NURFC Deputy Director Plans 15th Anniversary Event
Jacqueline K. Dace, Deputy Director of NURFC
Photo by Tracy Doyle
She’s been enamored with the mission of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) since it opened its doors almost 15 years ago. And now, since being appointed the center’s deputy director in June, Jacqueline K. Dace continues to not only embrace, but propel the museum’s commitment to promoting unity and freedom for all.
“We’re a museum of conscience and an institution where conversations about unity and freedom can be constructed, not just responded to,” Dace says. “We are to provide the platform for looking at, interpreting and analyzing issues. We take the lead in being a place for these conversations to be held, which makes us a unique institution in that respect. Other museums may have that somewhere in their mission, but therein lies the difference. For us, it’s not a subset of our focus, it is our mission.”
Dace, who hails from Centreville, Illinois, formerly served as the director of internal affairs at the National Blues Museum in St. Louis. Prior to that, she was the project manager for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson; collections manager at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago; curator of African American history at the Missouri Historical Society and adjunct professor of Afro-African American Studies at Washington University, also both in St. Louis. Dace’s work has been crucial in the areas of grant writing, development and fundraising. She has served on committees with the American Alliance of Museums, the Oral History Association, the National Council on Public History, Organization of American Historians and is currently on the board of the Association of African American Museums.
She participated in the inaugural Public History Institute, developed by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University and she formerly served as a practitioner with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation’s Racial Equity
With her extensive background in public history and a wealth of curatorial, educational and museum leadership experience, it’s difficult to imagine a time when Dace was not a museum. Ironically, however, her impressive career in the field began when she was looking for a job and just happened to find one as a receptionist/security officer at the Missouri Historical Society.
“I was not at all interested in history at the time,” Dace recalls with a chuckle. “When I’d been taught it, it was just a series of dates. I made great grades because I remembered enough for the tests, but when they were over, I forgot it all. History held no relevance for me.”
Part of her duties as receptionist/security officer at the Missouri Historical Society was to index copies of “Gateway Heritage,” the organizations’ quarterly publication.
“I started learning the local history of St. Louis, and it all started making sense to me – why the streets were gridded and developed the way they were, the origins of street names,” Dace says. She began to understand St. Louis’ historical role from both a national and international perspective. From there, she went to work for the publications and research department. When it came time for the Missouri Historical Society to hire a community historian, she considered applying but was initially dissuaded by the job description.
“They were looking for someone with a master’s degree or other advanced degree,” Dace says. “I thought, ‘You know, this is something I can do, but will I be taken seriously if I apply for this position?’”
She decided to apply, she got the job, and the rest is, well, history.
“I wasn’t a scholar, but I had done the work,” Dace says. “My first job had been at Centreville City Hall when I was 15, and in my time with the city, I conducted community research and assisted in a plan for installing a sanitary sewer system in Centreville. Basically, I’ve learned from every job I had, so that helped in their decision to hire me. One of the prerequisites of the job was that I get my degree, so I decided on social sciences.”
She attended Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, and later Webster University, after she graduated from Cahokia High School in Cahokia.
Although happenstance initially placed her foot inside the museum field door, it’s her recognized necessity to strategically preserve and share African American history for future generations through oral history and other venues that continues to fuel her passion.
“If young people can see where they fit in, not only in terms of individually but geographically, and how they can affect change, they will develop an interest in history,” Dace says. “It sends chills up my spine when I hear a young person repeat something or share something I have taught them, or something they’ve taken from my work.”
Through the Eyes of a Child
One of Dace’s African American history projects, “Through the Eyes of a Child” (1996-2002), documented four communities in metropolitan St. Louis, resulting in enormous amounts of archival material, dozens of firsthand accounts, active oral histories and an off-shoot “In the Voice of a Child,” which led to community research by middle school-age students living in the highlighted neighborhoods, and included an historic play using the words of neighborhood residents. This project won honorable mention from the 2000 Hollywood Black Film Festival and the Kansas City Film Festival.
“‘Through the Eyes of a Child’ was my baby. I gave birth to it and watched it grow. It was a great project – it was intergenerational also – and we were able to bring together older members of the community and youth in the same room and they learned from each other,” Dace says.
Her work helped residents realize and appreciate their roles in the history of their communities, and the stories, the legacies, they can leave for other people. Of everything she has, oral history is one of the things she has come to love.
“I’ve done the same thing in virtually every aspect of my career,” Dace says. “And I believe that is what brought me here. It’s everything we bring together and coalesce and what we do as National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. It may not be in the same vein as ‘Through the Eyes of a Child,’ but it involves similar processes in research, developing the stories and the programs we implement. We’re bringing together different segments of our community through the various exhibitions, panels, lectures – everything we do here creates a stream of information, allowing us to progressively move forward.”
Dace and National Underground Railroad Freedom Center President Dion Brown worked together previously in St. Louis, developing programs, events and operations at the National Blues Museum. She was appointed interim executive director of that museum, replacing Brown, who left for his position as NURFC president. The two originally met while participating in a panel discussion when Dace was the project manager for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Brown was president of the BB King Museum.
“Jackie provided such excellent leadership in St. Louis, I knew I had to have her here,” Brown says. “There were others I considered, but I knew that the type of leadership Jackie can provide is what this institution needs. Jackie packed the capacity to do what this museum needed at the time, and to help lead the place with me, help expand what the NURFC offers. We can come up with a program from beginning to end in less than 20 minutes. We’re great collaborators when it comes to brainstorming and coming up with concepts and ideas, like we did consistently in St. Louis. We make a good team.”
Both Dace and Brown are excited about working together again as they further NURFC’s mission and plan many important conversations and exciting events in 2019. Those events will include:
• Freedom 55 – The 55th anniversary of Freedom Summer, also known as the Mississippi Freedom Summer, will be commemorated with many special activities, including lectures, workshops and panel discussions. The Mississippi Freedom Summer Project was a 1964 voter registration drive sponsored by several civil rights organizations. The purpose of the project was to increase black voter registration in Mississippi. Freedom Summer workers included black Mississippians and hundreds of predominately white out-of-state volunteers. Volunteer orientation sessions were held at the then-Western College for Women – now Miami University – in Oxford, Ohio. “The Freedom Center will be the place where people will convene to discuss what worked then and if there are active ways to implement those same processes today,” Dace explains.
• NURFC 15th Anniversary – “We will look back and look forward, showcasing a lot of the programs and projects we’ve done over the years,” says Dace. “We’ve got some exciting things coming.”
• Mandela: Journey to Ubuntu Exhibition Expanded Until March 2019 – “This exhibition deserves a longer lifespan than the usual three months,” says Dace. “Not only does it tell the story of Nelson Mandela, but it would have been his 100th birthday this year. We want to give more people a chance to learn more about him.”
Dace encourages people to join in the many exciting and life-changing conversations on unity and freedom for all that are taking place and will continue to take place at the NURFC.
“This museum has a great story and a great purpose. We are going to live up to the expectations of this institution and what it all stands for. We would love for the community to join us, come along with us, as we move [the museum] from great to greatness. We owe it to the individuals whose stories we are telling, those who were able to survive a space where they were not even supposed to have a spirit or be human or be able to become individuals.
“Everyone needs to do their part,” Dace concludes. “We can’t leave the hard choices and decisions to the next generation. We were given the opportunity by the generation that came before us to make it better for the next generation. We have a ways to go. We’ve got to make it right.”
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located at 50 E. Freedom Way, Cincinnati, OH 45202. For more information, call 877.648.4838 or visit www.freedomcenter.org