"My main goal in life is to build a good library of Black history — knowledge is a form of Black power and this is my part in it."
— Charles L. Blockson
An African and Afro-American Collection
The Centre Theater Gallery is proud to announce its first powerful showcase: The Charles L. Blockson Exhibition.
The focus of the collection is related to the global Black experience and highlights the life work of Mr. Blockson, a Norristown native who has amassed one of the largest collections of African American history in the nation, and is a leading expert on the Underground Railroad.
Two university collections related to the study of African-American history and culture: the Charles L. Blockson Collection of African-Americana and the African Diaspora at Pennsylvania State University and the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University have been curated under his name, and now Norristown’s The Centre Theater will be the next recipient of Blockson ‘s lifework within The Charles Blockson Exhibition.
The largest part of the gallery will feature numerous artifacts from Mr. Blockson, including some of the most rare African American artifacts in the nation to modern pieces of art, like photographs by John Mosley which documents African American life in and around Philadelphia from the 1930s to 1960s.
Born in 1933, right here in Norristown, Charles Leroy Blockson’s live changed at just 9 years old. In fourth grade, his history teacher, a white woman, asserted that “Negroes have no history. They were born to serve white people.” That statement launched Blockson’s lifelong journey which we are celebrating within The Charles Blockson Exhibition.
In 2016 a short yet powerful documentary “Holding History: The Collections of Charles L. Blockson” was published. This Mid Atlantic Emmy and “Favorite Documentary Short” winner will be shown to guests upon arrival, taking them on a journey through Charles’ to inspire the next generation of Norristonians so they too make their place in history.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
“Our textbooks in those days said that all the slaves were happy on the plantations, but I said to myself as I started to get into it, ‘if the enslaved people were happy, why did they run away?’”
James Blockson, Charles’ great-grandfather, had been a slave in Delaware and escaped into Pennsylvania on the Underground Railroad. Listening to his grandfather sing Railroad hymns, Charles deepened his curiosity about the struggles of freedom, and years later published The Underground Railroad: First-Person Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North. The Underground Railroad room will feature somber artifacts and relics of the atrocities of the past.
On top of great souviners to commemorate your trip to the Blockson exhibit, the Gift Shop will feature a kiosk to order prints of the works of famed local photographer John W. Mosely, whose iconic photos will be incorporated into the Blockson exhibition.
From memoirs to poems, to history books and stories of old, the Reading Room provides a place for casual visitors and students to access subjects of African American history and culture.
The room will also be “emotionally interactive”. Each week, a new question will be posted on a chalkboard with visitors encouraged to write their response. “How are you inspired” or “what change do you want to be for the world” will create silent conversations within guests own minds along with a take home topic to be discussed aloud later.
Charles’ collection is far too large to display all at once, so to pay homage to his lifework and to honor those who created the amazing pieces of history we explore today, the idea of the Changing History room was forged. This room will act a “rotating blockbuster exhibit area”, where artifacts ranging in time periods and theme will change throughout the exhibitions run. Collection examples range from pieces about Mr. Blockson’s youth in Norristown to memorabilia from Tupac Shakur.
The Centre Theater Gallery is located on the Theater's 3rd floor and is accessible by stairs or elevator. The Charles Blockson Exhibition — the gallery's first showcase — will be opening to the public soon.
(click the grayed-out images on the map to learn more about each space)
CHARLES L. BLOCKSON EXHIBITION
From his early childhood in Norristown, Charles accumulated an incredible collection of rare materials documenting the story of African Americans. The historian and scholar is the author of 13 books, including on the Underground Railroad, about which he is an expert.
The Charles L. Blockson exhibition is a celebration of his life's work and the major contributions he made to the recorded history and culture of African Americans, continental Africans, and the African diaspora.
The Charles L. Blockson exhibition will be on display in the newly constructed second-floor gallery in Centre Theater at 208 DeKalb Street in Norristown.
Excerpt from a WPSU Penn State original production, this short-form documentary tells the story of Charles L. Blockson’s lifelong journey to unearth and preserve the history, culture, and contributions of people of African descent.
"From the shackles we emerged into writers, judges, preachers, ministers, actors... all kinds of endeavors in life.
It gives me strength and determination to carry on."
PARTNERS & SPONSORS
Centre Theater Operated by The Greater Norristown Society for the Arts, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization