Visions of America: African American Family Stories and Genealogy – Visiting the International African American Museum and Exploring Connections

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Program Description:

Uncovering African American Stories and Genealogy: Visiting the International African American Museum and Exploring Connections, part of the VISIONS OF AMERICA: All Stories, All People, All Places series, produced collaboratively by PBS Books and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The program is hosted by the National Director of PBS Books, Heather-Marie Montilla, and the IMLS Acting Director, Cyndee Landrum.

Celebrating lesser-known stories of African Americans, IMLS Deputy Director of Museum Services Laura Huerta Migus begins our journey at the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina with the Museum’s President and CEO Dr. Tonya Matthews and the Museum’s Center for Family History’s Director Brian Sheffey. IAAM is a newly opened museum, which tells the unvarnished stories of the African American experience.  

Anthony Smith, who is the Associate Deputy Director for Discretionary Grants for Libraries at IMLS and a hobbyist genealogist, speaks with librarian and scholar Dr. LaVerne Gray, who is an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University and the recipient of an IMLS grant supporting her project: Uncovering Black Lives Project: Investigating the information community and collections of African Americans Genealogists. We’ll investigate the connections and collectives that bring people together in community and how they contribute to the genealogical field. 

Guest Biographies:

Tonya M. Matthews, Ph.D. – President & CEO, International African American Museum

Dr. Tonya M. Matthews is a thought-leader in social entrepreneurship, institutional equity and inclusion strategy, and the intersection of formal and informal education. Her background as both poet and engineer has made her a highly sought-after visioning partner on boards and community and economic development projects, as well as a frequent public speaker and presenter for gatherings across all ages and sectors.

A non-profit executive veteran, Dr. Matthews is currently President and Chief Executive Officer of the International African American Museum (IAAM) located in Charleston, SC at the historically sacred site of Gadsden’s Wharf. Under Dr. Matthews’ leadership, IAAM has become a champion of authentic, empathetic storytelling of African American history and thus is one of the nation’s newest platforms for the disruption of institutionalized racism as America continues the walk toward “a more perfect union.”

Dr. Matthews brings her “pre-K through gray” philosophy of education alongside a deep respect for life-long learning and radical empathy skill building to every appointment. Dr. Matthews’ storied career includes her role as Associate Provost for Inclusive Workforce Development & Director of the STEM Innovation Learning Center at Wayne State University and, prior to that, as the President & CEO of the Michigan Science Center – flexing her science and STEM educational equity chops in both roles. She is the founder of The STEMinista Project, a movement to engage girls in their future with STEM careers and tools and STEMinista Rising, which supports professional women in STEM – and the colleagues who champion them.

Dr. Matthews’ dedication to community and accomplishments are widely recognized. She has been noted as one of the Charleston’s Most Influential by Charleston Business Magazine twice and honored as Trailblazer by Career Mastered Magazine (2017). She is a former member of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Science Education and was appointed by both Democratic and Republican administrations to the National Assessment Governing Board. She has authored several articles and book chapters on inclusive board governance, non-profit management, and fundraising. Dr. Matthews is a published poet and is included in 100 Best African American Poems (2010) edited by Nikki Giovanni. She has also been honored with an honorary doctorate from Central Michigan University for her career achievements and contributions.

Dr. Matthews received her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University and her B.S.E. in biomedical and electrical engineering from Duke University, alongside a certificate in African/African American Studies. She is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and The Links, Inc. Dr. Matthews is a native of Washington, D.C. and – in each community she has settled – is known for planting roots on the side of town best for keeping an eye on progress.

LaVerne Gray, Ph.D. – Assistant Professor

LaVerne Gray comes to the iSchool after recently completing her PhD in the College of Communication and Information at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her dissertation, “In a Collective Voice: Uncovering the Black Feminist Information Community of Activist-Mothers in Chicago Public Housing, 1955-1970,” explores Black feminist agency in community development within constructed urban spaces.

The study employs qualitative analyses of archival documents, to reveal a Black Feminist Information Community(BFIC) framework. Her research was supported through the 2017 Black Metropolis Research Consortium (BMRC) Fellowship, where she used archives throughout the city of Chicago to explore evidence for her research.

Using Critical Race and Black Feminist perspectives, LaVerne Gray’s research explores information location and value in marginal community spaces. She is keenly interested in African-American historical information collectives and archival-evidence analysis.

Brian Sheffey - Headshot

Brian Sheffey – Director of the Center for Family History at the International African American History Museum

Brian Sheffey is the Director of the Center for Family History at the International African American History Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the host of the popular African American genealogy, culture, and history television series Genealogy Adventures, which he presents with Donya Williams on e360tv.

His research areas have focused on the U.S. regions east of the Mississippi River, including the northern British American Colonies. He has particular expertise in researching enslaved people and enslaved communities in the early British American colonial era.

In 2023, he was hired by the University of Virginia Foundation to research and find the descendants of the enslaved community held at William Garth’s Birdwood Plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has also spent the past few years researching the ancestry of communities of enslaved people held by the Bull, Butler, Middleton, Brewerton, and Guerard families in South Carolina.

Brian is the author of two award-winning Amazon Top 10 selling genealogy books: “Practical Genealogy: 50 Simple Steps to Research Your Diverse Family History” and “Family Tree Workbook: 30+ Step-by-Step Worksheets to Build Your Family History.”

