greeted questions with a friendly smile and attentiveness. No question was turned away or unanswered.
His interest in collecting started as a child. “I used to go to baseball games in Detroit, Tiger games, and get baseball players to autograph things,” he said. “So that skill set, then transferred into this. I’ve always been fascinated with people’s signatures.”
A sociology professor at Ferris State College opened el-Hakim’s eyes to the realities of racism in America. “He would bring artifacts in every week and the students in the class had never really seen that before,” he said. “It forced us to deal with this ugly reality. It forced us out of our comfort zones.”
Attending the Million Man March at Washington DC in 1995, he made a pledge to make a difference in his community. Instead of keeping his approximately 350 piece collection private, he started displaying it in public spaces. Going back to Detroit, he reached out to grassroots organizations, sharing tables with them. Once people saw the depth of his collection, he received invitations to share the collection on it’s own.
Traveling the country, he shares his collection with schools, hospitals and a variety of institutions. His collection has grown to 7,000 artifacts, including signed pieces. “It’s rare that you could walk into a museum and see pieces signed by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. all in one space,” el-Hakim said.
Following the example of his college professor, el-Hakim brought in pieces to share with his middle school social studies students. He wants to use the material to engage students and the community to view history in a new way.
“The most beneficial thing for me, has been observing how people interact with the material,” said el-Hakim. “Seeing people responding to the fact that they have not been taught a full knowledge of American history.”
“Obviously American history has not been inclusive of a large segment of the population,” he said. “So for people to come through the exhibit and realize that, a lot of people are inspired to go do more research into it.”
The Signature Series displays artifacts signed by many prominent African American figures. “For me signatures in writing, takes people back to that specific time era,” he said. “The idea that James Brown touched this contract and signed it- to me it’s very cool. It differentiates my collections, from other collections.”
In his collection is a letter from the African American Student Foundation outlining the successes of 81 Kenyan students who were given scholarships, allowing them to come to the United States for higher education. The letter is signed by Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Jackie Robinson who raised the money for the scholarships.
The signatures were the only reason he got the paper, but one day he decided to research the scholarship recipients. Grinning, el-Hakim divulged that Barack Obama Sr. was one of the 81 one students and that if it weren’t for those three men, Barack Obama wouldn’t have been president. “Let me tell you what’s even more unreal, I don’t think Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier even knew, until years after he became president,” he said. “These men are so invested in their work, that who would have thought, that money they invested years ago, produced the first black president.”
Traveling the Northwest with the mobile museum is one of el-Hakim’s friends, Gerald Bolden. They met six years ago at a K-8 school who booked the museum where Bolden worked. “We got to talking and man, he was so nice and open. We just hit it off and became friends,” he said. “Whenever he comes to the Northwest, I try to help out at every event I can make it to.” Bolden said el-Hakim groups as many events as he can in an area so that he doesn’t miss anyone.
Interim AVP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Rashida Willard, discovered el-Hakim and invited him to Clark. “I first found him in 2017, when I took a bunch of my students from the Black Student Union to the Black Student Success day at PSU,” she said. After seeing him at Portland State University, Willard invited him to visit Clark for the first time in 2018. She said the museum’s theme was in honor of the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination. “He is very personable and really tries to be flexible and fit everyone in for his tour schedules,” Willard said.
Many artifacts are rarely seen because of their content, if you get a chance to see the museum, you’ll find yourself viewing pieces that would otherwise not be shown because of graphic or inappropriate content.