Passion for Truth 

Carnita Atwater brings Sammy Davis Jr. exhibit to Memphis.

Carnita Atwater is passionate about many things: education, her museums, and her community among them. Her African American International Museum Foundation has already produced the Buffalo Soldier's Museum, Black Memphian Collection, the Tuskegee Airmen Museum, the African American Hall of Fame, the Black Invention Museum, and the Blues Museum of Memphis among others.

Her latest exhibit is called "Sammy Davis Jr. The Truth," based on "Mister Show Business" himself. The exhibit is at the downtown Cossitt Branch library through February.

click to enlarge Carnita Atwater - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Carnita Atwater

Why Davis? "When I first started researching Sammy Davis Jr., I have to admit I did not care for him," Atwater says. "But through my research and through collecting artifacts from his estate, I have a new-found respect and love for this man. He was definitely a cutting-edge person."

When the state of California put Davis' estate up for auction in 2001, Atwater was one of the estimated 800 people in attendance. More than 500 Davis items sold including gold records, photographs, clothing, and personal documents. The auction brought in nearly $500,000, short of Davis' $5.3 million debt. Atwater didn't buy anything, but managed to get a word in with the man who collected the majority of the items for sale.

"Jokingly, I told him, 'When you decide to sell his artifacts, make sure I'm the first person in line,'" she recalls. "He agreed. So he called me after several years and asked if I still had an interest in buying the collection. Within 15 hours, I was flying out there to buy the artifacts."

So why the title, "The Truth"? "If you study him, you'll see he was more than just an entertainer or dancer," she said. "Sammy Davis Jr. is such an important person in our history. Not just African-American history but internationally. This man was known around the world. I think people will be elated to see all the artifacts that are in this collection — his honorary degrees, his clothing, invitations to the White House, marriage certificates, photos from his marriages. I think visitors will see things they wouldn't ever see, not even at the Smithsonian African-American Museum."

Atwater has big plans for 2015. The former North Memphis resident and Frayser High School graduate wants to revitalize the place she once called home, the New Chicago area. She has purchased land in the community and is ready to get going: "When my family moved to Memphis, my mom purchased a home in New Chicago, which was a prominent area during the heyday of the Firestone Tire Company. That's something that's close to my heart. I want to revitalize that area. First, building the African-American business district, having a cultural school, and possibly a community college."

Her long-term vision also includes an African-American History Museum. "I think it's imperative that we go beyond civil rights. I want to tell the story from a historical perspective of the African-American and African experience," she says. "I would pick up what the National Civil Rights Museum does not address."

Atwater has managed to keep a low profile, which is by design: "This world is not about me; it's about how I serve my community. I have always left my options open to whatever God has in store for me."

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