The King Studios suitcase that Sean Rhiney, director of Xavier University’s Eigel Center, opens is a time capsule with a story to tell, with artifacts from what seems like a different world. In one corner there is a collection of tiny 45 rpm records, in another is a cowbell, and in another there is a Green Book. The small booklets provided black travelers a guide to African American–friendly gas stations, hotels, and restaurants. The Green Books were the natural product of the harsh reality for traveling black musicians in the Jim Crow era South.
When the opportunity to tell the story of racial integration, discrimination, and poverty presented itself to Xavier faculty M. Christine Anderson, PhD, and Rhiney, they took it. That story concerns the legacy of King Records, an independent Cincinnati record company that produced records from artists like James Brown. To tell the story of King Records, Rhiney and Anderson worked with Xavier and the community of Evanston, where King was originally located, to create the Traveling Suitcase program.
Using a collection of themed suitcases, containing historical artifacts and pre-prepared lesson plans, the organization seeks to educate students on King Records and the cultural aspects of the world that the company found itself in.
“Every aspect of King Records was racially integrated,” says Anderson, a history professor at Xavier. “At a time when they were probably one of only two businesses in Cincinnati to be racially integrated.”
Central to the program is the idea of public history, which attempts to highlight the stories and experiences of people and places that are often left behind by larger, more expansive accounts of history. The King Traveling Suitcases tell a focused story about King Records, while also telling a larger story about race and discrimination.
“The other thing that public historians do is we try to make our academic resources available to the community,” Anderson says. “So that people can tell their own stories.”
The suitcases come in a variety of educational themes, from math to music and civil rights to science. Each suitcase includes some artifacts so that students can directly connect with the theme of that particular suitcase as well as an iPad with a lesson plan for educators. For one week, teachers in the Cincinnati area can check these suitcases out, free of charge, for their classes.
“It’s very much everyday music about people’s lives, and I find that a really wonderful thing,” Anderson says. “It’s a history we need to preserve, that’s difficult to preserve.”