Anthony Smith - Headshot

Anthony D. Smith – Associate Deputy Director for Discretionary Grants, Office of Library Services, at the Institute of Museum and Library Services

Anthony D. Smith is the Associate Deputy Director for Discretionary Grants, within the Office of Library Services, at the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

In his role, Anthony has oversight and management responsibilities for the National Leadership Grants for Libraries, Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program, Native American Library Services Basic and Enhancement Grants, Native American Library Services Enhancement Grants, and the Native Hawaiian Library Services Grant program. He has worked in the Federal government since 2010, serving in various roles supporting national library programs. Anthony began his library career in 1995 after a 10-year career in the U.S. Navy. He joined the University of Tennessee Library Systems team, where his work involved replacing “dumb terminals” with new desktop computers and providing maintenance support for library staff. During his time at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, he would earn his master’s in library and information science. This led to a tenure-track position as the digital initiatives’ librarian and then coordinator, overseeing the establishment and operation of the Digital Library Center.  Mentoring and teaching factored heavily into Anthony earning tenure in 2006. In addition to teaching graduate courses in digital librarianship, he also traveled to Makerere University in Uganda to teach digital library skills for library staff.  Continuing to build on his professional skillset, Anthony applied to ARLs Leadership Career Development Program (LCDP) and was accepted in the class of 2007-08. “It was a pivotal career moment for me and opened a number of career doors,” says Anthony. In 2007, Anthony accepted an associate university librarian role at the University of Miami, as the director for digital services. Through his work at UM and his previous experience teaching abroad, he was invited to teach digital asset management and digital preservation courses for UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (OOC) in Oostende, Belgium. His work for the OOC occurred between 2009 – 2012 and is an experience he considers the most rewarding work of his career. Anthony would leave UM in 2010, accepting the role of Senior Program Officer for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Serving as a program officer for the National Leadership Grant program, he was able to help shape the national agenda for libraries. He also successfully led the development of an early learning grant program designed to ensure that libraries were poised to support early reading skills. In 2013, Anthony joined the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) at the Government Publishing Office and was appointed as the Director of Projects and Systems. In this role, he led a team responsible for the development, implementation, and maintenance of systems to support over 1100 member libraries throughout the United States and its territories. In addition, he oversaw web harvesting activities and the program management office. In 2020, he would return to IMLS as the Associate Deputy Director for all library discretionary grant programs. “I don’t think I would change a thing if I got a chance to do all over again,” says Anthony. “I have been positioned in a way throughout my career where I could do for others, which is priceless.”

Laura Huerta Migus - Headshot

Laura Huerta Migus – Deputy Director for Museum Services

Laura Huerta Migus was appointed Deputy Director of the Office of Museum Services in July 2021. She came to IMLS following her tenure as executive director of the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) in Arlington, Virginia, the world’s largest professional society promoting and advocating on behalf of children’s museums and children’s museum professionals.

Throughout her career, Huerta Migus has been devoted to the growth and education of children, particularly those from underserved and under-resourced communities. Under her leadership, ACM pursued innovative and effective partnerships to leverage the power of children’s museums worldwide.

In 2018, Huerta Migus was named as an Ascend Fellow of the Aspen Institute, and in 2016, she was recognized as a Champion of Change for Summer Opportunity by the White House. She is a noted speaker and author on topics of equity and audience-focused museum practice for institutions including the Board of Science Education of the National Academies of Sciences, the U.S. Play Coalition, and various university texts.

Previously, she served as the director of professional development and equity initiatives at the Association of Science-Technology Centers, Inc., has published articles in peer-reviewed texts, and served as principal investigator on numerous informal learning initiatives.

Since joining IMLS, Huerta Migus has helped the agency establish the American Latino Museum Internship and Fellowship Initiative (ALMIFI). This initiative is designed to strengthen the institutional capacity of American Latino museums, provide paid internship and fellowship opportunities for a diverse range of students, and build connections between colleges, universities, and museums.

She also worked closely with IMLS’ Office of Research and Evaluation to successfully launch the first National Museum Survey (NMS), which will capture the scope and scale of museums’ presence and reach within the U.S. over time. Once mature, the survey will collect foundational, high-level data directly from museums to inform policymakers, the museum field, and the public about the social, cultural, educational, and economic roles that the nation’s diverse museums play in American society.

Huerta Migus holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Texas A&M University and a master’s degree in organization development and leadership from Saint Joseph’s University.

Cyndee Landrum - Headshot

Cyndee Landrum – Deputy Director for Library Services

Cyndee Landrum was appointed as the Deputy Director of the Office of Library Services in June 2019. In her current role she collaborates with IMLS’s senior leadership to support agency priorities, policy, and partnerships, and provide leadership and direction for the library grant programs.

Landrum oversees the agency’s largest program, Grants to States, which is the primary source of federal funding for library services in the United States, and the agency’s discretionary grant programs, including National Leadership Grants for Libraries, the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian program, Native American and Native Hawaiian Library Services, and the newest library grant initiative, Accelerating Promising Practices for Small Libraries.

Over a professional career of more than 20 years, Landrum has served in public libraries across the country. Prior to her IMLS appointment, she served as CEO-director of the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library in Indiana. She also served as assistant director for public services at Oak Park Library in Illinois, assistant director of Mt. Lebanon Public Library in Pittsburgh, and held various positions at the Glendale Public Library in Arizona. She has been active in local, state, and national professional associations including serving as president of the Arizona Library Association. Landrum also has volunteered on local nonprofit and municipal boards, including the Evansville Promise Zone Governance Advisory Board.

Landrum holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from Northwestern University, a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Southern Mississippi, and is a doctoral candidate in the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons University.

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