In 1956, Fortune Magazine referred to Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue as “the richest negro street in the country.” Part of that street is the John Wesley Dobbs building, a small place that has played a massive part in its story.
It opened in 1910 as the Atlanta/Southern School Book Depository, which would provide the schools in the community with instruction materials at low prices and with the best possible service. The ER Mitchell Construction Company bought the place in 1985.
It was later named after Dobbs, referred to as the unofficial mayor of Auburn Avenue. He earned this nickname due to him being the grandmaster of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, located in the Sweet Auburn Historic District, and his successful efforts to register Black voters in Atlanta. Dobbs is also the grandfather of Maynard Jackson, the first Black mayor of Atlanta and a major southern city.
Since 1987, the building has been home to the African American Panoramic Experience, or APEX, Museum, which recently celebrated its 42nd anniversary. This is the oldest Black history museum in the city, founded in 1978 by Dan Moore Sr., a filmmaker who moved to Atlanta from Philadelphia in 1974 and has made documentaries about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson.
Moore was inspired to open this museum after attending a luncheon honoring Benjamin Mays, the president of Morehouse College and a personal mentor to King and Jackson.
“You had all this missed history on Auburn Avenue, but nobody has tried to maintain it and preserve it, so I just moved into that spot and started the APEX Museum,” Moore said.
The museum’s original name was the Collections of Life and Heritage, having been across the street from Morris Brown College, an HBCU. Jackson’s wife, Valerie Richardson, suggested the current name. She told Moore that the museum represents global history, not just local history, and the name should reflect that.
“It doesn’t just deal with America or civil rights or segregation,” Moore said. “It deals with world history.”
The mission of the APEX is to present history from the point of view of African Americans and help people understand their contributions not just to America, but to the entire global community. The motto is “where every month is Black History Month.”
“We have not allowed our message to be told by us,” Moore said. “A major part of our confusion is we have been lied to, cheated too, disgraced, made to feel we were inferior and enslaved all because we failed to realize the power that we had.”
Instead of beginning Black history with slavery, the APEX starts with Ancient Africa and how African civilization thrived long before the arrival of the Europeans on the continent.
“While the Europeans were in caves trying to find their way out, Egyptians were building pyramids, which today’s technology can’t duplicate,” Moore said.
One exhibit is “Africa the Untold Story,” which displays the history of Africa from Ancient African civilizations to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to colonization. It includes a timeline that lays out significant events and innovations in the history of Africa from 5500 B.C. to 1913 A.D., ancient African art and tools, a picture that gives facts about Africa, and maps of the African slave trade, African tribes and Africa after colonization.
What Moore considers the crown jewel is dedicated to Asa G. Hillard, a professor at Georgia State University who studied Ancient Africa. His famous quote, “Whatever you do, never let them begin our history with slavery,” is displayed on a screen and his portrait above the exhibit.
“To demonstrate what Africa has given to the world, we have to also look at what the world has done to control Africa,” Moore said.
Another major exhibit is “Sweet Auburn Street Pride.” Banners explain the history of some of the city’s first successful Black entrepreneurs and the business they founded.
The main attraction is a replica of the Yates and Milton Drug Store, one of the first Black-owned businesses in Atlanta. The model looks exactly like a 1920s corner store with shelves stocked with remedies, an old school typewriter, glass counters and a rotary phone.
Life-sized mannequins of two people sitting at a table simulate how Yates and Milton was a popular hangout spot for the community. The man and the woman eat ice cream together while dressed in clothing from the era.
A lit hallway in the back of the museum is lined with portraits showcasing 35 prominent Black people who have invented and patented different items, but many have not gotten the credit they deserve. The pictures give biographical information, what they conceived of and a blueprint or model of their invention.
Some people acknowledged and their inventions include Lewis Latimer and the light bulb filament, Garrett Morgan and the gas mask and traffic signal and Granville T. Woods and railway telegraphy. Moore said these people have been forgotten due to their skin color and wants to recognize their accomplishments.
“When I was in school, there were only two Blacks in the history books: George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington,” Moore said. “Now they’ve added two more: Rosa Parks and Dr. King. I am convinced that he who controls the media controls the mind.”
A back room contains a “Women in STEM” exhibit that honors Black women who have made accomplishments in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. Poster boards and posters hanging on the wall contain photos and biographies.
Two women honored include Hadiyah-Nicole Green, who created a cancer treatment that involved nanoparticles and Euphemia Lofton Haynes, the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics.
Moore is seeking to expand the building for more exhibits and a technology-driven virtual experience. He wants to create a complete walkthrough of history that, to his knowledge, is not anywhere else around the nation.
Despite the conviction of officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd and recent calls for systemic change, Moore believes that to create lasting change, there must be a change in the mindset of Black people everywhere.
“We’re just simply reacting to incidents that happen around us,” Moore said. “We’re not taking the initiative to teach our history from our perspective. It’s going to take a reprogramming of our minds. It has to come from within us.”
Last updated on May 5, 2021