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E.B. and Juanita Palmer 

Local Legacy

The first stop on any tour of Raleigh's African-American Cultural Complex is the living room.

From this vantage point, there's no indication that the house at 119 Sunnybrook Road, near the Walnut Creek arena, is a museum--until Juanita Palmer walks in the back door.

Wearing a T-shirt heralding the accomplishments of African-American inventors, Juanita Palmer enters with more than 40 squirming children trailing behind her.

"How was your tour?" she asks.

"Great," they chime in unison.

The next tour group is a Bible school class from Rocky Mount's Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. Juanita Palmer hands off the guide duties to her husband of 15 years, E.B. Palmer, and goes into the kitchen to fix lunch for three visiting grandchildren. He greets a subdued group of preteens.

"People say, 'There's a $33 million dollar history museum uptown. Why didn't you include this there?' First, that's a state history museum, and we wanted to do something national. Secondly, whenever African Americans do anything negative, we get all the media coverage. When we do good, it's not on TV, so our history is slanted, distorted and often omitted."

At the conclusion of his talk, E.B. Palmer winks at the assembled group and says, "Hey, you may just think this is someone's house, but I challenge you to think that when you finish the tour."

On that note, the Bible schoolers head for the nature trail, outdoor amphitheater and three small houses full of pictures and other historical memorabilia.

Education brought E.B. and Juanita Palmer together. E.B. Palmer, a Durham native who graduated from Hillside High School and N.C. Central University, embarked on a long teaching career and was president of the N.C. Teachers Association. Juanita Palmer was a primary-school teacher in the Chapel Hill and the Wake County systems.

As program director of the complex, Juanita manages all the booking and scheduling of tour groups. Since the Palmers live on the property--which they lease to the board of directors for $1 a year--she and her husband are like "24-hour curators."

"Sometimes it's constant," says Juanita in her soft voice, "because you can never divorce yourself from the work. Sometimes it's 3 or 4 a.m., and I'm up sending a fax."

Her husband has a hand in almost everything else--grantwriting and guiding tours. On this June day, he apologizes for wearing a thin, white undershirt because he's been clearing brush from the yard.

The African-American Cultural Complex is a family affair for the Palmers. E.B. Palmer's children also help out; son Doug sits on the board, and daughter Ruth handles financial matters and designs the Web site while holding a full-time job.

It was his children, says board member and longtime friend Margaret Rose Murray, that put E.B. Palmer on his current path as a museum educator.

"I've known E.B. Palmer since I first opened my school [Raleigh's The Vital Link private school] in back in the 1960s." While his children went to the school, E.B. Palmer was instrumental in helping the teachers include African-American history in the curriculum way before it became popular.

"This was his idea," Juanita Palmer says of the museum's genesis. "I was still out teaching when he was carving out the nature path."

Charles Wadelington, minority interpretations specialist for North Carolina's 22 historic sites, adds, however, that Juanita is "the ideal support person. She's likely to be giving tours with a baby on her hip, doing her grandmotherly duties and household chores [while she works].

"And she does it with a rhythm, she doesn't say 'I have to stop to do the tour.' It's impossible for the African-American Cultural Complex to survive without her. They're partners in every way."

As a couple, Murray says the Palmers have developed a formula for success.

"They complement each other. He sounds off, and she's the sounding board. They share goals and they're equally committed. As retired teachers, they have discovered a new way to teach."

That new way of teaching is evident when you walk out the back door and into what may be one of Raleigh's best-kept secrets.

Near the swimming pool is the outdoor theater where the complex will hold the second season of the Amistad Saga in July. The outdoor drama is the only one of 113 nationwide to be written and produced by African Americans. It tells the story of the slave mutiny aboard the Amistad and the subsequent trial, also the subject of the 1997 Steven Spielberg film.

"It's a real cultural innovation for Southeast Raleigh," says E.B. Palmer with pride. Unlike most dramas, the cast of nearly 70 actors are not professionals, but community volunteers. And the AACC founders are making sure that there will be a steady stream of young actors as they sponsor a children's theater workshop beginning this week.

Small though the production may be, it's drawing attention. African American Dance Ensemble founder Chuck Davis choreographed the dance segments. Staged in the summer, E.B. Palmer says, it's become a favorite African-American family-reunion stop, and the Amistad Saga has even been mentioned in national publications, such as American Legacy magazine.

As he proceeds through the complex, E.B. tells of the many improvements that the museum plans: a 15-by-50 model of the Amistad slave ship, the installation of more seats at the amphitheater and the rebuilding of the bridges that connect the three exhibit houses.

The first house focuses on inventors, and he recites a litany of inventions by African Americans, including the ice-cream cone, the incandescent light bulb filament and pencil sharpeners. Pulling items from their shelves, he uses them to illustrate ideas.

"These are Famous Amos' cookies. This man came up with a recipe for cookies that was so good, but his partner stole the recipe. Wally Amos had to start his own brand. So the lesson is, if you've got something good, even a recipe, you have to patent it. You have to be smart in business."

In the second cottage, housing the "Women of Note" exhibit, there's a cackle from the leader of the vacation Bible school class. Geneva Chavis, a former teacher in Nash County, sees her picture on a table that honors other educators and luminaries. Chavis is in esteemed company, with pictures of local TV anchor Miriam Thomas, performer Debbie Allen and actress Tonea Harris Stewart, who played Virgil Tibbs' mother on the series In the Heat of the Night.

After Hurricane Fran ripped up trees and damaged the buildings in 1996, Stewart visited the museum and ended up performing a benefit for it. The Palmers hope she'll come back to help with an upcoming capital campaign.

If the campaign raises enough money, the African-American Cultural Complex will buy an adjacent 21/4-acre tract of land to add to their existing 3-acre plot. However, the land costs $250,000, more than the $200,000 operating budget the AACC had in its best year.

In 1999, more than 44,000 people visited, coming from places far and near, but E.B. says many local people haven't caught on. During a late spring event at which E.B. was invited to speak, people were praising a state Department of Commerce publication, "The Rich Heritage of African Americans in North Carolina." The Palmers' own museum was not included in the glossy pamphlet, so when E.B. got up to speak, he mentioned the omission. And he also mentioned that the he, Juanita and daughter Ruth would be traveling to Washington, D.C., to be honored by the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian on May 23. ("I think we'll make the book next time," he says, chuckling.).

Sen. John Edwards had nominated the museum as a "Local Legacy." As part of the Library of Congress' bicentennial, legislators were asked to identify people or institutions in their states who represent the cultural richness of the 20th century. The African-American Cultural Complex was among North Carolina's 44 awardees.

The Palmers and the museum they built--almost single-handedly--are truly a local legacy. Wadelington, who has consulted for the museum, says that the Palmers are a treasure.

"If the Palmers had the money [the State of North Carolina] has, there's no telling what they could do. You've got two individuals who have taken it upon themselves to relate to the citizens of North Carolina and the nation the contributions of African Americans in economics, science, politics and especially education."

They may not have the financial resources, but they have will and skill. With E.B. Palmer's networking prowess as well the couple's many years of teaching, says Wadelington, they have managed to draw in more visitors than 70 percent of the state's historic sites. While other volunteers contribute, he notes, it's the Palmers' sincerity that keeps people coming.

"Sometimes people get into things for economic reasons, notoriety or power. That's not the Palmers. They put history on a level everyone can understand, and how they relate to people is not on the basis of race, it's based on the desire to know." EndBlock

  • The story of E.B. and Juanita Palmer, the couple behind the African-American Cultural Complex.


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