Mobile museum sees Black history on the move in Michigan

Dr. Khalid el-Hakim has finally found a sense of normalcy again. His 10-year run of hopping on and off planes with bustling suitcases full of African American memorabilia stopped suddenly in 2020 (along with everything else) due to the Covid-19 pandemic. His in-person exhibitions were replaced with Facebook Live and Zoom presentations. Things improved a bit in 2021 but he’s still running a mix of virtual and live showings.  

“I’ve been to 41 states and over 500 different institutions,” he says. “So that was a big adjustment. I had never even done a digital presentation prior to all of this.”

El-Hakim is the founder and curator of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum, a collection of over 10,000 historical artifacts and collectibles ranging from slavery to current hip-hop culture that has seen the inside of hundreds of classrooms and boardrooms. The collection includes rusted metal shackles used by southern slave owners, slave auction newspaper clippings, and postcards depicting lynchings. El-Hakim has signed documents and letters written by Malcolm X, Frederick Douglas, and George Washington Carver. He owns “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” bathroom and water fountain signs and even a Ku Klux Klan hood he purchased at an auction. 

With a Ph.D. in Museum Studies from the University of Illinois, el-Hakim’s collection has gone from a small hobby in his attic, to the confines of a storage facility, then a graffiti-covered trailer, to now constantly touring. While certain pieces of his collection stay mobile, other pieces get leased for months at a time. 

The Detroit native grew up collecting hip-hop concert flyers, cassettes, and comic books but the true spark was ignited during his enrollment at Ferris State University in 1991.

“Dr. David Pilgrim was my sociology professor at Ferris. He brought in a racist piggy bank and the whole class was shocked,” he says.

As Pilgrim continued to bring in more racially-charged relics, el-Hakim grew more motivated. He started to view his collection of hip-hop concert flyers and cassettes as valuable memorabilia, not just keepsakes. Shortly after, while on a spring break in Daytona Beach, Florida, el-Hakim purchased a ceramic caricature of an African American man eating watermelon. 

“That was my first Jim Crow-related artifact. That's when I started looking for more of those kinds of artifacts,” he says.

At first, el-Hakim kept his collection private but a trip to the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C. changed his perspective. “The goal of the Million Man March was to encourage black men to go back to their prospective communities and make some sort of impact," he says. "I came back thinking to myself, ‘What could I contribute to my community?'"

By then el-Hakim was a teacher in the Detroit Public School district. He began bringing in various pieces into his classroom and to community meeting spaces, churches, and cultural events. “The students would be in shock and a lot of other people had a gut reaction to the racist bigotry material but had nostalgic reactions to the Muhamand Ali material,” he says.

El-Hakim displayed his relics under the name “The Bell Collection'' (a family surname) and was inspired by the feedback every time he put pieces on display. 

“I realized it was meeting the needs of the community,” he says. “Historical artifacts that spoke to a history that wasn't being highlighted in museum spaces [...] I also realized over time that Dr. Charles H. Wright was doing this over a period of time early in his career.”

By the mid-2000s el-Hakim’s collection was still just part of his creative arsenal. He was the manager of D-12 rapper Proof and poetry groups 3rd Eye Open and The Last Poets. He was also still teaching at the Detroit Lions Academy and promoting hip-hop events under his New Rising Sun promotional company. All that changed when Proof was gunned down on April 11, 2006. “After Proof was killed the museum really started to take center place for me,” he says.

El-Hakim decided to dedicate himself to broadening the focus of his collection. He changed the name to the Black History 101 Mobile Museum and sought out artifacts that would tell the complete story of the African American experience. 

“When I decided to become more serious about the collection I started looking at the whole Black experience and I made sure to incorporate all the voices of all the people who made contributions in America,” he says.  

“It's given me an opportunity to connect everything. Black Lives Matter is just an affirmation of our humanity in its current form,” he says. “If you go back to Sojourner Truth, for example, she asked ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ If you fast forward to Martin Luther King in Memphis and he’s protesting with these sanitation workers holding signs that say, ‘I am a man’. Again, those slogans are an affirmation of our humanity. The slogans have changed but the reality of us being treated unequally is still present in 2022.”

El-Hakim tours and curates the museum full-time now. As the museum continues to grow, he’s garnered several prestigious awards including a Spirit of Detroit Award, a Freedom Scholar Award from African American Life and History, named among the changemakers for NBC Universal’s “Erase the Hate” campaign”, and listed as one of the 100 Men of Distinction for Black Enterprise magazine in 2017.

In 2020, Western Michigan University (WMU) announced plans to establish a Michigan hip-hop Archive, curated by el-Hakim. “It’s about how hip-hop came to Michigan, how it influenced Michigan, and how Michigan hip-hop culture has changed the world. Having this permanently on campus will make WMU one of the very few universities to have a dedicated space dedicated to the preservation of hip-hop,” he says.

Moving forward, el-Hakim will be a scholar-in-residence at the University of Wyoming in which he’s developing a Black Museum Studies certificate. “It will help address the professionalization of Black museum spaces. It will help create a pathway to those that want to go into Black cultural museum institutions.”
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Photos courtesy of Black History 101 Mobile Museum.
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